Three New Zealander’s visit the Shorebird Site
of Mundok in North Korea - April 2009
By Adrian Riegen

In May 2000 I visited the Yalu Jiang National Nature Reserve in northeast China on the North Korean border, as a member of the Miranda Naturalists' Trust (MNT) of New Zealand, to assist with a shorebird survey of the reserve. About 93,000 birds were counted on that occasion but many more shorebirds were also observed flying across the border to feed or roost on unknown tidalflats in North Korea.

By the year 2000 most of the Chinese and South Korean coasts had been surveyed for migratory shorebirds at least once but almost nothing was known about shorebirds in North Korea.

In 2004 the MNT signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Yalu Jiang National Nature Reserve and since then has made annual visits to the reserve with local staff to monitor and count migrating shorebirds. Each year as we observed flocks of shorebirds across the river in North Korea, we wondered if a visit to North Korea would be possible to undertake shorebird surveys there. We were investigating possible options when it was announced that the New Zealand Minister of Foreign Affairs would make a formal visit to North Korea in November 2007. The MNT wrote to the Minister requesting he raise the issue of joint shorebird surveys during his visit. He did this and the response from the North Korean authorities was very encouraging.

Time constraints meant a visit during the shorebirds’ northward migration in 2008 was not possible but arrangements continued with the Korean Natural Environment Conservation Fund (KEF) in Pyongyang and in April 2009 everything was set to go.

The MNT suggested several parts of the west coast that could be suitable for shorebird surveys including the Mundok Migratory Birds Wetland Reserve (Mundok). The North Korean’s thought this would work and so in late April 2009 three members of the MNT lead by the chairman David Lawrie flew into Pyongyang and were met by members of the KEF and the DPRK/NZ Friendship Society, who had also been working hard to make this visit possible.

Road near Mundok, Photo © Miranda Naturalists’ Trust

After a couple of days in Pyongyang, meeting officials, finalising plans and sightseeing, we drove 80 km north to the town of Anju, which would be our base for the next five days. Anju lies about 25km east of Mundok but had suitable hotel accommodation for the group. Our party consisted of the three from Miranda, two directors of the KEF, two biologists and the driver of the 10 seater minibus that we travelled everywhere in. This was an ideal vehicle for the country roads and tracks we needed to travel.

Anju: view from hotel, Photo © Miranda Naturalists’ Trust

Public park in Anju, Photo © Miranda Naturalists’ Trust

The minibus, Photo © Miranda Naturalists’ Trust

We spent three full days in the reserve counting shorebirds at high tide roosts, looking for leg-flagged birds from other countries and meeting nature reserve staff and their families. The first day was quite formal as both sides got to know each other but by the third day we were joined by staff and their families on the coast looking at shorebirds through binoculars and telescopes and picnicing on the seawalls. They were particularly keen to see colour-banded and leg-flagged birds to see for themselves birds that linked them to other countries on the East Asian-Australasian Flyway. Everything went very well and we were able to survey the entire reserve for shorebirds and other waterbirds.

Although there is a large rural based human population close to and in the reserve and people are actively gathering a variety of foods from the coastal environment, the roosting birds were very approachable, a strong indication they are left undisturbed. North Korean security issues restrict the number of people allowed on the mudflats and surrounding coastal areas and there was also no sign of active coastal development so the shorebird habitat at Mundok appears to be secure, at least for the time being.

On Reserve Building Roof, Photo © Miranda Naturalists’ Trust

The Party at Mundok, Photo © Miranda Naturalists’ Trust

A total of 6,345 shorebirds of 22 species were counted at three roost sites within the reserve. Three shorebird species, Bar-tailed Godwit, Eurasian Curlew and Far-eastern Curlew occurred in internationally important numbers, (more than 1% of their respective populations) and the 82 Saunders’s Gulls counted represented 0.5% of the estimated 14,400 world population. At least 50 individual shorebirds from seven banding regions in four countries of the flyway were identified by their coloured leg bands and flags.

Walking the Seawall at Mundok, Photo © Miranda Naturalists’ Trust

The mud at each site appeared to be very soft particularly along the main Chong Chon River, which probably accounts for why some species like Great Knot where in low numbers and Red Knot were absent, as their preferred food, small bivalves, are not abundant in soft mud. The ‘missing’ Great Knots from Saemangeum in South Korea where certainly not at Mundok.

Chong Chon R. at Mundok, Photo © Miranda Naturalists’ Trust

At the southern end of the reserve a series of small salt extraction ponds made an ideal roost site and this is where all the colour-banded birds were seen.

