Experiences and Lessons from a Birds Korea Volunteer

Jared Busen, October 13th 2019

Jared Busen …out on the tidal flat © Per Kaijser

            I am a US Soldier stationed here in the Republic of Korea (ROK). I have been birding since 2003 when I saw my first Black-necked Stilt (LC) in the US. I became a bird watcher strictly for the pleasure of it. I participated in a few Audubon Spring and Christmas Bird Counts. These are both annual conservation events where bird watchers across North America conduct bird counts on the same day, in Spring and Winter, and the results are compiled together to develop a bird census to be used for conservation.   Aside from these counts I was never active in conservation. It was always something I told myself I would start doing, but never did.

            I moved to the ROK at the end of 2015 with my wonderful wife Shira, and was excited by all the new birds I would be able to see here.  I vividly remember my first Grey-headed Woodpecker (assessed by the IUCN as Least Concern or LC) within a few days of arriving here in the ROK, it was starkly different from any woodpecker we have in the US. My first Eurasian Hoopoe (LC) was another bird that gave me an initial impression of how beautiful the birds are here. I have not only been impressed with the beauty of the birds, but also the natural beauty of the ROK. Hiking the mountains, cycling the entire east coast, as well as the route from Seoul to Busan, visiting Jeju-do and Baekryeong-do or birding my local parks and rivers we have both consistently enjoyed the natural beauty of the ROK. We never viewed the ROK as a place we happened to be living with the Army. We always viewed it as our home.

            In late 2018 I started using eBird to record bird sightings. Through this program Dr. Nial Moores, an eBird reviewer for the ROK and the Director of Birds Korea, contacted me regarding a sighting I reported. During back-and-forth emails Shira and I decided to join Birds Korea, and I offered to volunteer for the organization. I saw an opportunity for me to go beyond enjoying the birds of the ROK to helping the birds and a country I consider a home, to finally start helping in conservation. I wanted to do my part to help conserve the natural beauty for future generations, including soldiers that will be stationed here. Dr. Moores suggested I conduct bird counts in the Hwaseong Wetlands in support of ongoing conservation efforts there.

The Hwaseong Wetlands consist of the Maehyang Ri Tidal Flat, 13th Hwaseong Lake (a rain fed pond across the seawall from the tidal flat) and the main reclamation lake.

The Hwaseong Wetlands: Maehyang Ri Tidal Flat (1), 13th Hwaseong Lake (2) and the main reclamation lake (3).

            The Hwaseong Wetlands are an internationally important site on the East Asian-Australasian Flyway. The area supports Ramsar-defined internationally important concentrations of at least three threatened waterbird species; Black-faced Spoonbill (Endangered or EN), Far Eastern Curlew (EN) and Great Knot (EN) (Moores, 2018a). However, even globally threatened waterbirds like these are still not counted regularly there.

Globally Endangered Far Eastern Curlew © Jared Busen: one of the many shorebird species that depend on the Hwaseong Wetlands
A few more of the species I needed to count in the Hwaseong Wetland © Jared Busen: Near Threatened Far Eastern Oystercatchers; Endangered Black-faced Spoonbill (EN) and globally Vulnerable Chinese Egret. I also counted Black-tailed Gulls (LC) each visit.

On December 10th, 2018 the wetland was formally designated as a Flyway Site by the East Asian-Australasian Flyway Partnership thanks to efforts by Birds Korea, the national Korean Federation for Environmental Movement (KFEM) and Hwaseong KFEM and I’m sure other groups that I’m unaware of (Moores, 2018b). The focus this year has been on trying to help Hwaseong City to realise the enormous value of the area – to birds, to local people and to the city’s economy if the right planning approaches and the best designs are used.

Some of the many participants of the 2019 International Symposium for the conservation of the Hwaseong Wetlands hosted by Hwaseong City (including Shira in the front row and myself in the back row…).

One of the biggest, most exciting and sometimes frustrating, challenges I faced while conducting bird counts in this area was shorebird identification. Where I lived in the US was completely land locked. I was over 1300km from the nearest ocean, a typical stop over site there. Many years ago, I heard of several Dunlin (LC) being spotted in a pond a four-hour drive from where I lived.  This was back before eBird was popular, and rare/uncommon sightings were typically shared via email or word of mouth. The following weekend I drove there hoping the birds might still be present. I was delighted to see four Dunlin and surprisingly, a single Black-bellied / Grey Plover (LC)!  Two species of shorebird in one day was a big day for me back then.       

