The highlight of the winter so far comes with the apparent submission of the Han Estuary as a proposed Ramsar site late last year by the Ministry of Environment. Details of this proposed Ramsar site have yet to be confirmed or posted on the Ramsar website (www.ramsar.org) – and it must be hoped that this latest site, if listed, will be very much larger than South Korea’s last addition - a tiny 31 ha marsh on Jeju Island in October 2006. Further, we hope that such a designation will also stimulate the development of a formal management plan for the Han River and Estuary that will genuinely emphasize the conservation of the area’s rich biodiversity. Much of the lower Han River and Estuary should indeed be relatively straightforward to designate, part-lying within a strictly controlled military zone where major development is restricted, with both land and water already under strict government control. In addition, over 60 square kilometers of the Han River were already apparently designated as a Wetland Protection Zone in 2006 (under the national Wetlands Conservation Act), while 6,840 ha of tidal-flat and hinterland at Ongjinjangbong Island (outermost Han Estuary) were also designated as part of a Coastal Protection Zone in the recent Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries “Coastal Wetlands Conservation Plan.”
This positive news about the Han River comes in tandem with a long and sadly growing list of negatives: the continued reclamation of the internationally important Song Do tidal-flats in Incheon (also part of the outer Han Estuary); rapidly worsening water quality at Saemangeum; worsening condition of Upo wetland; and dozens of other destructive projects, including the proposed conversion of some of Mokpo City’s remaining tidal-flats into (yet another) new harbor.
At Upo Ramsar site, which should be enjoying the highest level of protection as a leading example of “wise use”, disturbance levels by visitors have increased markedly in the past two or three years, with now gravel-covered tracks used by hordes of day-trippers as well as a fairly steady stream of cars. In addition, there is major construction work ongoing in and around the expanding car park area, largely in preparation for Ramsar’s Tenth Conference of the Parties at neighboring Changwon City, in autumn 2008. During February at Upo, there was some further bulldozing of reeds and grasses within the Ramsar site – this time to make a wider trail, with a nice plaque and ornamental tree planted celebrating the Ramsar conference…It is no surprise that while some birds have successfully become habituated to the daily crowds, more sensitive species have become much less regular here. Of even greater potential concern/interest there are also plans by the Ministry of Construction and Transport to convert some existing areas of farmland (some of which might originally have been within the designated Ramsar site?) into a storm- or flood-water reservoir. Such a project, if conducted with due process and consideration, would likely increase habitat for waterbirds, and happily restore some of the natural function and capacity of the historical wetland area. However, the (allegedly illegal) concreting of the main dyke within the Ramsar site two years ago (despite protests by some relevant bodies); the construction of a major new pump house within the wetland, post Ramsar-designation; and the creation of new bunds here (and throughout the country), all with little or apparently no regard for conservation of either wildlife or wetland function, do not yet instill confidence that the Ministry has the know-how or the openness to construct such habitats appropriately. It is very much hoped that, especially in the lead up to the Ramsar Conference, that the Ministry will ask for and respond to expert advice on this proposed project, especially from specialized wetland consultants already known to the Ramsar Bureau, as well as from specialists operating within the national Ministry of Environment.
The month also saw, inevitably it seems, reclamation work proceeding at the internationally important Song Do tidal-flat. This urban-fringed and diminishing wetland in Incheon City still supports internationally important concentrations of the Vulnerable Saunders’s Gull Larus saundersi, and supported internationally important concentrations of the Endangered Black-faced Spoonbill Platela minor and Vulnerable Chinese Egret Egretta eulophotes (at least until 2006), and the Vulnerable Relict Gull Larus relictus as recently as 2002. Other species found in internationally important concentrations there also include more widespread species such as Common Shelduck Tadorna tadorna and Eurasian Curlew Numenius arquata orientalis. Meeting several criteria for designation as a Ramsar site, the whole area is instead being destroyed to make way for a new waterfront city, dubbed the “new Chicago”, in an economic free zone, described somewhat ridiculously and predictably as a leading example of environmentally-friendly development.
On a rather smaller scale, local birdwatchers in Mokpo, while protesting the construction of a row of high-powered halogen lamps which now illuminate a local tidal-flat supporting Eastern Oystercatcher Haematopus (ostralegus) osculans and large numbers of other shorebirds, have also discovered that this whole area is targeted for conversion into another new harbor.
The undoubted highlight in February for Birds Korea was the holding of the English Camp at Upo Ramsar site on February 24th and 25th. Initiated by the Nakdong River office of the Ministry of Environment, as part of the UNDP-GEF Korea Wetlands Biodiversity project, the Program was devised and led by 4 volunteer teachers from Birds Korea, and supported most ably by a wonderful cast of volunteers (including two more practising teachers), and the very hard-working staff of the Upo Wetlands Centre. In total 27 students attended, spending 2 full days absorbed in learning about birds, wetlands, and their conservation – birdwatching, drawing eco-maps, and happily proposing some excellent solutions to the Upo Ramsar site’s ongoing demise! It is very much hoped that similar camps will be held in the coming year, both in the Nakdong and at other river basins (i.e. the Han and the Geum).
Work for most of March (and of course through the spring!), will now again be focused on fund-raising and increasing participation in this year’s Saemangeum Shorebird Monitoring Program (April-May, 2007).