Godwits & Dunlin in Salt Ponds, Photo © Miranda Naturalists’ Trust

Figure 1. Map of DPRK and Mundok location


Total shorebird count for the Mundok Reserve 26-29 April 2009

Species Total
Black-tailed GodwitLimosa limosa3
Bar-tailed GodwitLimosa lapponica2,400
WhimbrelNumenius phaeopus49
Eurasian CurlewNumenius arquata630
Far-Eastern CurlewNumenius madagascariensis950
Spotted RedshankTringa erythropus25
Common RedshankTringa totanus24
Common GreenshankTringa nebularia11
Wood SandpiperTringa glareola21
Terek SandpiperXenus cinereus149
Common SandpiperActitis hypoleucos3
Great KnotCalidris tenuirostris172
SanderlingCalidris alba2
Red-necked StintCalidris ruficollis12
Temminck's StintCalidris temminckii6
Sharp-tailed SandpiperCalidris acuminata9
DunlinCalidris alpina1,584
Black-winged StiltHimantopus himantopus14
Grey PloverPluvialis squatarola196
Pacific Golden PloverPluvialis fulva40
Kentish PloverCharadrius alexandrinus11
Lesser Sand PloverCharadrius mongolus33

Bar-tailed Godwit

The baueri sub-species accounted for most of the Bar-tailed Godwit seen during the survey with much smaller numbers of the menzbieri sub-species present. This should change in early May, as menzbieri are known to migrate northward slightly later. Therefore, this count represents more than 1% of the estimated 155,000 baueri population.

Far-eastern Curlew

The count on 26 and 27 April represents approximately 2.5% of the estimated 38,000 world population.

Eurasian Curlew

The count on 26 and 27 April represents approximately 1.5% of the estimated 40,000 flyway population.

Approximately 50 individual birds were identified by flags and colour bands on their legs. These marked birds of five species were from seven regions of the flyway, South and North Islands New Zealand, Victoria, Southeast Queensland and North-western Australia, Chongming Dao, China and Barrow in Alaska.

Summary of engraved flags seen at Mundok 27–29 April 2009

Flag ColourCodeBanding SiteBanding DateAgeDate Last SeenWhere Last SeenDistance
WhiteARWMiranda, New Zealand29.11.083+--9,893 km
WhiteBSCMiranda, New Zealand29.01.093+01.03.09Miranda, NZ9,893 km
WhiteAPUMiranda, New Zealand29.11.083+29.03.09Miranda, NZ9,893 km
YellowHPBroome, NW Australia13.02.04?27.08.06Broome, NW Australia6,355 km
GreenDLBrisbane, QLD, Australia21.03.082+29.03.09Brisbane, QLD, Australia7,941 km
YellowEKUBroome, NW Australia14.09.082--6,355 km


Summary of colour-banded birds seen at Mundok 27–29 April 2009

Colour BandsBanding SiteBanding DateAgeDate Last SeenWhere Last SeenDistance
5YBRYTotara Ave, Golden Bay, SI03.02.073+13.02.09Totara Ave, Golden Bay, SI10,072 km
1BYBRWarrington, Otago, SI28.02.063+05.02.09Aramoana, Otago, NI10,445 km
1BBWBAwarua, Southland, SI26.10.043+08.01.09Awarua Bay, Southland, SI10,431 km
4YRRBFoxton, Manawatu, NI18.02.073+31.03.09Foxton, Manawatu, NI10,180 km
1YBRBPakawau, Golden Bay, SI04.12.052?13.02.09Farewell Spit, S Island SI10,072 km
2WWYRMiranda, Firth of Thames, NI10.10.043?17.09.05Avon-Heathcote Est, Canterbury NI8,893 km
G flag /YLBarrow, AlaskaJune 2003 or 2004  June 2007or 2008 at Barrow5,475 km


Summary of flagged birds seen at Mundok 27–29 April 2009

SpeciesFlag coloursQtyBanding Region
Bar-tailed GodwitWhite/Green1Nelson, South Island, NEW ZEALAND
Bar-tailed GodwitWhite7Miranda, North Island, NEW ZEALAND
Bar-tailed GodwitOrange5Victoria, AUSTRALIA
Bar-tailed GodwitGreen3Southeast Queensland, AUSTRALIA
Bar-tailed GodwitYellow5Broome, Northwest AUSTRALIA
Bar-tailed GodwitWhite/Black1Chongming Dao, Shanghai, CHINA
Bar-tailed GodwitBlack/White3Chongming Dao, Shanghai, CHINA
Great KnotYellow4Broome, Northwest AUSTRALIA
Great KnotBlack/White1Chongming Dao, Shanghai, CHINA
Terek SandpiperBlack/White1Chongming Dao, Shanghai, CHINA
DunlinBlack/White1Chongming Dao, Shanghai, CHINA
Grey PloverBlack/White1Chongming Dao, Shanghai, CHINA


