Cheolwon – the vicious circle of habitat disappearance and bird feeding

Birds News by Bernhard Seliger

A not-yet-so-cold post-Seollal day in Cheolwon started with great views of the nature rising from mists in the winter sun and trumpeting cranes overhead, on their way from roosts in the DMZ to the rice paddies along the border. Along the hedges, very active buntings, finches and tits. The route took me from Baekma-Ri monument to the 2nd tunnel, as closely as possible along the inner-Korean border and at least once, in the beginning, crossing by chance into the CCZ, which however seemed to be no problem. There were surprisingly few geese compared to previous visits, maybe because all the reservoirs were frozen.

As for cranes – White-Naped Cranes and Red-Crowned Cranes – they were in small family groups here and there in the rice paddies, but not in larger numbers. I suspected that most cranes would be in the CCZ proper, where I could not enter (the rice paddies around Ice-cream hill), but I was wrong. Actually, the largest (and only large) concentration of cranes was in the “Rice paddy for Cranes”, a certain fenced-off area close to Hantan River. Here, also in the past there had been a little bit of crane food, and an entrepreneurial farmer had built a small hut, where Korean bird photographers could sit and wait for the best shots of the birds, while sipping a hot coffee. There is nothing wrong with that in principle – it is even important, that local people can improve their living by protecting the birds. But, in my opinion, in this case a really vicious circle sets in: For a long time, crane habitat outside the more or less protected Civilian Control Zone disappeared. More and more birds, which had been scattered all along the border, and indeed all over the Korean Peninsula, concentrated in Cheolwon, together with Yeoncheon. When a few years ago restrictions in the CCZ were loosened and the CCZ lost around a third of its territory, soon new hothouses, ginseng fields and agricultural buildings as well as pensions were erected. The habitat of cranes shrank more. Feeding now leads to an enormous concentration of the remaining crane population: Though not doing an exact count (I did not enter the building just besides the “rice paddy for cranes”, but stood a little apart at a hill) I saw at least 650 White-naped cranes and 75 Red-crowned Cranes, on an extremely narrow stripe of fields, together with at least 1250 Mallards and 250 Spot-billed Ducks, which mainly roosted on Hantan River, but fed in the fields with the cranes and an additional 50+ geese.

Disadvantages of bird concentrations are well-known and well-documented, and indeed this winter the case of Izumi, where AI broke out among the Hooded cranes, happened. Birds get more prone to sickness, and loose the ability to feed without human help. But another factor is more important: The bird concentration suggests that the protection of additional areas is unnecessary – why shouldn´t birds be confined to rather smaller places, and the rest of the area developed. Certainly, the pressure for conservation declines with greater bird concentrations leaving other areas empty. But this first of all disregards all other species, less conspicuous, who have there home in the CCZ and border area, like small passerines, raptors, mammals etc. Also, it concentrates the risk for loosing species with one outbreak of disease. In the case of vultures, when AI broke out and feeding was discontinued, they had a very hard time to survive in South Korea.

Cheolwon is still a great place to visit, not only for cranes, but also for seeing raptors, buntings, finches, and a beautiful, cultural landscape rich in biodiversity. Hopefully, this will remain a present, we can make future generations too!

The full list of species can be found at eBird:

Addendum: A very interesting talk with Dr. Kisup Lee, a conservationist with many decades of experience and also representative of International Crane Foundation in Cheolwon, helped me to better understand feeding strategies and results in Cheolwon. It seems the day I came and experienced and incredible density of feeding cranes was the day when actual food was brought to this particular group of fields, which is managed by the National Trust. Local conservationists are well aware of the problems of concentration, and therefore have six different feeding places, which are only once a week used, to disperse birds as much as possible. Also, different forms of rice are fed to separate to some extent mallards and spot-billed ducks from cranes. Additionally, ecologically important munon, i.e. rice fields with a yearlong water cover, inside the Civilian Control Zone (CCZ) are every year increased and now cover around 8 hectares. This is very important since the former roosting places in the DMZ, which were among others created by frequent wildfires, in the last 20 years got covered with more and more trees, making roosting impossible. As a side note, also Gimpo government in Yudo area, where Hanns-Seidel-Foundation with Birds Korea carried out frequent surveys since 2018, recently announced they would restart to create munon. Thank you, Dr. Lee, for explaining patiently about these issues. And it seems, from recent research, that not only the concentration of Red-crown Cranes and White-naped Cranes in Cheolwon is increasing, a worrisome fact, but that also the total number of these cranes worldwide is on the increase. Good to be able to hear some good news once in a while!!!

Cinereous vultures (Aegypius monachus) – these birds survive basically on artificial feeding, but feeding often stopped when Avian Influenza spread. (© Bernhard Seliger)
A family of White-naped cranes (Antigone vipio) (© Bernhard Seliger)
Rustic bunting (Emberiza rustica) near Baekma-ri (© Bernhard Seliger)
Naumann´s Thrush (Turdus naumanni) (© Bernhard Seliger)
A hybrid Naumann´s Thrush (Turdus naumanni) x Dusky Thrush (Turdus eunomus) (© Bernhard Seliger)
Eurasian Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus) – hunting after a large flock of Rustic buntings, this bird confounded my hat with an outlook and shortly landed on me, completely unaware – we both were pretty alarmed…(© Bernhard Seliger)
Yellow-throated bunting (Emberiza elegans) – not all birds have such a self-explaining name (and this is true for the Latin name, too!) (© Bernhard Seliger)
Meadow bunting (Emberiza cioides)  (© Bernhard Seliger)
Just opposite the “Rice paddy for cranes” – alarge ongoing construction project. If all the paddies are surrounded by concrete trenches, or converted into hothouse or ginseng fields, also the most generous feeding in the “rice paddy for cranes” will not help birds so survive… a more comprehensive idea of habitat protection is urgently needed. (© Bernhard Seliger)

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