Conservation Photography Tour

Nial Moores & Bjorn Olesen, December 9th-18th

Personal wildlife highlights of ten days spent with Bjorn Olesen gathering images for his next wildlife conservation book included:  five species of crane, with often spectacular views of hundreds of Red-crowneds and thousands of White-naped and Hoodeds; Scaly-sided Merganser; Oriental Storks; frame-filling views of Swan Goose; Baikal Teal at several sites, including 100,000 on the Geum River and thousands swirling over rice-fields at Suncheon Bay with hordes of geese and other duck lit by a massive full moon; a small flock of salmon-pink and highly vocal free-flying Crested Ibis at Upo; Solitary Snipe; over-wintering Richard’s Pipits; good numbers of winter finches and at least 1,600 Lapland Longspur at Saemangeum; and two thrillingly close encounters with Amur Leopard Cats – at Saemangeum (below) and Upo.

With our focus on his photographing (and me at times trying to digiscope with a handheld sony compact through a “truly superb Swaro” scope, often over his shoulder!), we recorded some of the ROK’s iconic species and their habitats by investing our time in the Cheorwon CCZ on 9th and 17th;  Seosan Reclamation Areas B and A on 10th and 16th; the Geum River and Estuary on 11th; Saemangeum and Suncheon Bay on 12th; the South-east River on 13th; Junam Reservoir on 14th; Upo Ramsar site on 15th; and at the National Arboretum and in central Seoul on the 18th. This meant we had no time to look through gulls or to go through bunting flocks, or even to visit the east coast; but instead we had plenty of time to watch and enjoy some other of Korea’s wonderful winter bird-life, including more widespread Eurasian species like Eurasian Spoonbill and the now Near Threatened Northern Lapwing; and other taxa which are confined to the Far East of the landmass in winter, like the middendorffii Taiga Bean Goose and globally Vulnerable (VU) Rustic Bunting.

Please note: all images below are by and copyright of Nial Moores and Birds Korea. Please ask permission if you wish to download or use for conservation purposes. A separate post will follow in a few weeks with some of Bjorn Olesen’s much more professional images – including of Korea’s spectacular cranes!

Generally, the weather was mild (on some dates, even warm); there were few restrictions at key sites, with the exception of the CCZ, where access is even more difficult this year than usual because of the outbreak of African Swine Fever (again also restricting feeding programs for the nation’s wintering Cinereous Vultures); and unhappily, construction has become even more rampant at many sites than in the past three years or so.

Species of greatest note included:  

Swan Goose Anser cygnoides. VU. 73 were in the Geum Estuary; three were in the crane fields at Suncheon Bay; and seven were at Junam Reservoir.

Tundra Bean Goose Anser serrirostris (Not Recognised by BirdLife, who instead still list the generic “Bean Goose”). Thousands at several sites, with one banded bird,  “F25” in white on a blue neck-band, at Seosan on 10th.

Lesser White-fronted Goose Anser erythropus. VU. BJ O captured one in flight at Seosan, and a First-winter was at Upo.

Whooper Swan Cygnus cygnus. LC. Dozens at several sites, with the largest concentration  at Junam where one neck-banded bird, “F19” in black on a red neck-band, was poorly photographed.

Mandarin Duck Aix galericulata. LC. Only seen at two sites: three at SE River; and 15 on a tributary of the Han River in Seoul.

Baikal Teal Sibirionetta formosa.LC. Approximately 100,000 were on the Geum River; an estimated 8-10,000 flew into rice-fields at Suncheon Bay after dark; 7,300 were on Junam Reservoir; and 3 were on the Hantan River in Cherowon.

Scaly-sided Merganser Mergus squamatus. EN. 9+ were on one stretch of the SE River, including one displaying male.

Oriental Stork Ciconia boyciana. EN. A special focus of two of the days…11-15 were seen in total.

Crested Ibis Nipponia nippon. EN. A group of 8-9 feral birds were near the ibis research centre at Upo (apparently released earlier this year as part of the attempted introduction program).

Rough-legged Buzzard Buteo lagopus. LC. One was still in Seosan A.

Upland Buzzard Buteo hemilasius. LC. The only one was at the Geum River.

Sandhill Crane Antigone canadensis. LC. A First-year was at Suncheon.

Red-crowned Crane Grus japonensis. EN. A coarsely estimated 350 were in the Cheorwon CCZ on 17th. If I noted the information correctly, according to Mr Baek Jong-Han, Chair of the Crane Association in Cheorwon, who kindly helped us around the area, 1500 were counted here during a recent census. This is out of a total global population estimated by BirdLife in 2019 at only 1,830 mature individuals.

White-crowned Crane Antigone vipio. VU. 2,200 were counted in one scan in the Cheorwon CCZ on 9th. According to Mr Baek Jong-Han, Chair of the Crane Association in Cheorwon, ~5,600 were counted here during a recent census – far exceeding the total global population estimate of 3,700-4,500 (mature) individuals estimated by BirdLIfe in 2019. The wintering flock at Junam was not checked, but 18 were seen in flight over the reservoir.

Common Crane Grus grus. LC. Two were at Suncheon, and two were in Cheorwon CCZ on 17th (according to Mr Baek Jong-Han, Chair of the Crane Association in Cheorwon, 18 – presumably a national high count – were counted here during a recent census).

Hooded Crane Grus monacha. VU. At least 1,780 were at Suncheon; three were at Seosan on 16th; and one was in Cheorwon CCZ on 17th.

Solitary Snipe Gallinago solitaria. LC. Although disturbance levels along the stream are set to increase enormously with the opening of a new riverside boardwalk, one was at the National Arboretum.

Little Owl Athene noctua. Two heard at Cheorwon at dawn.

Japanese Waxwing Bombycilla japonica. NT. One was heard in dense fog in Cheorwon on 10th.

Red-billed Starling Spodiopsar sericeus. LC. At least 40 were in a mixed flock of 200+ starlings at the Geum Estuary.

Richard’s Pipit Anthus richardi. LC. Two were seen and heard near Gyehwado, in the “Saemangeum Desert”.

Water Pipit Anthus spinoletta. LC. One was near Gyehwado, “Saemangeum Desert”.

Pallas’s Rosefinch Carpodacus roseus. LC. As predicted by observations on Baekryeong in October and November, a good winter for them in the ROK. At least 15 were seen in Cheorwon; a similar number were in the National Arboretum; and one was in central Seoul on 18th.

Lapland Longspur Calcarius lapponicus. LC. A flock of about 200 were in the Cheorwon CCZ on 17th; 80 were in Seosan A; and at least 1,600 were in the “Saemangeum Desert”, that dead expanse of former tidal flat close to the former thriving fishing port at Gyehwado.

Amur Leopard Cat at Upo © Nial Moores…the only small cat in Korea that should be out and about hunting wildlife!

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