Periods of intense cold alternate with milder spells. In the coldest winters maxima are often below freezing; in milder years (such as 2001 and 2002) maxima often reach 10°C in Seoul: a few lingering autumn migrants can still sometimes be found as well as huge numbers of wintering waterbirds.
A great time for full winter bird tours or a couple of days in the right areas. Saunders's Gulls are widespread, while Relict Gulls also start to appear at a number of sites, especially in cold winters. Scaly-sided Merganser move southward onto unfrozen rivers, while numbers of Baikal Teal remain at their peak - often dispersing southward from Seosan, along with large numbers of Greater White-fronted and Thick-billed Bean Geese with the onset of subzero temperatures. Taiga Beans too can be found in the low thousands at Woopo, Joonam and in the Nakdong in the southeast, the mildest part of the mainland.
Raptors include good numbers of Cinereous Vulture (especially in recent years) and these are often joined by White-tailed and several Steller's Sea Eagles, while cranes (Red-crowned, Hooded, and White-naped), remain at key sites.
Passerines include occasionally abundant Brambling, mixed flocks of Naumann's and Dusky Thrushes and in some winters large numbers of Siberian Accentor. Species such as White's and Pale Thrush, Red-flanked Bluetail and Japanese White-eye also remain in reasonable numbers on Jeju Island and in the far southeast. Highlights in December 2002 included Korea's first Great Black-headed(or Pallas's) Gull in Seoul, Pigeon and Spectacled Guillemots off the east coast, and several Red-throated Thrushes and Chinese Nuthatches in the northwest. Highlights in 2003 included Korea's first Grass Owl - found dead on Heuksan Island.
(The following records are a compilation of our own sightings and records sent in by other observers. As well as being posted on the Birds Korea website(s), selected records are also forwarded to other Korean-language birding websites; records of threatened species are arranged and forwarded to Birdlife International and national authorities when appropriate; flag images and records are passed to bodies responsible for their coordination throughout the flyway; and all records sent to us are used to compile annual reports and to support the evolving understanding of the status of many of Korea’s birds.)
Yanggu - Seocheon, December 31
Along the river I saw Spot-billed Ducks, Mallards, Japanese Wagtails, Green Sandpipers, Brown Dippers, Grey Herons, Little Grebes and a Long-billed Plover. In the riparian area along the river I found Vinous-throated Parrotbills, Black-backed Magpies, Great, Marsh, and Long-tailed Tits, Yellow-throated, Meadow, and Pallas Reed Buntings, Daurian Redstart, Bull-headed Shrike, Bramblings, Oriental Greenfinches and a Common Buzzard.
Guryongpo coast, December 29
Several species of Gulls (Vega, Black-headed, Slaty-backed and Black-tailed), Black-necked, Great Crested and Little Grebes, Sanderlings and Ancient Murrelets. Just south of the main harbour I spotted a Rhinoceros Auklet.
Jinhae, Gyeongsan Nam, December 30
On Shirubong mountain (a fair climb of 650 metres), one White-backed Woodpecker, two Japanese Pygmy Woodpeckers. Some Yellow-throated Buntings, one White's Thrush and two Japanese White-eyes. Daurian Redstarts, Parrotbills, Marsh Tits, Brown-eared Bulbuls and Long-tailed Tits were abundant. Few raptors except for two Buzzards. I saw some Black Kites, one Peregrine and Kestrels on the way from Busan, but none of these birds were present here. At the top of the mountain a pair of Alpine Accentors were looking for food amidst the usual garbage left by hikers.
Heuksan Island, December 29
Most unexpected was a Siberian Chiffchaff (only the fourth national record, with this the third record of 2005). In addition, an over-wintering White-breasted Waterhen is still present there.
Jinju-Joonam-Nakdong, December 28
A really excellent and enjoyable day's birding, with great views of a number of target species under clear skies, and warming temperatures after a dawn low of ca -8 C.
The first stop shortly after dawn produced ca 10 Pallas's Reed and 2 Little Buntings, several Japanese Wagtail, 3 Green Sandpiper and 4+ Long-billed Plover, as well as a group of ca 40 Vinous-throated Parrotbill.
A few kms south, and the next stop provided excellent and prolonged views of a pair of Scaly-sided Merganser, feeding actively with a single Goosander.
