Trip Report: Seoul, South Korea, July 24-30, 1994

Urs Geiser, Woodridge, IL, USA;

Birds mentioned

(Names according to A Field Guide to the Birds of Japan)

Gull sp.                        Larus sp.
Striated Heron*                 Butorides striatus
Egret sp.                       Egretta sp.
Brown Hawk-Owl*                 Ninox scutulata
Common (Ring-necked) Pheasant   Phasianus colchicus karpowi
Domestic Pigeon                 Columba livia
Red-rumped Swallow*             Hirundo daurica
Barn Swallow                    Hirundo rustica
White Wagtail                   Motacilla alba
White's Ground Thrush*          Turdus dauma
Crowned Willow Warbler*         Phylloscopus occipitalis
Marsh Tit*                      Parus palustris
Great Tit                       Parus major
Long-tailed Tit*                Aegithalos caudatus
(Eurasian) Tree Sparrow         Passer montanus
Black-naped Oriole*             Oriolus chinensis
Black-billed Magpie             Pica pica

* Life bird

General Remarks

Thanks again to all those of you who responded to my request for advice about birding in Korea and Japan. I will submit a separate report for Tokyo. Since the purpose of my trip was to attend scientific meetings, my birding was limited in time and place. This was also my first trip to Asia, and I wanted to do some other sightseeing as well (Please write if you're interested in my non-birding experiences).

I arrived in Korea in the middle of a heat wave with highs of 95-103°F every day. Even though the summer rains had stopped early this year and there was a drought in East Asia, the air was still quite humid, making outdoor activities somewhat unpleasant. Still, I managed to find a few green spots in Seoul that had some birds, although not in large numbers nor variety. The dense foliage made it quite difficult to get good looks at birds. The trees were full of buzzing cicadas and crickets which made it hard to hear anything else. One of these insects almost sounded like the chatting sound of certain social birds, e.g. chickadees. On a positive note, I didn't encounter a single biting insect in Korea. There were numerous dragonflies and many pretty butterflies.

My reference was A Field Guide to the Birds of Japan, published by the Wild Bird Society of Japan, first edition, 1982, available from ABA ($25.00/30.00; 7 1/2 x 4 3/4 x 7/8 in, 17 oz). Except for Wagtails, I found this book adequate for casual birding. Any bird likely to be seen on a first visit to Korea ought to be at least accidental in Japan and therefore covered in the book. Its range maps include Korea and in some cases larger areas of East Asia. Breeding and wintering areas are indicated, but for spring and fall birding it would be advantageous if migration paths were also marked, as in the Golden guide for North America. Not many birds are shown in juvenile or immature plumage. I was carrying compact 9x25 binoculars, but no scope.

Daily Reports

July 24, 1994

I arrived in Seoul in the middle of the afternoon after a 14-hour non-stop flight from Chicago. From the bus into the city, I saw DOMESTIC PIGEONS (Rock Doves). In the streets, there were many EURASIAN TREE SPARROWS, probably the most abundant city bird in Seoul. From my hotel room window I could see some BARN SWALLOWS flying around the buildings. These three species were abundant everywhere, and I will not always mention them in this report.

July 27, 1994

After two days of business, I was ready to explore. Following Steven Feldstein's advice, I took the subway (excellent and cheap!) to the Tongjak station and followed the signs to the National Cemetery. Before I even arrived there, I noticed large numbers of BLACK-BILLED MAGPIES (another abundant and conspicuous urban species wherever there was a little green space) along a small creek and in the park outside the subway station. The cemetery is located in a bowl-shaped valley surrounded on three sides by wooded hills. Bypassing most of the graves, I followed a road along the hillside in an anticlockwise direction. The first interesting birds were a group of BLACK-NAPED ORIOLES which were feeding on the juicy cicadas. They didn't seem to be quite as bright yellow as in the book, but maybe they weren't yet fully grown. On several occasions, I noticed small flocks of tits in the trees, but it took some time until I got a decent look at them. The flocks were dominated by GREAT TITS and joined by a few MARSH TITS. The Great Tits in Korea (and Japan) have very pale bellies compared to the bright yellow birds found in Europe. Over a small pond at the far end (near President Park's funeral hearse), BARN and RED-RUMPED SWALLOWS were catching dragonflies, and an immature STRIATED HERON was working the shore. On the return trip, I quickly saw a couple of other birds that I couldn't identify, one a possible Accipiter that disappeared immediately around some trees, the other a pair of little brown jobs that spent all their time in dense underbrush.

