This is a general information email for people who are participating, or have indicated an interest in participating, in the fieldwork in South Korea for the Saemangeum Shorebird Monitoring Project (SSMP) in 2008. This will be followed by further mails and regular postings on the Birds Korea websites (www.birdskorea.org).
The fieldwork period (through April and May) is not too far off, and planning is now well underway. If you haven't already done so please, the sooner you can let us know if you are coming, and when you are available, the better. If you cannot come yourself, but know experienced shorebird counters who may be interested, please feel free to forward this email to them.
Details on the SSMP and Korean fieldwork are provided below. But for those of you who are already familiar with the basics, here's a quick summary of the vital points:
Fieldwork will proceed throughout April and May 2008. There are four periods of spring tides in those months when we will focus our efforts on comprehensive shorebird surveys in Saemangeum, the Geum Estuary and Gomso Bay: 4-11 April, 18-25 April, 4-11 May and 21-25 May. If you can come for one or more of those periods, we would be very glad of your help. There will also be other shorebird research between those spring tide series: searches for flags and colour-bands, a Korea-wide survey (tentatively between May 2nd and May 13th), and assisting with a catching program in late April/May (the catching is being done by an independent team from the Wildlife Conservation Society to monitor birds for Avian Influenza, and lack of it!, but there is scope for other studies on top of it). As in previous surveys, there will also be some free time during neap tide series for birdwatching in other settings, including the famous passerine migration site at Eochong Island.
BACKGROUND ON THE SSMP
The Saemangeum Shorebird Monitoring Program is being carried out in partnership by Birds Korea and the Australasian Wader Studies Group. The impetus for the project was concern about the reclamation of Saemangeum, the confluence of the Mangyeung and Dongjin Estuaries on the west coast of South Korea. Until recently, this was the most important staging site for migratory shorebirds in the East-Asian Australasian Flyway, being used by perhaps as many as 400,000 shorebirds annually, including some 30% of the world population of Great Knot and internationally significant numbers of 15 other shorebird species, including the globally endangered Nordmann's Greenshank and the now Critically Endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper. We were also concerned about the Geum Estuary, immediately north of Saemangeum, now the most important shorebird site in Korea; this site is also threatened by reclamation (though less imminently than before, due in large part to the success of the SSMP).
"Reclamation" is something of a misnomer: the term refers to conversion of tidal flats (and in some cases, even subtidal flats) to land or freshwater reservoirs, typically to be used for agriculture or industrial purposes. It is a process of enormous conservation concern on the shores of the Yellow Sea, where tidal flats are naturally extensive and rich, supporting millions of shorebirds on migration. Probably over 40% of tidal flats in the Yellow Sea as a whole and 50% in South Korea have already been reclaimed; much of this reclamation has occurred in the last two decades and there is no indication of a slow-down. Saemangeum has been the largest single reclamation project so far, involving the construction of a more or less 33 km sea-wall.
The focus of SSMP fieldwork has been to record the numbers of shorebirds using Saemangeum during northwards migration, and the changes caused by the ongoing reclamation project there. These surveys have been extended to the Geum Estuary and Gomso Bay (immediately north and south of Saemangeum respectively), as proponents of the Saemangeum reclamation argued that birds displaced by the reclamation would move to these sites. In all three sites, it is necessary to conduct surveys throughout April and May to assess the number of birds passing through on migration, as different species pass through at different times.
Reports and papers on the first two years of the SSMP detailing results of the surveys can be downloaded from the Birds Korea website (www.birdskorea.org). In brief, the first season of fieldwork in April-May 2006 coincided with official closure of the Saemangeum sea-wall. Sea-wall closure resulted in highly reduced tides within Saemangeum, and a massive shell-fish die-off. We suspect that shorebirds managed to get through in 2006 by harvesting the one-off crop of dying shellfish, and that the count totals we obtained that year were representative of "normal" northward migration through the region. By 2007, tidal range within Saemangeum had declined to just a few centimetres, causing a drastic decline in shorebird numbers, most noticeably in Great Knot (the mid-May peak was 88,000 in 2006, only 3,000 in 2007). Most other species experienced smaller declines, and although the number of shorebirds in Saemangeum declined alarmingly, the site remained of international significance to a number of species, notably Spoon-billed Sandpiper. Numbers of shorebirds increased slightly at the Geum Estuary and Gomso Bay, but not sufficiently to come close to accounting for the "missing" birds from Saemangeum.