From there, our search for Cinereous Vulture first turned up an obliging Siberian Accentor, then ca 70 vultures, most gathered around one large grouping of poultry farms. If this was not enough, in amongst them was the outstanding national rarity of the day - a juvenile Steppe Eagle, which after disappearing after only a very brief view, was relocated some 30 minutes later perched in a pine tree, where it scolded a bemused-looking Cinereous Vulture, before flying over our heads. [Tomek (1999) gives one record of "Aquila rapax"from DPRK, a bird caught on the east coast in December 1959. This presumably refers to Steppe Eagle A. nipalensis, formerly often considered a more eastern subspecies of Tawny EagleA. rapax. This is also presumably the basis for Steppe Eagle being listed as a vagrant to Korea in Lee, Koo and Park (2000), a field-guide covering the whole peninsula, while Park Jin Young's 2002 unpublished doctoral thesis on South Korean birds contains no mention of A. nipalensis.] There is at least one sight record in South Korea, however, known to Birds Korea: one, initially described as a sub-adult, but based on its broad white underwing stripe much better aged as a juvenile, at Seosan on December 31st 1994 (NM and Des Allen). The species is also listed by KHT for Seosan, either on the basis of that or another unpublished record. The Jinju juvenile therefore becomes perhaps the first fully documented record of the species in South Korea, supported by images of the bird both at rest and in flight, and seen by multiple observers.
Identification is based on the combination of large bill especially with very long gape-flange; powerful structure; mid-brown toned upperparts, lacking the streaking of juvenile Imperial or the spotting of juvenile Greater Spotted; and the paler "trousers", not shown by adult Greater Spotted. Flight views reveal a very broad white band on the underwing with a narrow white trailing edge to the wing; very extensive white flashes at the base of the primaries on the upperwing; and a pale rump-band.
From there, we travelled an hour by road to Joonam, where we found 12 White-naped Crane, single White-tailed Eagle, ca 100 Baikal Teal, and also an adult Lesser White-fronted Goose in amongst 500+ Greater White-fronts.
With time running out, we continued on to the Nakdong, and soon found our last target species of the day - Relict Gull. Two feeding adults were well-watched for 30 minutes in decent evening light.
Mangyeong River, Gim Je, Jeonbuk province, December 27
1 Long-tailed Shrike
Mangyeung and Okku, December 25
We saw 2 White-tailed Sea Eagles flying inland from the Mangyeung when we were on our way there. At Okku we found 3 Eurasian Bitterns (seen simultaneously) and a Water Rail in one of the last patches of open fresh water around.
The following day (December 26th) we went back to find 2 Sea Eagles out on the mud and a Black-winged Stilt in a canal at Mangyeung. At Okku we were surprised to find one of the bitterns dead in the water. We saw another flying and the Water Rail again. There wasn't anything obviously damaged on the bittern (picture below); however, with 3 of them in one spot, I figure they are being stressed to the limit by the weather.
Keum Tidal Flats, December 25
Common Sandpipers were seen in a few locations. Saunders' Gulls were flying in loose groups over the flats. A group of around 400 Dunlin were there as well.
East Eun-pa Park, December 24
The sunny side of a hill in Eun-pa Park had a few Pale Thrush and a group of perhaps 15 Red Crossbills settled into some pine trees.
Cheorwon, December 23
With an overnight low of -12C and light snow, followed by clearing skies, a few hours at Cheorwon produced very good views of both Red-Crowned (ca 20) and White-naped Cranes (ca 30), ca 450 Cinereous Vulture, 3 White-tailed Sea-eagles, single Chinese Grey Shrike and Long-tailed Rosefinch, ca 40 Hawfinch and several more Common Bullfinch.
Dalseong floodplain, Nakdong river, Daegu, December 22
2 Upland Buzzard, 6 Short-eared Owl, and 2 Long-billed Plover.
NE River, December 22
A pair of Scaly-sided Mergansers from Northeast river on Dec 22. (Felt more sad than anything watching them, what with Saemangeum thoughts and all---but one mustn't give up, right?)
NE River and Arboretum, December 22
Overnight temperature down to -16C, with a high of -3C and largely sunny skies. At the NE River, a single group of 14 Scaly-sided Merganser, including no less than 9 adult males.
In addition, 7 Falcated Duck, single White-tailed Eagle and Cinereous Vulture, 2 Siberian Accentor, 8 Bullfinch (rosacea types) and ca 3 Hawfinch. At the arboretum, 3 Solitary Snipe, a Brown Dipper, a Red-flanked Bluetail, 2 White-backed Woodpecker, 3 Pallas's Rosefinch, a Cinereous Vulture, and ca 25 + Bullfinch - with a whole range of male-type plumages. These included the majority of more or less standard rosacea (red-cheeked, dark, sullied red underparts, grey wingbar), one male with grey underparts and clean red cheeks (griseiventris, presumably a very rare form in Korea), a male with red cheeks, largely clean red-pink underparts and extensive white ventrally (cassinii?), and a female type with just some faint reddish suffusion on the cheeks...clearly this is a very interesting complex of forms.
