Trip Report: Korea, December 29, 1993 - January 6, 1994

Steven Feldstein, Pennsylvania State University, USA;

My wife and I recently spent two weeks in Korea. The purpose of our trip was to spend time visiting with her relatives, but I managed to squeeze in a few hours of birding on most days. This was my second trip to Korea, but that trip was during the summer. I was particularly excited about seeing winter birds, since many birds that winter in Korea are seen in places in North America such as Attu and St. Lawrence Island.

In this report, I will describe some of my more exciting birding memories. All of the places that I had the chance to visit were either in Seoul or Kyongju. The number of places where one can go birding in Seoul are extremely limited, as this very large city (approximately 12 million persons) has developed just about every piece of space available. I suppose that I could have rented a car and driven out of Seoul, but there was no way that I would consider driving a car in Seoul, as Korean drivers are much more aggressive than those anywhere in North America. Before travelling to Korea, I tried to contact two of Korea's leading ornithologists. One of these ornithologists was the president of a local birding club. Unfortunately, neither responded to my letters, so I was to be without any guidance as to where the best places for birding would be.

* denotes a life bird

Dec. 29, 1993

Since I was unable to make contact with any Korean birders, my only guide as to where to go birding was MacArthur's rule, which states that the number of species increases with the area of an island. As a result, my wife and I decided to go to the National Cemetery, which is one of only three large parks in Seoul. The rest of Seoul is essentially completely developed. Also, the National Cemetery was within walking distance of my in-laws home. The National Cemetery is a large piece of forested land set aside as a memorial to the South Korean soldiers that died during the Korean war. The center of the cemetery consists of thousands upon thousands of graves and the outer half of the cemetery is covered in forest, mostly pine, and what looked like fir and oak. This is a popular location for easy hiking inside Seoul. The National Cemetery is located next to the Tongjak subway station, and 10 minutes south of downtown Seoul by subway. Although I have birded at cemeteries in North America, as many other birders have, it did feel somewhat sad birding at this location, as unlike most cemeteries, almost every person buried at the National Cemetery was young when they died.

While walking to the National Cemetery, we encountered the three most common city birds, Eurasian Tree Sparrow, Rock Dove, and Black-billed Magpie. The abundance of Black-billed Magpies was truly incredible, probably with an abundance ten times that of the Boulder/Denver area, where we live.

The first birds we encountered inside the National Cemetery included a flock of several species dominated by Great Tit. Together with the Great Tits were Coal Tit*, Marsh Tit*, and a male Daurian Redstart*. I was immediately surprised to find a flock that consisted of three species of tits, as in much of North America, there is usually only one chickadee species present. This made me first wonder whether I misidentified the tits, since both Great and Coal Tits have large white spots on their nape. But with excellent views of these birds I was certain no error was made. The Daurian Redstart was a spectacular "chat-thrush", with its white crown, black throat, orange breast and tail. Subsequent winter flocks of birds continued to be dominated by Great Tits with the occasional Goldcrest* and Yellow-throated Bunting. The only other flock of birds we encountered consisted of about 20 Yellow-throated Buntings. We also managed to see a single Ring-necked Pheasant. It certainly was a pleasure to see this bird where it is native.

The mixing of three species of chickadees was something that intrigued me. I read about this in "The Ecology of Bird Communities", by Wiens, a very highly regarded book that I recently purchased and look forward to reading. Wiens refers to a paper by Lack (1971) where it is speculated that the reason there is little overlap in the ranges of North American chickadees is due to the relatively recent evolutionary derivation of the North American chickadees. Therefore, in Korea, where these three species have overlapping ranges, one expects that these three chickadees should be ecologically different. My observations of the feeding behaviour of these chickadees was consistent, as Great Tits fed mostly in low shrubs or on the ground, Coal Tits a mid-levels in trees and close to the trunks, and Marsh Tits would feed on the outer branches. I also noticed that the Great Tits had a much greater variation of calls that the other species. I wondered whether this could be related to the size of the number of Great Tits in a single wintering flock, which often numbered as many as 50 individuals.