Back at the subway station, I briefly checked out the park along the Han-Gang River. Along a side stream were numerous immature WHITE WAGTAILS. The river itself had no water birds. In winter, there apparently are thousands of ducks here, but I couldn't even find a gull. On the grass and in the air, there were the usual TREE SPARROWS, MAGPIES and BARN SWALLOWS.

July 28, 1994

This afternoon, I visited Ch'angdokkung Palace and its Secret Garden (Piwon). The only birds of interest seen were some GREAT TITS and a quick rear-end view (scaly brown back and white tail corners) of a WHITE'S GROUND THRUSH. Luckily, I was able to see this large thrush better on later occasions. From the moving subway train crossing the Han River on a bridge, I could see an immature GULL of undetermined species.

July 29, 1994

I was planning to go to Puk'ansan National Park this day, but the height of the mountains and the sweltering heat caused me to reconsider. I therefore took the subway (line 4) to Hansung University, and walked along Songbutong-gil Street to the foot of Samch'ong Hill, which is capped with an old fortification similar to a miniature Great Wall of China. At the intersection where the wall became visible, I had to make a left turn along an uphill street which passed the trailhead. At first, the trail following the wall (at times on top of the wall) climbed very steeply. In the trees were some BLACK-NAPED ORIOLES, in addition to numerous BLACK-BILLED MAGPIES and TREE SPARROWS. Near the top, the trail left the hillcrest and followed the side instead because of some military installations. After about 30 minutes in the forest, I reached a spring where people were collecting water in large jugs. Nearby, I encountered a large flock of tits. Dominant again were GREAT TITS, but there were also some MARSH TITS and a CROWNED WILLOW WARBLER, based on the pale belly, slightly olive appearance, white eyestripe and dark-and-light head stripes. This flock was followed by a similarly large flock of very active LONG-TAILED-TITS. These handsome birds were of the standard race (not subsp. japonicus). Suddenly, the tits disappeared, and I saw a medium-sized, dark brown bird swoop through the trees. Luckily, it sat down where I could see it, and I was first puzzled over its appearance as either a hawk or an owl. However, the chocolate-brown, unmarked face, bold streaks on the breast, and large yellow eyes clearly identified it as a BROWN HAWK-OWL. We examined each other for several minutes from a distance of ca. 30-40 feet. Soon afterwards, I crossed a busy street next to its entrance to the Samch'ong Tunnel. During my search for the continuation of the trail, I was able to get a good look at a WHITE'S GROUND THRUSH from a close distance. It seemed to be a little larger than an American Robin with longer legs. Its back was heavily scaled on a mottled background of several shades of light brown or ochre. I never found the trail and had to return into the city. The busy street led directly back to the subway station.

Later in the afternoon, near Itaewon, a young WHITE'S GROUND THRUSH was trapped on the sidewalk because of a retaining wall which separated it from its parent. The juvenile had a noticeably short tail and didn't seem to be able to fly yet.

July 30, 1994

On my last day in Seoul, I had two hours for a walk through the Seon Jong Nueng Park (on my map labeled as Samnung Park, near the Sollung subway station) which contains a few royal tombs. Apart from the usual urban fowl, not many birds were evident. On separate occasions, I encountered three COMMON PHEASANTS, two females and one magnificent male of the RING-NECKED race (subsp. karpowi). There was a flock of tits in the trees, but I couldn't get a good look at them.

From the airport bus, I again saw some GULLS near the river. One of them was apparently an adult with gray mantle and white tail. This ruled out Black-tailed Gull, the only summer gull in Korea according to my field guide. In the rice fields outside the city were several EGRETS, probably Great Egret, but the bus moved too fast for a good view.

The continuation of my trip took me to Tokyo. I'll report on Tokyo's urban birds in a separate message.

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Urs Geiser;; June 2, 1995