The best tides for counting the tidal-flats at Gomso Bay and the Geum Estuary will fall between April 2nd and 5th, April 15th and 20th, May 4th and 5th, and May 15th to 18th. However, we will be counting almost daily throughout the period, especially in the Saemangeum area where we expect shorebirds to be distributed very thinly over a huge area. We urgently need support of numerous kinds (counters, translators, photographers, drivers, donors and fund-raisers, count assistants, boat-drivers etc), and look forward to and depend on whatever you, our members and supporters, can contribute.
During the past few months we have continued to distribute SSMP 2006 reports; have completed papers on Saemangeum and shorebird status in Korea (for the 50th edition of the Stilt, the refereed journal of the Australasian Wader Studies Group); and we have applied formally for major funding support from a donor, whose generosity enabled us to conduct the research in 2006. We have also already received pledges totalling several million won from other private donors – though we still need to raise several million won more. All donations received by Birds Korea will of course be fully acknowledged, and will only be used for the SSMP – largely to cover costs of participants once here in Korea. If enough funds are raised, we will also try to cover the flight costs of shorebird researchers from Bangladesh and Thailand - countries where the Endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper is known to over-winter after migrating south through Saemangeum and the Yellow Sea. The 2006 SSMP enjoyed participation from 30 volunteers, with most from South Korea (of course), and others from as far away as Canada, the US, the UK, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and Australia. This year, we aim to increase participation - and awareness - even further.
Finally, fully in line with our work for raising awareness of the need for tidal-flat conservation, we aim also to send letters of concern to the honorable Mayors of Incheon and Mokpo Cities in early March, outlining the need for conservation of remaining tidal-flat areas, respectfully requesting a modification of their cities’ existing policies and plans in line with Ramsar resolution 7.21. Copies of these letters will also be posted on our websites for public comment.
February was exceptionally mild, with only the very beginning of the month a little colder than average, with a minimum of -15C in Cheorwon on 1st. Much of the month was dry, with no very heavy falls of snow or rain, and temperatures climbing to a maximum of 18C or higher in the southeast by month’s end.
Outstanding highlight of the month was a Himalayan Griffon Vulture Gyps himalayensis near Jinju, first seen (but not identified!) on February 5th, before being superbly photographed (by Jo Jung-Jang and colleagues) on 11th. Despite repeated searching, and the continued presence of over 150 Cinereous Vulture Aegypius monachus (including no less than three Mongolian-flagged birds) in the same area throughout the month, the bird was not reliably seen again. Following further assessment of the images, this will become the first national record, with the species to be added to category 1 of the Birds Korea checklist.
At the same site near Jinju, the third calendar year Steppe Eagle Aquila nipalensis remained throughout the month, being seen at least until 27th (Nial Moores and Tim Edelsten). Also very well-photographed in February was a Red-breasted Flycatcher Ficedula parva wintering in Seoul, apparently first found/identified on 6th (Jo Jeong-Sik, KWBS website) Although there are four or five previous national records (following the first on Eocheong Island on April 30, 2003), this is the first mainland record, and the first record in winter.
Other records of extreme potential significance also included a Scops Owl sp taken into care on Jeju early in the month (and identified by local birders as a possible Elegant/Ryukyu Scops Owl Otus elegans), and a putative Steppe Buzzard Buteo buteo vulpinus, at Seosan on 12th – neither taxa have apparently been definitely claimed in Korea.
Other species present in February that have been previously recorded less than ten times in Korea included an over-wintering female Plumbeous Water Redstart Rhyacornis fuliginosa at least until mid-month in southern Jeju (Birds in Jeju website); a Water Pipit Anthus spinoletta at Hadori, Jeju (Kim Eun-Mi et al.); the Snow Bunting Plectrophenax nivalis seen occasionally on Lake B, possibly until mid-month; and a Cackling Goose Branta hutchinsii which (re)appeared at Joonam Reservoir at least on 27th (Nial Moores and Tim Edelsten). In addition, there was an American Herring Gull Larus smithsonianus (age unknown) at Guryongpo on February 14th (Franck Ishoi and Klaus Malling Olsen).
Among a long list of exceptional mid-winter records, highlights included a Whimbrel Numenius phaeopus at the Geum Estuary on 4th, one or two Siberian Stonechat Saxicola maura, perhaps the first mid-winter record?, at Hadori on Jeju (both Nial Moores, Gerd Rotzoll, Norbert Krott, Horst Jolitz, Hans Mittendorf and Christian Junge); a Whiskered Tern Chlidonius hybridus still in Gunsan (being photographed at close range on 16th by Peter Nebel); a Chinese Pond Heron, perhaps the first February record, in Jeonju from at least 11th- 25th (Shim Kyu-Sik, KWBS website); and a Light-vented Bulbul on Hong Island (photographed by Park Jong-Gil on 28th).
Subspecies of note in February included two barrovianus Glaucous Gull Larus hyperboreus at Guryongpo on 9th, and several putative barabensis or (eastern) cachinnans gulls in the south-east between 8th and 10th (all Nial Moores, Gerd Rotzoll, Norbert Krott, Horst Jolitz, Hans Mittendorf and Christian Junge).
With sincere thanks, as always, for the continuing and growing support of our volunteers, donors, and members,
Birds Korea, March 3rd 2007.