Habitats and birds in Rason (DPR Korea), late April 2016

Dr. Bernhard Seliger (Birds Korea Member) with Felix Glenk, both Hanns-Seidel-Foundation Korea

While the eyes of the world these months focus on the DPRK (perhaps better-known as North Korea internationally) for political reasons, the DPRK’s role on the East Asian-Australasian Flyway (EAAF) remains largely unexplored. However, between the industrially fully-developed South of the Korean peninsula and the rapidly developing China, the DPRK offers important stop-over possibilities for many bird species. This was confirmed two years ago, in March 2014, when the first-ever bird and habitat survey in Rason Special City bordering China and Russia was carried out jointly by Hanns-Seidel-Foundation and UN-ESCAP, which involved several Birds Korea specialists.

A trip by Hanns-Seidel-Foundation in late April this year, though explicitly not focused on birds and the tense border region (therefore undertaken without any birding gear), could still give a glimpse into the importance of the coast line – which remains practically undeveloped – for both landbirds and seabirds alike.

rs-1 - Unspoiled coastLarge stretches of coast line and beach without “development” in Rason (here near Unsang) © Bernhard Seliger

 Even, some of the area has been protected as a special animal protection zone.

rs-2 - Protection areaAnimal protection area in the mountains near Pipa Islet © Bernhard Seliger

We hired a boat to take the short trip to the mulkae (“Seal Rocks”), where the rare Harbour Seal can sometimes be seen resting, in particular in early mornings. However, on approaching there seemed at first to be only Temminck’s and Pelagic Cormorants.

rs3 - BS_lateapr_Mulkae rock CormorantsTemminck’s Cormorant Phalacrocorax capillatus and two non-breeding Pelagic Cormorants Phalacrocorax pelagicus on  the Seal Rocks © Bernhard Seliger (Note that Tomek in her 1999-2002 review of DPRK ornithological literature questions whether  Temmink’s or Pelagic Cormorants are even present in the summer months).

 On nearer approach (please remember, without binoculars or ‘scopes!), several groups of alcids, among them Ancient Murrelets and Rhinoceros Auklets, and single loons could be seen. Also, we were constantly accompanied by several Black-tailed Gulls, which occurred in fair numbers along the whole coast.

Around the rocks, small numbers of Harlequin Ducks (here present almost a month later than most have already left southern waters) were swimming with one perched up out of the water.

RS_BS_lateapr - Mulkae rock Harlequin Harlequin Duck Histrionicus histrionicus © on the Seal Rock

And finally, already almost on the way back – the captain tried to shorten the quite expensive trip – a single seal, swimming around and looking at us from a safe distance!

rs-BS_5 -lateapr_ MulkaeHarbour Seal Phoca vitulina (ID based on DPRK Red Data Book, 2002) at the Seal Rocks © Bernhard Seliger (comments on ID welcome, as there seems to be a lack of clarity over the identification / taxonomy of seals in Korean waters due to potential confusion with the closely-related Spotted Seal P. larga / P. larga vitulina).

 Along the coastline back on the way to Rajin, several large groups of grebes, in particular Black-necked Grebes, could be found.

rs-BS_6 _lateapr- Black necked grebesBlack-necked Grebes Podiceps nigricollis on the coastline between Pipa islet and Rajin © Bernhard Seliger (note: the only records for the DPRK listed by Tomek in the 1990s were from the very same area, on April 10th and 11th 1996, with earlier records from the same area also in 1959!)

The next day, before heading back to Yanji in China, we were allowed a short visit to Kalmudan beach of Sonbong. Birds seen include Black-necked Grebes, Common Mergansers, Black-tailed Gulls, a Common Kestrel, buntings, among them Black-faceds, Grey-cappped Greenfinches, White Wagtails, and Common Pheasants in abundance. Especially lovely was a Blue Rock Thrush singing alternately from the dilapidated storehouse and the rocks in the sea.


RS_B-S_lateapr_7 - Rock thrush Blue Rock Thrush Monticola solitarius at Kalmudan beach © Bernhard Seliger

 A very short walk to the bushes and fruit trees behind the beach resort (which was closed and had zero visitors this time of the year) brought a look into promising habitat and, in a group of young larch trees, this Eurasian Wryneck.

rs_BS-lateapr - WryneckEurasian Wryneck Jynx torquilla in the hinterland of Kalmudan beach © Bernhard Seliger (note fewer than 20 records are listed for this species in the DPRK by Tomek 1999-2002, though it probably breeds).


Among the birds that were expected (based on previous visits) but which were still absent  were egrets (before the rice fields were watered), though there were a few Grey Herons at a reservoir facing Sonbong power station. Probably they assembled in places like the lagoon lakes Manpo and Bonpo, which were inaccessible for us this time.

Though a very short trip without the necessary equipment, it once again showed the need to progress with research into the importance of Rason for migratory birds.  Also, given the ambition of Rason to open up for more tourism, the chances of responsible bird-watching tourism should be explored, which includes education on birds and birdwatching in the country. A glimpse into a class-room at the Foreign Language High School at least showed some stuffed birds as a proof that some form of education about species takes place.

RS-BSRason - EducationStuffed birds at Foreign Language High School) © Bernhard Seliger (note: species identifiable in the image include Great Egret, Grey Heron, Mallard, Hazel Grouse (?), Japanese Quail, Black-tailed Gull, Eurasian Jay and Eurasian Coot…there is also a largeish raptor, a couple of large geese, a duck and a merganser which appears to have a yellow bill-tip – suggesting possibility of Scaly-sided Merganser)


However, as above more education is needed and, given the political circumstances do not worsen too much, this must, with hope, be possible. As evidence of the need, among a display of stuffed raptors for sale in a shop frequented by tourists (a section which had grown greatly in just the past two years) there was also “long life liquour” for sale, made of 36 ingredients, among them (it was claimed)… Fur Seal penis!

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