In the National Cemetery, there are lots of Korean soldiers present. I found all of them to be friendly, but they were interested in what I was looking at with my binoculars. When they understood that I was looking at birds, they assumed that I must be a professional ornithologist, as they were unfamiliar with birders and amateur ornithology. This gave me the impression that birding is not at all popular in Korea.

After visiting the National Cemetery, we went to the Han River for a brief stop. The Han River divides Seoul in two. At one time the river was surrounded by mudflats and marshes but now both sides of the river are bordered by dikes to protect the city from floods. From a distance, we could see that the Han River was covered with numerous ducks and grebes. But, before reaching the river, we found lots of Black-backed Wagtails* flitting about on the grass that bordered the river. Identification of Black-backed Wagtail was straightforward for males, which have a black crown and nape, with a dark eyeline. Female Black-backed Wagtails in winter plumage resemble the M. a. ocularis subspecies of White Wagtail which is rare in winter in Korea. M. a. ocularis has a gray crown and nape with a dark eyeline in its winter plumage.

On the river we managed to see lots of Little Grebes and Common Mergansers, together with a few Eurasian Green-winged Teal of the nominate subspecies, and a few distant male Smew*. I was quite excited when one Smew left the surface of the water and flew nearby allowing us a great look at this spectacular merganser.

Dec. 30, 1993

This morning I returned to the Han River, as with the little time that I spent the previous day at the river, I suspected that I would find more species. That was indeed the case, as I saw several Mallard, Northern Pintail, a few Great-crested Grebes*, lots of Herring Gulls of the vegae subspecies (I believe a possible split some day), and a great look at a female Smew. The vegae Herring Gulls consisted of individuals of several ages, which revealed many differences from the smithsonianus subspecies of Herring Gull in North America (in a separate birdchat message, I'll describe in detail some of these differences that I observed, since L. a. vegae is seen in North America).

Dec. 31, 1993

This morning I had a couple of free hours, so I returned to the National Cemetery to look for birds missed two days earlier. Although I did find the same species as in my previous visit, I did get to see several Eurasian Jays of the subspecies brandtii and two separate flocks of Hawfinches*. Eurasian Jay is a bird that I had previously seen in Israel, and the most obvious difference in these birds was their orange heads. Furthermore, these individuals seemed much quieter than those I heard in Israel. The Hawfinches were certainly a treat, as I didn't know if I would see these birds, since I assumed that they would be somewhat erratic in their winter distribution as with their close relatives the Evening Grosbeak of North America.

In the afternoon I went with my father-in-law to Seon Jong Nueng. This is one of the few parks in Seoul and it was saved from development as it includes the tombs of two of the emperors from the Yi Dynasty (1392-1910). The habitat and species found here are very similar to the National Cemetery. However, we did find several new species including a female Red-flanked Bluetail*, a Dusky Thrush* of the eunomus subspecies, two Long-tailed Tits*, a Common Buzzard, Brown-eared Bulbul, and Oriental Turtle-Dove. (This is the common name on the ABA Checklist. It is also known as Rufous Turtle-Dove.) The Red-flanked Bluetail just perched quietly on a branch of a tree and allowed us to approach it closely. I was particularly interested in seeing the eunomus subspecies of Dusky Thrush as this is the subspecies that nests in Eastern Siberia and has been seen on several occasions in North America.

Jan. 1 1994

To start of the new year, my wife and I went with relatives to Tong Il Jeon Mang Dae. This is located about 40 kilometers northwest of Seoul at the confluence of the Han and Imjin Rivers. It is right at the border between South and North Korea. From this location, one can look across the Imjin River and see into North Korea. This is a very special location for many South Koreans, since so many of them have had no contact with relatives in North Korea since the Korean war ended 41 years ago. On the northern side of the border is a little "propaganda village", whereby the north tries to show South Koreans how happy life is in North Korea. Also, from the northern side of the border, loudspeakers announce messages condemning both South Korea and the USA. Through my binoculars, I could see families ice skating together in North Korea. All the surrounding rivers in this area are full of mines and surrounded by fences. However, the number of ducks and geese present was incredible. I wouldn't be surprised if in this area, and farther south on the Han River (also closed off by the military by fences) the total population comprised several hundred thousand individual ducks and geese. If not for the military tension in this area, the Han River could be an incredible place for waterbirds.

