Dr. Nial Moores, Birds Korea, March 3rd 2016
Following on from a very successful early-spring survey in March 2014 of the internationally important wetlands in Rason on the Korean side of the Tumen Floodplain, arrangements were made with what were understood to be all relevant authorities by the Hanns Seidel Foundation (Korea) (HSF) to conduct a follow-up survey of winter birds. There were three team members (Dr. Bernhard Seliger and Mr. Felix Glenk from HSF and myself from Birds Korea). The proposed survey dates were February 22nd-26th. Our aim was to survey a wide range of habitats to confirm the presence or absence of species that might perhaps occur in Rason in the mid-winter period, including marine birds and the now Endangered Jankowski’s Bunting. The Jankowski’s (or Rufous-backed) Bunting remains a poorly-known species, with the core of its breeding range recently suspected to lie in Jilin Province (China). The species was apparently recorded in the Rason area on the Korean side of the floodplain at least in 1929 and on the Russian side of the Tumen Floodplain perhaps until the mid-Twentieth Century. Much potential habitat remains. If still present there, the rediscovery of this species would do much to support conservation initiatives and would certainly place Rason very much on the world map for ornithologists and birders.
Regrettably, despite permissions being received in advance, no-one came out from Rason on the 22nd to meet us when we arrived at the border and the survey had to be postponed (again). Having already visited Hunchun wetland on the 21st and after experiencing two hours of delay trying to access a tourist area on the Chinese side of the Amur River, we therefore decided to spend two days (travelling and field survey) on the Chinese side of Mount Baekdu (alternatively spelt Paekdu, or Changbaishan) on 24th and 25th and then return to the ROK a day or two earlier than planned.
Of direct relevance to Korean bird and biodiversity conservation, the Baekdu Massif forms part of the border with China and Korea. Baekdu San itself is the highest mountain on the Korean Peninsula, rising to 2,744m (fully 1000m higher than Seorak San). Historical Korean records listed by Tomek (1999, 2002) suggest that the avifauna of the Baekdu Massif includes several species at the southern limit of their range in Far East Asia including Black Grouse, Three-toed and Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers, Northern Hawk-Owl and Northern Raven. Recent research efforts on the Chinese side have also found breeding Scaly-sided Merganser and the Scaly-sided Merganser Task Force estimates that, based on analysis of satellite imagery, perhaps 155 pairs also breed in the DPRK, mostly on the Korean side of the Baekdu Massif. So while Chinese researchers have confirmed the continuing presence of several exceptional species (including Scaly-sided Mergansers and Amur Tigers – both depicted either in images or video in various park buildings) there appears to be very little recent information on birds and habitat condition available from the Korean side.
With limited time and even less preparation (!) we therefore aimed to:
- Improve our understanding of bird distribution in the Chinese-Korean border region (and by extension, to improve understanding of what might still occur on the Korean side of the massif);
- Improve our understanding of habitat/ forest condition on the Chinese side of Baekdu San with the perhaps distant hope of being able to survey forest on the Korean side sometime in the future (note that the HSF is already working on reforestation and forest management at several sites in Korea);
- Improve our understanding of breeding habitat and conservation of Scaly-sided Merganser, a species known to breed on the Chinese side of the massif (note that Birds Korea is the Korean NGO representative of the EAAF’s Scaly-sided Merganser Task Force).
The visit was successful in a number of ways, including providing confirmation that much excellent forest remains on the Chinese side, and that research and efforts to raise public awareness about key species also appears to be progressing well.
Throughout this short survey period temperatures remained well below freezing, with an overnight low of -45C apparently recorded on Baekdu San on the 24th. Conditions were largely clear most days, though with intermittent snow (and occasional near white-out conditions) on the 25th on the upper slopes of the mountain.
As almost all rivers were deep-frozen and we could not access the coast, we could visit only a narrow range of major habitat types. These included open agricultural land (cut corn fields, grazing areas and degraded floodplain wetland) at Hunchun on 21st and as seen from the car in transit between Yanji and Baekdu San on the 24th and 25th.