By 2007, with the declines at Saemangeum, the Geum Estuary had become Korea's most important shorebird site, with over 100,000 staging shorebirds including the world's largest known staging population of Nordmann's Greenshank. It was therefore a great relief in late May 2007 when it was announced (following a joint SSMP-RSPB publicity campaign) that the imminent reclamation of the Geum Estuary had been cancelled. Unfortunately the Geum Estuary no longer appears as secure as it did even in 2007, following the passing of two Special Laws late in the year (both aimed at increasing reclamation and development of the coastal zone), and the even more recent change in government. A new president was elected this February on the basis of his pledge to reverse the slowdown in South Korea's economy, and one of his very first missions has been to slim-down government, leading to the ongoing break-up of the most effective conservation ministry in Korea, the Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries.
Even without this reclamation threat the Geum Estuary would still be a site of very real conservation concern, as it is relatively small and abuts a large industrial city. A large oil-spill on the Taean Peninsula (c. 100 km north of the Geum Estuary in December 2007) also highlighted the vulnerability of the region, as oil washed up on beaches along the whole of the west coast, including at Yubu Island, the core shorebird site within the Geum Estuary. Ramsar listing and ongoing management are needed to secure the conservation values of the Geum.
The SSMP was designed as a three-year program, and this will probably be the last full season of field studies. One of the main reasons for the program being restricted to three years is that this will allow us to analyse and publish the results in time for the next (triennial) Ramsar Convention Conference which will be hosted by South Korea in October. This massively important conservation meeting provides a unique opportunity to emphasise the international importance of tidal flats in Korea and in the Yellow Sea. The SSMP will provide the data that all of us need in the run up to and at the meeting itself to get governments along the Flyway focused much more on the conservation of migrant waders and their habitats.
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
When should I come?
You should plan to come for at least one of the core spring tide series: 4-11 April, 18-25 April, 4-11 May and 21-25 May. We still have room for volunteers in all of these periods, but the team is nearly sufficient for the period from 5-11 May, and definitely weakest in the period from 5-11 April. May is a more popular month for participants as it is warmer, with more shorebirds and a better chance of Nordmann's Greenshank and Spoon-billed Sandpiper (both start to arrive in the last ten days of April, and Spoon-billed Sandpipers seem to be particularly late migrants). But April has charms of its own, especially if you like bracing weather: some species, such as Eastern and Eurasian Curlews, peak in April, and migrating passerines are more diverse and easy to see.
How much will it cost me?
It will cost you an airfare from wherever you happen to be based - roughly $1500 Australian, if you are coming from Australia. Within Korea, the SSMP can pay for motel accommodation, domestic travel, vehicle and boat hire. The usual procedure (negotiable in certain cases) is for participants from overseas to pay as they go, but to keep a record of their payments and to be reimbursed after the fieldwork is complete. Last year several participants voluntarily paid for their own accommodation costs, a gesture that was very much appreciated and allowed us to put more money into report preparation and publication. However, this is not compulsory: thanks to a grant from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation we have a budget to pay for accommodation of volunteers.
In general participants will be asked to pay for their own food, but this is not a major expense; you can eat well in Korea for $10-$15 per day.
Where do we stay?
The SSMP fieldwork team will be based in Iksan, a small city about four hours travel from Incheon International Airport, and about 20 minutes east of Gunsan, the Geum Estuary and Saemangeum. The motel will be clean and comfortable and will have all the usual features of motels; internet access is available on request, and there are ATMs and plenty of convenience stores (where breakfast and lunch can be bought) in easy walking distance. International credit cards can be used in many of the ATMs in Korea, and are much more convenient than travellers cheques (almost impossible to use in Korea). If you are going to use ATM's to obtain cash in Korea, you will of course need to make sure you know what your PIN is, and you should advise your bank at home first, before you leave.
We generally eat in restaurants next to the motel, or near to the Geum Estuary. In general the food will be Korean, so expect lots of rice, lots of spicy soup and a huge variety of side-dishes with your meals. It is possible to get the spice reduced and the same meals without meat (vegetarians can survive!), and we will be supplementing all of this with fresh fruit, bread and cereals at the motel, and will probably have the odd pizza night when people feel like a change.
How do we get to the study site?