While driving to Tong Il Jeon Mang Dae it was somewhat frustrating not to be able to stop and look at all the waterbirds, because the military fences were located too far from the water. However, some birds were close to the highway including several Eurasian Kestrel and Common Buzzard,lots more Oriental Turtle-Dove, and a few Grey Heron and Carrion Crows. However, at one place we could get closer to the water. After stopping the car, I could see that most of the birds were Spot-billed Ducks. Once at Tong Il Jeon Mang Dae, most of the birds that were close enough to identify were Mallard and more Spot-billed Ducks (these birds were of the zonorhyncha subspecies which lacks the red spot at the base of the bill), thousands of Greater White-fronted Geese of the subspecies frontalis. Among these geese, I searched hard for but failed to find the uncommon Bean Goose. This time the ubiquitous Black-billed Magpie was of interest since I saw one flock fly across the Han River from the north to the south side. This allowed me to say that I have one species on my North Korean list; Black-billed Magpie.

Jan. 2, 1994

In the morning, I went with my father-in-law to Yoido. This is an island in the Han River, and represents the heart of the downtown. From the north side of Yoido, there is a spot where telescopes are set up for the purpose of watching ducks. From this location one can see two small islands in the Han River. There are typically about 1000 ducks between telescopes and the islands. Right from the subway station, exciting birding started, as I saw a Dusky Thrush of the naumanni subspecies. This subspecies looks nothing like eunomus, which I saw a few days earlier, yet I read that intergrades are commonly seen. In addition to the same waterbirds seen a few days earlier, I did manage to find Common Goldeneye, Common Pochard*, and Gadwall. I also saw what may have been a Slaty-backed Gull, but I didn't see it well enough to be confident of the identification. Also, as I understand, Slaty-backed Gull would have been very rare at this inland location. I also saw an adult White-tailed Eagle. My first impression was that it was strange looking for a Haliaeetus eagle, with its very short, white tail and pale brown body, much paler than a Bald Eagle or an African Fish Eagle, which are the other two Haliaeetus eagles with which I am familiar.

Jan. 3, 1994

This day I went with my wife and other relatives on a train trip to Kyongju. This city was the first capital city of a unified Korea. At that time, 6th to 10th century, Korea was referred to as Silla. At Kyongju there are numerous parks with mountains, riparian forest, rivers, and lakes with lots of good places for birding. Within these parks are temples, ruins, and lots of interesting Korean history. I spent the entire 4 hour train trip staring out the window looking for birds. New species for the trip I added were Eurasian Jackdaw* and Great Egret.

Jan. 4, 1994

In the Kyongju area we visited the major tourist sites with a bus tour, and at every opportunity I looked for birds. At Kyongju, we went to the following locations.

  1. Sokkuram. This is a Buddhist temple high up in the Toham Mountains in Kyongu National Park. Inside one of the temples is what many people regard as the most perfectly made Buddha anywhere in the world. Parts of this temple are damaged, since when Korea was a Japanese colony, the Japanese unsuccessfully tried to move the Buddha to Japan.
  2. Pulguk-sa. During the times of Silla rule over Korea, Pulguk-sa was the center of Buddhism in the country. Unfortunately, at around 1590, the Japanese completely destroyed the spectacular set of temples at this location. Twenty years ago the Korean government reconstructed the old site and it is quite spectacular. Surrounding the temples are a variety of habitats and an exciting assortment of birds.
  3. Bonum Lake. A man-made lake just outside Kyongju.
  4. Tumuli Park. A park inside Kyongu which includes about 50 tombs of Silla emperors. Each tomb looks like a 15 meter high "camel hump".
  5. Anapji. Basically a park where the emperors would go to relax. It was here the the last Silla emperor was murdered as the Silla dynasty came to an end.