Arboretum Photo © Nial Moores
Arboretum Photo © Nial Moores
(For a photo of a similar ssp from the Yellow River Delta in late Nov go to www.wwfchina.org/birdgallery)
Suncheon Bay and Joonam Res, December 21
A day on which the courts again gave in to the developers re Saemangeum, and one also of trying to keep ahead of record-breaking heavy snowfall - with 30 cm falling in Suncheon within a few hours of our leaving (and an amazing 59 cm falling at one site near the west coast).
At Suncheon, in rapidly worsening weather during the morning, ca 60 Hooded Crane and with them at least two hybrids and most unexpected one adult Sandhill Crane (presumably the same individual that has been seen at Suncheon and Seosan within the past month). Also there 2 Hen Harrier, 30+ Lapland Bunting, 75+ Japanese Skylark, several Buff-bellied Pipit and a Japanese Quail.
At Joonam, few geese, but 5 800 Baikal Teal, single Mandarin, ca 15 Falcated Duck seen excellently, and a male hybird Mallard x Spot-billed Duck, as well as single White-backed Woodpecker and Pale Thrush.
Incheon airport-Seosan A-Geum River, December 20
With a grim weather forecast, two fairly brief spells in the field on our way down south. At Seosan, 2 Oriental White Stork scoped distantly and 2 Long-billed Plover seen well, while at the Geum highlights included ca 50 Baikal Teal, a single Lesser White-fronted Goose, and best of all 11 Swan Goose watched well in excellent light.
Hwasoon, Jeonam province, December 20
2 Scaly-sided Mergansers and 1 Solitary Snipe
Songdo, December 18
At the frozen lagoon, 2 Smew, a Peregrine, 1 Black-crowned Night Heron, and up to 12 Olive-backed Pipit were notable.
On a newly- explored, unspoilt area of mudflat between Songdo and Sorae, the resident flock of 150 Dunlin were to be found, as well as a European Curlew, 6 Grey Plover and 3 Ruddy Shelducks.
East Eun-pa Park and the Geum, December 18
After some weather related delays I got over to Eun-pa Park. Recent cold temperatures have reduced the open water to a few pools, which were occupied by about 20 Little Grebes and a half dozen Coots. Also near the lake a pair of Hawfinch were the first I've seen since 2004. In the forest a few Pale Thrush were seen and heard. A couple of Red-flanked Bluetails females were seen. Some exposed earth had a few Black-faced Buntings.
Joining PN and AN we took a look at the Geum despite intermittent snow showers. About 60 Northern Lapwings were seen. Ten Swan Geese including R-90 were present. A Black-necked Grebe and in the fresh-water side a group of 23 Coots were counted and a large group of 40-50 Common Mergansers. No Baikal Teal were seen.
Songdo, December 18
Seoul, December 14
At about 1:30 p.m. while birding in the Children's Grand Park in Gwangjin-gu, Seoul, I pished up a Chestnut-flanked White-eye in a reedy area near a small pond not far from the main entrance to the park. Although the bird was quite furtive and kept itself well-hidden in the vegetation, I had sufficiently good looks at it to rule out the more likely Japanese White-eye.
Gangneung, Gangwon province, December 12
5 Black Brant (NB: Black Brant is preferred, in recognition of its distinctiveness from the populations of Brent Goose that largely spend the non-breeding season in Atlantic countries).
Songdo, December 11
A new influx of ca 300 Mongolian, with some Vega Gulls is apparent, as well as a foraging group of 40-50 "Black-backed" (lugens) White Wagtails. Several Goosander have now made their appearance.
Best of the day were 220 Saunder's Gulls which included a few immatures, and a delightful flock of 150+ Dunlin.
Geum Tidal Flats, Oh-seong Mountain, Gunsan Industrial Zone and Eun-pa Park, December 11
A female Goshawk was on Oh-seong Mountain. An unusually late Spotted Redshank was among 150 so Eurasian Curlews. Olive-backed Pipits were seen or heard flying over in a few locations. As of last week a few Gadwalls have appeared in Eun-pa Lake. A Long-billed Plover seen there last weekend was searched for but not found. Near the park a female Red-flanked Bluetail was seen. Three Great Cormorants and a pair of Green Sandpipers were in the Gunsan Industrial Zone.
Mr. Jo (of the migratory bird observatory) claims 600,000 Baikal Teal are present on the lake side of the Geum. It is certainly a number I have no means to count and contradict him.
[Birds Korea: Baikal Teal have proven extremely difficult to count well once they form a massive flock. 600 000 is the highest claim for a single flock yet, being considerably more than the number of Baikal Teal recorded in a government coordinated survey in January 2005, and almost twice the number that was at Seosan a little over a month ago. For more on Baikal Teal counts, please refer to the 2005 Year Review which will be posted in the near-future.]