Opportunistic waterbird counts at Mundok

Waterbirds SpeciesSites Totals
Common ShelduckTadorna tadorna81
MallardAnas platyrhynchos22
Spot billed DuckAnas zonorhyncha76
PintailAnas acuta2
GarganeyAnas querquedula12
Common TealAnas crecca20
Common PochardAythya ferina5
Little Grebe Tacybaptus ruficollis18
Great Crested GrebePodiceps cristatus2
Black-crowned Night HeronNycticorax nycticorax20
Grey HeronArdea cinerea7
Great EgretCasmerodius albus7
Little EgretEgretta gazetta1
CootFulica atra15
Black-tailed GullLarus crassirostris4
Vega GullLarus vegae31
Black-headed GullChroicocephalus brunnicephalus16
Saunders's GullSaundersilarus saundersi82
Caspian TernHydroprogne caspia1
KingfisherAlcedo atthis9
Jack SnipeLymnocryptes minimus3
 The identification of these snipes is being reviewed 

A species of particular interest to us is the Red Knot as it is the second most numerous arctic shorebird to visit New Zealand each year. The major staging sites in East Asia were largely unknown before 2009. Reasonable numbers have been recorded in the Bohai Sea but not enough it appeared, to account for the estimated flyway population of 220,000. News filtered in that large numbers of Red Knots had been found at sites in China’s Bohai Sea during May 2009. We await more details on these finds.

Mundok is an important staging site on the East Asian-Australasian Flyway for the baueri sub-species of Bar-tailed Godwit and both curlew species and is probably the final staging site for these birds before they depart for the breeding grounds. One of the workers at the salt ponds indicated that in 2008 perhaps three times as many shorebirds, (mostly Bar-tailed Godwit we think) were using the site. Whether this was in April or May is unclear but is worthy of further investigation.

With vitally important shorebird refuelling sites being lost to development around the West Sea, Mundok will become increasingly important for shorebirds in the future and surveying this and other suitable sites nearby on a regular basis would be extremely valuable.

Our time in North Korea was excellent, we were extremely well looked after by our hosts who where very knowledgeable on many wildlife subjects but admitted they knew almost nothing about shorebirds. They learnt a great deal in the short time we were with them and read everything we gave them relating to shorebirds on the flyway, including Jan van der Kam’s book, ‘Invisible Connection’.

Mundok Reserve Staff, Photo © Miranda Naturalists’ Trust

The rural scene at Mundok is one of intensively cultivated coastal plains consisting almost entirely of rice paddies, while the rolling hills inland were given over to vegetable and fruit production. The fields were being prepared for planting during our visit with most of the work being done manually by hundreds of people who walked and bicycled everywhere, much as we have seen in areas around Yalu Jiang in China, although more machines are used there. Almost every square metre of land is cultivated, leaving very little room for any natural habitat or wildlife. As it was still quite early in the spring, what trees there were, had just started breaking into leaf.

Whilst we were not free to explore anywhere on our own, be it the streets of Pyongyang or the hotel gardens at Anju, which had a good selection of trees that were a haven for migrating passerines, one or more of our Korean party were always willing to walk with us and were keen to identify any birds we saw.

May 1st is a national holiday in North Korea and we spent the day in Pyongyang with Mrs Kim the Vice-Director of KEF and another of our hosts, Mr Ri Thae Gun, visiting some of the famous attractions in the city but particularly Moran Hill in the centre of the city. This forest-covered hill with many small gardens and numerous walking tracks is a popular place for thousands of local people who were enjoying walking, picnicing or the May Day dance festivals. Many women were in traditional Korean dress for the day.

KEF vice Director and MNT, Photo © Miranda Naturalists’ Trust

Without the initial request from the former New Zealand Foreign Affairs Minister the Rt Hon Winston Peters the survey would not have taken place and we are very grateful to him. This survey would also not have been possible without the considerable help of the DPRK/NZ Friendship Society, in particular Mrs Ji Yon Ok in North Korea. Don Borrie and Peter Wilson in New Zealand also assisted greatly with the initial planning. The Korean Natural Environment Conservation Fund arranged all internal travel and other logistical support and we are indebted to them for making it all possible. Sin Hyok Chol, Choe Il Chol and all the Mundok Reserve staff and their families made us very welcome and were a pleasure to work with. Kim Kwang Pil and Pak Ung, two scientists who helped with the survey had extensive knowledge of natural sciences and were very valuable members of the group. We must also acknowledge the considerable logistical and financial support of the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. The New Zealand Department of Conservation and the Lottery Minister’s Discretionary Fund also assisted with funding.

Before leaving North Korea a cooperation agreement was signed between the KEF and MNT to help facilitate further joint studies and it is hoped that members of the MNT can return to North Korea in early May 2010 to continue surveying parts of the coast for shorebirds. It is also hoped a KEF delegation from North Korea can visit New Zealand later this year or early in 2010.