This is a summary of count data and habitat assessment from the second spring-tide cycle of this year's Saemangeum Shorebird Monitoring Program, a joint initiative of the domestic organization Birds Korea and the international Australasian Wader Studies Group. These data and information will be refined further, for publication in the SSMP 2007 Report and in other papers, and can be cited freely by others (with proper acknowledgement and caveats).
Between April 9th and April 19th 2007, a total of fifteen people counted or assisted counting shorebirds within the 40,100 ha Saemangeum reclamation area (until April 21st 2006, comprising the free-flowing estuaries of the Mangyeung and Dongin Estuaries), Gomso Bay and the Geum Estuary, three adjacent intertidal wetlands on the west coast of South Korea. In addition, two teams of observers also traveled north to Asan Bay (Gyeonggi Bay) on April 16th to locate and photograph two Bar-tailed Godwits (E1 and E8) satellite tracked to Korea from New Zealand.
Data are here summarized from counts at Gomso Bay on April 19th; at the Geum Estuary on April 15th; and within Saemangeum, between April 15th and 18th (including boat-based counts on the 18th).
At Gomso Bay, two full counts were made, with the high tide count on April 19th producing 2,941 shorebirds, comprised largely of Great Knot (1664), Dunlin (720) and Far Eastern Curlew (315). This total compares with just a single shorebird found at the same site on April 15th 2006!
At the Geum Estuary, repeated counts at mainland sites were supplemented by simultaneous counts of both mainland and outer tidal-flat sites on April 15th. A total of 50,560 shorebirds were counted at this time, with most numerous being Great Knot (28,554), Dunlin (13,050), Bar-tailed Godwit (4029) and Far Eastern Curlew (1405), while 9 Nordmann's Greenshank (Endangered) were also recorded.
This total compares with only 45,731 shorebirds counted in the same area on April 17th, 2006, with much of the difference made by the very greatly increased total of Great Knot (only 10,429 in 2006), and lower numbers of both Dunlin and Bar-tailed Godwit.
A second day of research at Yubu Island during a very high tide of 6.7 m on April 18th produced a much larger estimate of 50,000 Great Knot and 9500 Bar-tailed Godwit, as well as 16 Nordmann's Greenshank and 50 Saunders's Gulls (Vulnerable). These latter counts are not included in the totals here, as they were not part of a simultaneous counting effort.
Within the Saemangeum area, land-based counts by four teams were supplemented by a boat-based count on April 18th. In total, 69,441 shorebirds were counted, with 29,801 at the Mangyeung and 39,640 at the Dongjin (this compares with a rather similar total of 71,709 shorebirds counted within the Saemangeum area between April 15th and 17th 2006). Most numerous were Great Knot (6188 at the Mangyeung and 25,727 at the Dongjin) and Dunlin (19,212 at the Mangyeung and 10,678 at the Dongjin).
Based on leg-flag observations (including several birds flagged in northwest Australia and at Chongmin Dao in the Yangtze Estuary), it appears that some of this similarity in numbers year to year might be in part the result of Great Knot building in number here this spring earlier than in 2006, possibly due to more favorable weather conditions during migration allowing birds to reach the Korean west coast earlier? The third count cycle, in early May, should be useful in confirming or refuting this.
While Saemangeum remains of considerable international importance to shorebirds, conditions within most of the reclamation area continue to deteriorate, with open expanses of desert-like dried-out sandflats and severe water quality conditions prevalent in many wet areas leading to red algal bloom puddles in muddy areas, dense gravy-brown waters in some bays, and thick scum and dried foam in creeks and channels. The recent tidal range is estimated at only 17 cm, and only one significant area of tidal-flat (lying far out in the Dongjin) appeared relatively healthy, supporting 18,820 Great Knot and 2745 Dunlin on April 18th. Many other areas used by shorebirds in 2006 and in March and early April 2007 are becoming narrower and drier, and some such areas supported significantly fewer shorebirds between the first and second count cycles this year.
While it remains too early to predict how the shorebirds now staging and arriving within the area will fare this spring, it does appear that we are now recording significant displacement of birds from the Saemangeum reclamation area to neighbouring (and possibly other) sites. In the case of Gomso Bay, the near complete absence of Great Knot using the site in 2006 (or in earlier years) suggests that the area will likely be unable to support long-term significant concentrations of the same species in 2007 and beyond. At the Geum, frequent skirmishes between feeding Great Knot have already been observed (including pecking at legs and attempted stealing of food items), as well as foraging in among tide-line garbage (possibly on stranded shellfish). Both suggest that many Great Knot might find it very difficult to acquire the necessary weight and body condition to migrate and breed successfully, especially as it is believed that the species migrates more or less direct to breeding areas from this region in the second half of May.
Considering the region's extreme importance to waterbirds, and the obligations held by South Korea under the Ramsar Convention and under the Bilateral Migratory Bird Agreement signed by Korea and Australia, it is absolutely apparent that the sea-gates must be opened further to restore greater tidal exchange, to reduce water quality problems and to maintain the few remaining areas of healthy tidal-flats (even more so as, one year after seawall completion, there still remains no end-use for any land made by this disastrous project.)
We aim to continue our awareness-raising efforts through mailings to media (domestic and international) and interested parties; through interview (e.g. with a documentary team from MBC on 19th); and through other activities, including a symposium at Wonkwang University (Iksan) on May 4th, and an informal display at the same university between May 1st and 8th.
Note: Participants of the SSMP on dates between April 10th to April 19th included:
Geoff Styles, Tony Crocker, Andrew Patrick, Keith Metzner, Park Jong-Gil, Nial Moores, Peter de Haas, Jeong Sun-Gu, Han Sung-Ho, Han Hyun-Jin, Kim Tea-Kyun, Peter Nebel, Danny Rogers, Sarah Dawkins and Sajahan Sorder.
April 20th, 2007