Birds of the NE inner Korean border region: February 22nd-25th

Bird News from Nial Moores & Bernhard Seliger

Highlights from survey work in the northeast near the inner border between February 22nd and 25th included exceptional numbers of Carrion Crow, a flock of 75+ Pine Bunting and a presumed Willow Tit on 22nd;  and four Scaly-sided Merganser at a presumably unknown wintering site for the species on 23rd.

Pine Buntings 흰머리멧새 © Nial Moores

Following on from our survey of seabirds along the Goseong County Coast earlier in the month, we made rapid habitat assessments and counts of birds in 35 locations between February 22nd and 25th, spread across a range of inland habitats in five of the counties that straddle the ROK side of the inner border of Korea.  Thirteen of the count sites were in (eastern) Cheorwon County; nine were in Hwacheon County;  two were in Yanggu County; eight were in Inje County; and three were at inland sites in Goseong County.

The 35 count sites…some within the CCZ, most adjacent to it. Courtesy of Google Earth.

This survey, funded by the Hanns Seidel Foundation (Korea office), was conducted in order to help fill in some of the many information gaps on bird distribution and abundance in this part of Korea.

In total we recorded 78-81 bird species and saw two species of mammal (Korean Water Deer 고라니 and River Otter 수달).

Notable observations included:

  • Greater Scaup 검은머리흰죽지. Eight were on Tokyo Reservoir, Cheorwon, on February 22nd. This species appears to be genuinely rare away from the coast in the ROK. Recent survey work at the Hwaseong Wetlands in Gyeonggi Province suggests that northward migration of this species had already started by early February. It therefore seems likely that these birds were overland migrants.
  • Scaly-sided Merganser 호사비오리. Two males and two females were foraging in a stretch of river in Hwacheon County on February 23rd. The date of observation and the likelihood of permanently open water at this site both suggest that these individuals probably over-wintered here. Our only River Otter of the survey was found at the same site.
  • White-naped Cranes 재두루미 and Red-crowned Cranes 두루미 were seen only in Cheorwon County. With many areas closed to the public because of coronavirus, African Swine Fever and Poultry Flu outbreaks (!!!) we can only presume that most of these have been able to feed and roost relatively free from disturbance this winter. However, the few couples and family groups of White-naped Cranes we saw outside of the usual “crane areas” seemed to be rather sensitive to disturbance.
Get back!! This stretched neck alert posture is a typical response to disturbance shown by globally Vulnerable White-naped Cranes 재두루미 shortly before flying…© Nial Moores
  • Carrion Crow 까마귀. An exceptional concentration of at least 380 with smaller numbers of Large-billed Crows was found in fields in Gimhwa, eastern Cheorwon County, on February 22nd. Birds were feeding on small items on an iced stretch of river; and in rice fields covered in what smelt like a mix of manure and compost. ID was based on bill and head shape and call. This count far exceeds any count of the species in Korea known to us, even though based on eBird lists Carrion Crow is probably the most frequently misidentified species in the ROK. In addition, at least 51 were in fields further to the east, mixed in with Large-billed Crows, Rooks and Daurian Jackdaws.
Carrion Crow 까마귀 © Bernhard Seliger…
“Eastern” Rooks 떼까마귀, with a Daurian Jackdaw 갈까마귀 © Bernhard Seliger (with First-winter/ 2cy Rook here often looking extremely similar to Carrion Crow)
And Large-billed Crow 큰부리까마귀 © Bernhard Seliger. Large-billed is easily the most widespread of the three black corvids, especially in summer. Although the calls are very different (and Large-billed has a strikingly different head and bill shape), all three black crow species are regularly confused by birdwatchers.
  • Willow Tit 북방쇠박새 (?). A birder’s bird, and perhaps the ultimate ID challenge here… A tit photographed in low, late afternoon light by BS in Hwacheon County on 22nd appears to be a Willow and not the much commoner Marsh Tit. Although not heard to call, the images suggest a very big-headed and bull-necked bird; with a sturdy, and rather long and heavy bill. Importantly, although this bird shows a pale cutting edge to both mandibles, as shown by both Marsh and Willow, there is no pale spot at the base of the upper mandible, a feature shown fairly obviously by the vast majority (>90-95%?) of Marsh Tit here in East Asia. Other supportive features include the sprawling bib with thick-looking bristles; the pale wing panel strongest on the tertials rather than across the remiges; the brownish cast in strong light to parts of the cap; and the extensive brown wash across the white cheek patches. These are all features seen on birds that called like Willow which I have seen in the DPRK and northeastern China, and which I have not knowingly seen in combination in Marsh Tit. If indeed a Willow Tit, then this is likely of subspecies baicalensis (even though vocalizing birds seen near Vladivostok in autumn which looked much greyer-toned and longer-tailed than this bird are also attributed to the same subspecies by Gosler et al. 2020).  There seem to be only two accepted records in the ROK of Willow Tit, both specimens, with one from 1926 and one from 1982 (Park 2014) . I wish I had being paying more attention at the end of a rather long day, as this is the most compelling individual I have seen here in >20 years… 
Willow Tit 북방쇠박새 (or Marsh Tit 쇠박새?) © Bernhard Seliger
  • Pine Bunting. A flock of at least 75 (and perhaps up to 100) were seen briefly in rice-fields in Cheorwon on 22nd.  This is likely one of the larger flocks of the species seen to date in the ROK.
Pine Bunting 흰머리멧새 © Bernhard Seliger…Do you see both of them?