Sokkuram is located inside the mountainous Kyongju National Park. The number of birds I saw was quite low, but I suspect that this was because of lack of time. Although Pulguk-sa was spectacular in own right, this was certainly my favourite place for birding in Kyongju. Species that I saw here included a flock of Chinese Grosbeak*, two Varied Tit* and a Japanese White-eye. It felt a little strange to see a member of this tropical family in cold weather at this latitude. Chinese Grosbeak was indeed a big surprise, as all my field guides and the new "Finches and Sparrows" guide indicate that this species does not winter in Korea, except on a few islands off the south coast. To me, the most striking aspect of these Chinese Grosbeaks were their enormous bill, certainly much larger than that of an Evening Grosbeak. Varied Tit is perhaps the most colourful of all chickadees. It has a yellow and black head, read back and underparts, with blue-gray wings. It was a truly incredible bird to see. I also got to see several flocks of Oriental Greenfinch*. This is an abundant bird. Many flocks had as many as 50 or 100 individuals consisting of both males and females.

At Bomun Lake I saw lots of the same waterbirds as earlier, including several thousand more Spot-billed Ducks. With regard to identification of this duck, I was surprised how hard it was to see its white tertials while in flight. However, other field marks such as the yellow tipped bill, pale head with two black stripes, and green speculum allowed for easy identification. Also, at Bomun Lake, I saw a male Eurasian Marsh Harrier, which looks absolutely nothing like the Eurasian Marsh Harrier of the Western Palearctic. This individual had a black back with mottled black and gray wing coverts. It will be interesting to see if this species is split someday.

Tumuli park was a very interesting place of visit, but few birds are present. At Anapji, more of the same species as above were seen. One exciting moment came when I was looking at a flock of Oriental Greenfinches and I heard a call that reminded me of a Pine Siskin. I then looked up and saw a male Eurasian Siskin*. This bird with its black crown, yellow breast and white belly is quite impressive.

Jan. 5, 1994

In the morning my wife an I returned to Yoido. We went there to continue my search for Tufted Duck, which according to my reading, is an abundant duck on inland rivers, yet I still hadn't seen one. After searching for a couple of hours, without any luck, we were just about to give up. At that moment we saw a small Aythya duck in flight with a white wing stripe extending far onto its primaries. The duck landed in the water about 200 metres away. I was excited, since the only other winter Aythya duck with the above wing stripe is Greater Scaup, and I expected that Tufted Duck would be more common on this inland river. A good look in the scope then revealed a female Tufted Duck*. At this time, just while studying this life bird, a couple of Korean birders arrived with a Nikon scope. They looked to be about 25 years old. It was finally nice to see some Korean birders, but unfortunately we did not have the time to talk to them, as we were late for meeting some people. I really would have enjoyed finding out something about birding in Korea.

Jan. 6, 1994

One last time I wanted to stop by the nearby National Cemetery to see if I could find any other species. I did manage to see two more species for the trip; Winter Wren and Eurasian Sparrowhawk*. The extreme dark brown colour of the Winter Wren was striking, as the bird was much darker that any birds I have seen in the rain forests of Washington and British Columbia. The Eurasian Sparrowhawk was a female, and appeared similar in size to the Cooper's Hawk of North America. It must certainly be a terror for most small birds. Although I didn't seen any male Eurasian Sparrowhawks, I was interested in the fact that this species exhibits strong sexual dimorphism in its plumage which isn't the case for North American accipiters.


My main references were

  1. A Field Guide to the Birds of Japan published by the Wild Bird Society of Japan,
  2. a Field Guide to the Birds of Korea, by Won Pyong-Oh, and
  3. Birds of Korea, by Austin.
I found the Japanese guide to be most useful as, with the exception of just a few species, it covers all regularly occurring birds in Korea. I felt that the plates and text were adequate, but certainly not up the standard of a top North American or European field guide. The range maps in the Japanese guide were somewhat inaccurate for Korea, but I feel that it is unfair to criticize this guide on this point, since it was developed for Japan, not Korea. The Korean field guide, which was just recently published, is a photographic field guide, somewhat like the Audubon series. As a result, it is not good as a primary guide, but the excellent photographs were sometimes helpful. This guide also has more accurate range maps than the Japanese guide, and also includes a checklist at the end indicating the seasonal abundance of each species. The Japanese guide is published in English and the Korean guide in Korean. Lastly, the book by Austin is very old (1948), and very much out of date. At the time this book was published, Korea had just been freed from being a Japanese colony. Nevertheless, I found the descriptions of subspecies, habits, etc. to be quite beneficial.

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