Much of our time was also spent in forest and forest edge, from probably about 700m.a.s.l up to 2,100m.a.s.l (on the 25th). Inclement weather prevented us from reaching the very peak of the mountain. Forest types included extensive areas of birch in higher areas (becoming patchier above c. 1900m.a.s.l) and coniferous and mixed forest at slightly lower elevations, with this boreal-type forest apparently near-continuous for more than 100km north out from the mountain range. Much of the forested landscape was stunning (and the air quality excellent), strongly recalling the “Tiger and Merganser Country of Primorye“.
In total, we recorded only 37 or 38 bird species, though these included Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, Willow Tit and Northern Raven (just as in Primorye!).
Records of potential interest for understanding / predicting bird distribution include:
- Mallard Anas platyrhynchos. A flock of about ten on a hot spring-fed unfrozen stretch of river in a tourist town south of Baekdu San on the 24th (at about 900m.a.s.l) were the only waterbirds recorded during the present research.
- Hazel Grouse Tetrastes bonasia. A male feeding by the main road on the 25th (probably at about 1200m.a.s.l) was the only record.
- Common Pheasant Phasianus colchicus. Several seen in cut corn fields, all below c. 500m.a.s.l.
- White-tailed Eagle Haliaeetus albicilla. One Second calendar-year bird flying north over the deep-frozen Amur River at Hunchun on the 21st was the only record. Although recorded in Rason in the March 2014 survey, Tomek (1999) lists only two records for Hamgyeongbuk Province (both from the nineteenth century).
- Rough-legged Buzzard Buteo lagopus. At least six were in low-lying open areas near to Hunchun on 21st and one was seen south of Yanji on 24th, suggesting its likely mid-winter presence in the Rason area. Tomek (1999) listed only ten or so records for the DPRK, with none from the far northeast.
- Eastern Buzzard Buteo japonicus. A total of 21 encounters, with birds found in both open areas and less commonly along forest edge, all below c. 1000m.a.s.l.
- Hill Pigeon Columba rupestris. Two were seen in flight by a road-bridge at probably about 500m.a.s.l on the 24th. Small numbers of feral Rock Doves C. livia were also seen several times in both urban and rural areas.
- Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker Dendrocopos kizuki. A total of three or four birds were heard in three close-lying areas of mountain forest at about 1200m.a.s.l on the 24th and 25th.
- Lesser Spotted Woodpecker Dendrocopos minor. One was heard at fairly close range giving a rapidly-repeated “kee-kee-kee” call at the border post on the Korean side of the Amur River on the 22nd (i.e. in Korea); and a male was seen well in mountain forest on the Chinese side at about 1200m.a.s.l on the 24th. According to Tomek (1999), there were no records from the DPRK after 1970; and Duckworth (2006) provides no more recent records from his research either.
- Great Spotted Woodpecker Dendrocopos major. Only two or three were recorded during the present survey effort, with the most notable one feeding in a snowstorm at about 2100m.a.s.l on the 24th.
- Chinese Grey Shrike Lanius sphenocercus. Two were in Hunchun on the 21st and three were seen south from Yanji on the 24th, all in low-lying agricultural areas.
- Great Grey Shrike Lanius excubitor. A grey shrike with narrow or no dark on the lores, limited white on the wing and a fairly short-looking tail was seen briefly within fairly dense forest at about 1200m.a.s.l dusk on the 24th. The most plausible, though still tentative, identification is as Great Grey Shrike.
- Eurasian Magpie Pica pica. Although nests were widespread in rural and semi-urban areas, the highest day-count was of only eight along about 70-80km of road running through low-lying areas southwest from Yanji on the 24th. None had any white in the primary tips; and we saw none in forest or in areas of higher elevation (an observation that fits well with the account in Tomek 2002).