The first step for overseas participants is to get to Korea, flying into Incheon International Airport (simply listed as "Seoul" by many travel agents and airlines). In general we are unable to pick overseas participants up from the airport, and their journey down to Iksan is typically made independently (often accompanied by other SSMP participants who have arrived at about the same time) by public transport. We recommend that participants hire a mobile phone at the airport as soon as they arrive ($US 3 rental per day, we can pay for domestic calls made within Korea), and then they can telephone SSMP personnel for guidance through the Korean public transport system (which is excellent). Your mobile phone will see a lot of use while you are in Korea; there is great phone reception throughout the country, and we use mobile phones a lot to coordinate fieldwork. You can get to Iksan by bus or train. If you take the bus you won't have to carry your gear quite so far; airport shuttle buses leave the airport for Iksan IC (Interchange) every hour or so with tickets available near most of the arrivals exits. If you go by train you'll see more in the way of scenery but you'll have to make your way through Seoul to find the train station.
Overseas participants arriving in the late afternoon or evening generally stay the first night in a hotel near to the airport (we can organise bookings), and make their way to Iksan after a good night's sleep. There is also reasonable birdwatching within walking distance of the airport hotels, and a great shorebird site within taxi range.
What do we need for the fieldwork?
Local volunteers can help in many ways. For those counting, however, the essentials are standard birding tackle: binoculars, tripod-mounted telescope, and notebook. A telescope is essential; many of the birds you will be counting will be distant. We may be able to lend a telescope or tripod to participants who are unable to bring one themselves, but this has caused us many logistical problems in the past and will only be done in exceptional cases.
Clothing depends on the timing of your visit. In early April you will experience cold weather (almost freezing in the mornings) and strong winds; in the later parts of May there will be sunny days when shorts and T-shirt are sufficient, and throughout the study period, there is a chance of rainy periods. Some of the study sites can be counted without getting your feet wet, but quite a few of the count sites involve walks through muddy ground or shallow water and you will find gumboots handy. These can be bought cheaply in Korea, but they aren't that easy to find, so if you can cram gumboots into your pack it is worth doing so.
If you can, it is also always best also to dress dull, with khaki, brown or green clothes the best. As a conservation organisation, Birds Korea is working to establish and maintain birding best practice, avoiding all unnecessary disturbance to the birds. Shorebirds can be shy here, and passerines always are.
If you can possibly do so, we would like you to arrive in Korea with a current international drivers licence. We get around the counting sites in cars (some hired, some purchased by the SSMP) driven by the shorebird-counting team. Cars drive on the right side of the road in Korea, and the shortage of English road signs can make it a somewhat daunting experience at first, but it's not so bad when you get used to it, especially as SSMP drivers are always supported by a navigator.
Do we need travel insurance?
Yes, this is essential. The SSMP does not cover any risks and certainly cannot cover medical costs or replacement of equipment if something goes wrong. There is no reason to anticipate any problems, and Korea is a safe country with very low crime rates, but of course it is always better to be safe than sorry. Travel insurance is easy to organise and should be possible through your travel agent.
Finally: Is the SSMP and our involvement in it really worth the effort?
Yes, absolutely! The SSMP has been the largest and most effective project of its kind to date in Korea. Through the counts, through photo exhibitions, open field days, media coverage and scientific papers, the SSMP has already helped greatly to raise awareness both within and outside Korea of the impacts of this reclamation on shorebirds, and helped strengthen Birds Korea's and AWSG's voice in the Yellow Sea significantly. As a result, the SSMP has played a major role in reducing the reclamation threat to the Geum, and has also helped stimulate several domestic shorebird monitoring programs. There is no doubt that the data gathered in 2008 will help to make an even more compelling argument for shorebird and tidal-flat conservation at the October Ramsar conference. At the personal level too, the SSMP provides a great opportunity for people from overseas to see Korea, to meet Korean people and to see some superb shorebirds (most in breeding plumage): a truly wonderful combination.
If you are unable to come to Korea yourself, you can still make a big difference by donating to the SSMP, by joining Birds Korea as an international member (easy to do through the website) or by sending emails of concern to the Korean Government through embassy channels. Ricki Coughlan's wonderful website, at www.restoresaemangeum.com, makes this a task that only takes seconds to complete.
Danny Rogers, AWSG, firstname.lastname@example.org
Nial Moores, Birds Korea, N.Moores@Birdskorea.org
Ju Yong-Ki, Birds Korea Advisor, Juykii@yahoo.co.kr
Geoff and Emily Styles, Birds Korea, email@example.com
Ken Gosbell, AWSG, firstname.lastname@example.org<