SE River, Joonam, Miyeonji (Nakdong), December 9
In clear and cool conditions, a check of a few stretches of river which traditionally hold Scaly-sided Merganser...yet again, some new riverworks, restaurant-by-the-river construction and earth dumping in the core area and only a few Goosander found. Birds of most note there included 1 presumed Upland Buzzard, 1 or more likely 2 Long-tailed Rosefinch and several Siberian Accentor and Japanese Wagtail, along with 3+ Japanese White-eye heard (perhaps wintering toward their furthest north here?).
At Joonam, excellent views of an adult Lesser White-fronted Goose in among ca 600 Greater White-fronteds (all/mostly "orange-bills"), a first winter White-tailed Eagle, ca 1500+ Eastern Taiga Beans and possibly up to 15 000 Baikal Teal - densely packed into the reed-edge.
At Miyeonji, where strangely no Black Kite (apparently all the local kites are now feeding in a nearby garbage tip), ca 6 Saunders's Gull, 75+ Tundra Swan (a good count, though far short of the 1000 or so that have been seen in the estuary in winter), and several hundred Whoopers, with single Osprey and 2-3 Hen Harrier.
Nakdong estuary, December 7
A few hours in the afternoon in the estuary produced an adult Relict Gull but only one Saunders's Gull, a first winter White-tailed Eagle, 2 Hen Harrier and an Osprey, while neighboring sites held a Long-eared Owl, perhaps 3 Peregrine and a Japanese Quail.
Whooper Swan were also very much in evidence, with ca 2 500 said to be present (along with very small numbers of Tundra), while there have also been 3 or 4 Swan Goose present at Miyeonji.
Late news from the Nakdong estuary includes an extraordinarily late Amur Falcon (on ca Dec 3rd: JSJ and KHE), and a female Long-tailed Duck on Nov 26 seen by Mr. Kim Beon-Su.
Seosan, December 6
1 Sandhill Crane and several Hooded Cranes.
Birds Korea: According to Park Jin-Young's unpublished doctoral thesis there are only three previous records of Sandhill Crane in South Korea - despite the species occurring annually at Izumi in Japan (having surely migrated through the Korean peninsula). Previous published records are of one on December 5th, 1987 at Daeseong Dong (Gyeonggi Do), one at Imjingak on 28th January 1989, and one at Cheorwon on March 9th, 1995. With apparently no confirmed records since 1995, the Suncheon Bay record on October 30th becomes the fourth and the Seosan bird on December 6th the fifth national record.
Songdo, December 4
The first fall of snow and freezing winds today is quite a contrast to warm weather a week ago. On the lagoon a raft of 2300 Common Pochard is a high count for here, also a line of 63 Grey Herons shielding themselves from biting wind, and 13 Ruddy Shelducks. 150+ Great Cormorants last week are now reduced to 5 remaining individuals. Also 2 Dunlin.
Encouragingly 110 Saunders's Gulls today - though no immature or 1st winter birds noted.
2 Olive backed Pipits have been present lately, and a surprise Japanese White-eye on Nov 31st ( RN) is surely a rarity in the Seoul area.
A pair of Peregrines gave splendid views - swooping on the assembled Common Teals and even scattering the Cormorants.
Talseong Wetland Restoration Area, Daegu, December 3
A few hours looking around this potentially important site produced several noteworthy sightings including single Hen Harrier, 2 Peregrine, 3 Japanese Quail, 25+ Pallas's Reed and single Lapland Buntings, ca 15+ Hawfinch, and best of all one (or perhaps even two?) Chinese Grey Shrike, poorly "digi-binned". Although Chinese Grey Shrike is proving regular in coastal areas, there are apparently very few inland records in winter.
Igidae, Busan, December 2
With pretty much the first overcast sky in almost a month, a few hours at Igidae.
Few species, but much increased numbers of "Great Tit" and Vinous-throated Parrotbill (with one flock of over 120), and a few noteworthy species including 2 Olive-backed Pipit, perhaps as many as 3 Japanese Bush Warbler, single Pale Thrush, Goshawk and Common Buzzard.
The sea, however, held by far the most interest, with a massive movement of loons (most well offshore) going south until conditions cleared in the early afternoon and winds dropped. In the only full hour counted, at least 935 went by - with most/all considered to be Pacific Loons. In addition, 2 murrelets (either Ancient or less likely Crested) went north, and rarest of all a single female Long-tailed Duck (a species scarcely recorded annually in Korea) dropped down on the sea with a splash, when it was then lost to view.