- Large-billed Crow Corvus macrorhynchos. Seen on all four dates of fieldwork, including a single flock of 40 in hill forest. Apparently locally common in rural areas and in mountain forest. One or two were even seen at >2000m.a.s.l on Baekdu San on the 24th. Although the calls sounded similar to birds heard in northern ROK, the head profile and especially the bill shape seemed a little different, with all birds that were seen well having a quite long- and not especially deep-looking bill (see below): from memory, quite different to birds seen at a similar latitude in Japan. The relative abundance of this species and the absence of any Carrion Crow might seem expected from observations in the ROK (where Carrion Crow is typically scarce, and in winter seems to be near-confined to open areas, often close to rivers), but it seems to contradict the assessment given in Tomek (2002), who considered Carrion much more abundant than Large-billed Crow in the DPRK . However, according to Tomek (2002) in a preliminary study of the Chinese side of Baekdu San in 1990 Won Pyong-Oh found three times more Large-billed Crows than Carrion Crows.
- Northern Raven Corvus corax. One was seen in flight between 2,100 and 2,200m.a.s.l, within 2km of the border, on Baekdu San on the 24th. Identification (by NM) was based on its muscular flight action; its deep bill without any obvious forehead; and its more obviously-wedge shaped tail. Tomek (2002) lists only three records from the DPRK, all from the Korean side of Baekdu San.
- Marsh Tit Poecile palustris. Perhaps the commonest forest bird recorded during our short survey, with birds even found above 2000m.a.s.l on Baekdu San. However, although I get to hear quite a few Marsh Tits (as they are widespread in the ROK, even nesting as far south as Busan) vocalisations included several calls and confusingly even song-types that I do not remember hearing before (including a jerky, complex song resembling recording XC 114532, labelled as Marsh Tit subspecies brevirostris on the Xeno-Canto website). The identification of Marsh and Willow Tits in the east of the range seems to be much more challenging than in western Europe (note: Eastern Marsh Tit is a pending split on the IOC checklist) and confusion in this subregion between brevirostris Marsh Tit and Willow Tit (of subspecies baicalensis?) seems even more likely (see below).
- Willow Tit Poecile montanus. Only one was heard giving the diagnostically piercing “Chay” call – that on the Chinese side of the Tumen River close to the border on the 21st. Another silent bird near Baekdu San (at about 1200m.a.s.l) in mixed forest was initially identified in the field as an exceptionally oddly long-billed Marsh Tit, but based on the bill shape and a few other supporting features is here re-assigned to Willow. Although this long-billed bird showed some pale on the tertials, in bright light the brown plumage tones on the upperparts seemed very similar to several other presumed Marsh Tits in the same feeding group. It therefore appeared to be much less grey above and less distinctive-looking overall than several “obvious” calling Willow Tits seen in Primorye in September 2015.
- Long-tailed Tit Aegithalos caudatus. Encountered three times. The only individuals that were seen were white-headed, and presumably are assignable to nominate caudatus.
- Eurasian Nuthatch Sitta europaea. The second commonest species that we recorded in mountain forest, even occurring up to about 2000ma.s.l on Baekdu San. All birds seen were of subspecies amurensis.
- Eurasian Treecreeper Certhia familiaris. Two in mountain forest at about 1200m.a.s.l on the 24th. Although Tomek (2002) describes the species as a resident that only migrates short distances in winter, she does not include any records from the Korean side of Baekdu San from the winter months.
- Hawfinch Coccothraustes coccothraustes. Several were seen in Hunchun and close to the border on the 21st; and a small group of five was seen on the DPRK side of the Amur River on the 22nd. Tomek (2002) lists no recent records of this species from the northeast of the Korean Peninsula.
- Pallas’s Rosefinch Carpodacus roseus. Small numbers recorded on three dates, including one on the DPRK side of the Amur River on the 22nd.
- Duckworth, J.W. 2006. Records of some bird species hitherto rarely found in DPR Korea. Bull. British Ornithologists’ Club. 2006 126 (4) 253-290.
- Tomek, T. 1999-2002. The birds of North Korea. Acta Zoologica Cracoviensia 42: 1-217; 45: 1-235 (in English).