Twenty-five Years: Winter Waterbird Censuses of Korea

Dr Nial Moores, Director, Birds Korea / 새와생명의터, IUCN SSC Threatened Waterfowl Specialist Group

This is a short introduction to a tremendously valuable online resource developed by Andreas Kim, the former web-spinner of Birds Korea’s now archived websites and independent researcher, perhaps best-known for his work for the Mokpo Namhang Urban Wetland and elsewhere in Jeollanam Province, Republic of Korea (ROK).

Report cover © Andreas Kim.

Globally, biodiversity is in decline. One in five migratory species are at risk of extinction, and even the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2024 cites biodiversity and ecosystem collapse as a major threat. As of 2022, the Republic of Korea (ROK) ranked 78th for biodiversity in the global Environmental Performance Index.

Any such assessment of environmental performance, first and foremost, requires good data and robust analysis. Fortunately, this century there has been an increase in the number of domestic research institutions working on biodiversity-related issues in the ROK. And their growth has started to help build public support for national policies which could reduce rates of biodiversity decline, as set out in the ROK’s legally-binding Fourth National Biodiversity Strategy (2019-2023).

The best known source of data on waterbirds in the ROK, and the government-led research most often used by Birds Korea in our work, is the “Simultaneous Winter Bird Census” conducted under the auspices of the Ministry of Environment / NIBR since 1999 (MOEK 1999-2023). This Census has in recent years (since 2014-2015) been conducted at more than 200 sites throughout the ROK, with surveys conducted by diverse teams containing government researchers, university researchers and even NGO members. The Census is focused largely on waterbirds and wetland habitats and has now generated a full quarter century of count data. This has been a remarkably tumultuous period for the nation’s waterbirds and wetland species, in which many of the ROK’s most important tidal flats, both large and small, have been lost to or been degraded by reclamation (Saemangeum, Asan Bay, Namyang Bay / Hwaseong, Mokpo Namhang Urban Wetland etc); in which dredging and dam construction was undertaken as part of the Four Rivers Project to be followed by additional infrastructure projects impacting rivers and riverine habitats alike; in which outbreaks of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (“poultry flu“) have become chronic and widespread; and is also a time in which periods of subzero temperatures in winter have become markedly shorter. How have all these changes impacted bird populations and bird distribution?

Because of its scope, duration and relatively public nature, the Census currently provides the best data for researchers within and outside of Korea to use in an assessment of changes in population and distribution of waterbirds in the ROK this century. Birds Korea has therefore long-depended on the “waterbird census” for count data to inform abundance codes used in our checklist and in our population trend assessments in Status of Birds, published back in 2014; and much more recently, in assessments of the likely impacts of e.g., airport construction at Gadeok Do in Busan and in Saemangeum. The data are also frequently used, of course, by government researchers in specialist papers in peer-reviewed journals; and in Red List Assessments made by NIBR.

In the early days of the Census, copies of the annual reports were printed and sent out to all interested parties, including Birds Korea; then pdfs were posted online by the Ministry of Environment instead; and in more recent years, the reports have been posted as online eBooks. Many of the earlier online reports appear to be no longer publicly accessible, greatly reducing their usefulness in identifying longer-term trends in numbers.

To make these data much more accessible and useful, Andreas Kim undertook the mammoth task of scanning every annual report, and organising all the maps and data in them into a single easy-to-use database that is easy to navigate both in English and in Korean. The database, accessible here, allows users to see changes in numbers at any given site through only a few clicks of the keyboard…

Screenshot of database counts in winter of Mallard by year in the Lower Mangyeong/ Mangyeung River, since 2006 part of the Saemangeum reclamation area (data taken from MOEK 1999-2023 Census reports) © Andreas Kim

Different options also allow database users to see whether or not there is a statistically significant trend at the national level in any of the regularly occurring species. There are also lists of sites that meet Ramsar criteria to help in up-dating a shadow list of internationally important wetlands.

Screenshot of database national counts in winter of Mallard by year as contained in the MOEK 1999-2023 Census reports (1999-2023) © Andreas Kim.

Our collective, sincerest thanks go to Andreas Kim for the construction and up-dating of this fabulous database; and now for providing in addition a very helpful introduction to the reports.

If you are interested in bird conservation in Korea and the wider region, please make time to access the database and to download “25 Years Winter Waterbird Censuses of Korea“.

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