            Through many emails with Dr. Moores, and birding with him for a day prior to “Designing for Hope: Lives, Livelihoods and the Hwaseong Wetlands” international symposium I gradually learned more and more about shorebird identification, which is a skill I will continue to build over my life. One direct example that comes to mind is sending Dr. Moores an image of a Mongolian Plover (LC) in non-breeding plumage, only to have him correctly ID it as a Greater Sand Plover (LC). Thankfully he always provided very thorough emails on how he was identifying the birds.

A Greater Sand Plover (with Kentish Plovers behind) © Jared Busen. ID is easier on structure (including the long bill and long legs) than on plumage.

            The lesson I learned was to ID shorebirds by structure first, then contrast, then plumage. Structure by far being the most important one. How long is the bill? Does it curve, how much and which way? Does it have a prominent neck? Does it have a large head or a small head? How elegant is the bird?  Elegance asks, how long is the tarsus (lower leg), how much of the tibia (upper leg) do you see and how do they compare to each other?

            Contrast asks, what large color variations do you see? Are the upper parts a dark brown or a buff brown? Are the lower parts buff brown, white, or black? Dark grey or light grey? Plumage is looking at the individual feathers on a bird. Are the wing coverts centered in rufous and edged in white? Are they grey and edged with white? Steaked with black and edged in rufous?

            Interestingly, and frustratingly, the field guides for bird ID typically focus on the plumage, may hint at the contrast, and typically have little regard for structure. I’ve spent the past year relearning how to see birds. Plumage can work for many birds but is useless when viewing a large mixed flock of shorebirds at a distance on an overcast day. You can see structure, you can see contrast, but plumage is difficult (at best) under those conditions.

            At Hwaseong I was able to see 122 species total, many of which are rare vagrants in the US, would require a very long and expensive trip to Alaska in the hopes of seeing, or simply do not occur at all. The pictures in this post are just a very few examples of what I saw at Hwaseong. A total list of all the species would be a boring and long read, however I would like to mention one that I really enjoyed the opportunity to watch at Hwaseong.

            The Black-faced Spoonbill first arrived in March after which the species was a regular occurrence. After seeing one it became the bird I looked forward to seeing the most. The Black-faced Spoonbill is absolutely stunning in breeding plumage and watching them forage, sweeping side to side with beaks open, never ceased to entertain me.  In the early 1990s there were only a few hundred left. Thanks to conservation and protection efforts, the population increased to 3500 in 2016 (Black-faced Spoonbill, 2018). It shows that if we care, and if we work at it, we can still protect birds and their habitats. Even though the species is still endangered, and work needs to be done, I can find hope for the future of nature watching this bird. 

Globally Endangered Black-faced Spoonbills in the Hwaseong Wetland – adults in breeding plumage (centre), with Eastern Spotbilled Ducks and Northern Shovelers behind, and even short-billed juveniles (in the bottom image) © Jared Busen.

            As I write this, I only have a few weeks remaining in the ROK, I will be returning to the US. I have found it very rewarding volunteering for Birds Korea. I learned a lot about birding and conservation. Recently, Dr. Moores invited me to join him as a driver/participant on one of his birding weekends. As I wrote earlier, years ago I saw four Dunlin and one Grey Plover in the US and it was a big day. The day I spent with Dr. Moores we saw 20,000 Dunlin, 600 Grey Plovers, and best of all three Critically Endangered Spoon-billed Sandpipers! That was the most impressive day of birding I have ever had. It was an excellent culmination of my time here. 

How would you feel after enjoying prolonged close-range looks of Spoon-billed Sandpipers: all-smiles (Jared Busen on left) or somewhat mind-blown (Per Kaijser on right)? © Nial Moores

            In two years, I will be leaving the US Army. My intention is to go back to college and earn a degree in Environmental Resource Management so I can work in conservation. I have already reached out to a few conservation groups there so I can contribute to conservation efforts along the Mississippi Flyway. My time in the ROK and my time with Birds Korea has been an invaluable education, and it helped confirm that this is the right choice for me. I will dearly miss the birds and natural beauty the ROK has to offer.


Black-faced Spoonbill. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.eaaflyway.net/migratory-waterbirds /black-faced-spoonbill/.

Moores, N. (2018, September 7). “The Great Flight of Shorebirds”: World Shorebirds Day, 2018. Retrieved from https://www.birdskoreablog.org/?p=21152.

Moores, N. (2018, December 11). 2018: A Year in the Life of Birds Korea. Retrieved from https://www.birdskoreablog.org/?p=21437.

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