Unfortunately, much of the habitat was more disturbed and degraded than expected. For example:

  • We saw only one small patch (~1ha) of apparently largely unmodified wetland. All streams and rivers were contained within bunds/ dykes; most streams and rivers had weirs; and we saw no natural floodplain-type wetland.
An outstanding example of un-sustainable development just outside of Inje town. Just about everything that could be wrong with a river is wrong here. A smaller tributary is now channelled through three concrete pipes; the main river has been recently dredged and bulldozers were still at work; there was lots of garbage; and wastewater likely flows from roads and bridges and motels into the river here. Sources of disturbance here include a bungee jump platform (that orange crane like structure behind the tree) . Really, does anyone actually want to jump off such a structure into the gravel and metal pipes below?
In part because of the disturbed state of the rivers, we saw only 2-3 Long-billed Plover 흰목물떼새 © Bernhard Seliger
Though species like Japanese Wagtail 검은등할미새 (© Nial Moores), which like weirs and concrete structures, seem to be doing quite well…
  • Most arable land was “industrial” in character, with concrete drains, paved roads and overhead wires in most rice-field areas. A few areas were more birdy: villages with orchards, small arable fields and open grassland, all very attractive to finches and buntings….
Chinese Grosbeak 밀화부리 © Bernhard Seliger
Hawfinch 콩새 © Bernhard Seliger
Grey-cappped Greenfinch 방울새 © Bernhard Seliger
Globally Vulnerable Rustic Bunting 쑥새 © Bernhard Seliger

  • Very substantial areas of agricultural land were covered in plastic (either sheets across arable plots or vinyl houses), including within the current CCZ.
The much-anticipated Yanggu Punchbowl (number 23 in the top image)© Nial Moores. Although the closest patch of blue is a reservoir, most blue is plastic sheeting or ginseng covers.
  • Although we drove or walked through extensive forest, the vast majority of this forest appeared to be secondary regrowth. We saw very few old or large trees, with these found close to two temples. Areas with larger trees had obviously more diverse birdlife, including several species of woodpecker, and at one site, two Eurasian Treecreeper.
Forest on the road to Baekdam Temple © Nial Moores
Eurasian Treecreeper 나무발발이 © Bernhard Seliger
White-backed Woodpecker 큰오색딱다구리 © Bernhard Seliger

Why conduct these kinds of surveys?

In spite of only patchy research effort, we already know that there is a more or less unbroken chain of internationally important bird habitats along the western part of the inner border of Korea, stretching from Baekryeong Island, along the Hwanghaenam coast of DPRK (including Haeju Bay: likely one of the world’s most important remaining sites for the Critically Endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper), through the Han-Imjin Estuary, from Ganghwa and Yeonjeong islands, up through Yudo and the Gimpo plain, to Paju and Yeoncheon and Cheorwon. This whole inner border region is critical to the conservation of many of Korea’s outstanding bird species – including e.g. wintering Red-crowned and White-naped Cranes, breeding Black-faced Spoonbills and Chinese Egrets, and we suspect perhaps even breeding Chinese Crested Terns.

But away from the internationally important marine waters of Goseong County and the peaks of Seorak and Kumgang Mountains, relatively little seems to be known about the biodiversity of the rivers and regrowing forests of the northeast.

Filling in some of these huge gaps in knowledge is becoming ever more urgent. In addition to the decades-long roll of industrialization of agriculture and urban creep, there has been a succession of deeply-troubling development proposals made in recent months that will likely substantially impact the biodiversity (and ecological sustainability) of much of the Korean inner border region.

Foremost among these is the proposed cessation of military restrictions on construction within the CCZ within 2021. This will make many areas now used by cranes too disturbed and degraded for the species to use.  In addition, major highway proposals keep on coming as a core element of what seems like one-sided “peaceful unification proposals”, including across the still intact Han-Imjin estuary (from Munsan to Dorasan) and across the river next to Yudo Island in Gimpo.

Whether or not decision-makers start to consider biodiversity conservation in their grand plans, we need to keep continuing improving knowledge: identifying hot-spots; developing a reasonable baseline of bird distribution and abundance that can be used by the generations to come; and sharing our findings as honestly as we can.

A more detailed report has already been shared with the Hanns Seidel Foundation (Korea office). If Birds Korea members also want to receive this report, please contact us. Thank you.

References

  • Gosler, A., Clement, P. & Garcia, E.F. J. 2020. Willow Tit (Poecile montanus), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (S. M. Billerman, B. K. Keeney, P. G. Rodewald, and T. S. Schulenberg, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.wiltit1.01
  • Park J-G. 2014. Identification Guide to Birds of Korea. Checklist of Organisms in Korea 12. Published by Nature and Ecology.

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