A big flap over bird-watching

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A big flap over bird-watching

On the worldwide highway of birds, Korea is crossed by what scientists call the East Asian-Australian Flyway. Every winter, more than 100 species of birds migrate from Siberia and northern Manchuria to Korea. More than 100 more species fly over Korea on their way further south. Here you'll find buntings, thrushes, baikal teal ducks, red crown cranes and sinarious vultures in incredible concentrations.

There's a romance to bird-watching that draws people to rural outposts in search of an elusive flier. Sometimes, though, simply a walk around a city block is enough to make a great find.

Nial Moores, an environmentalist living in Korea, says, "I first got interested [in bird-watching] when I was 4, beginning with Hesketh Park in my hometown in England." But he adds that he wasn't really serious about it until he turned 7.

What attracted him to bird-watching so many decades ago? "It was something so bright, so colorful and so alive," Mr. Moores says. "It was an amazingly different thing. As I've grown older, looking at birds has become a way of looking at our own environment, and our relationship with that environment."

All you need to become a birder is a good pair of binoculars and a birding book, such as "A Field Guide to the Birds of Korea," by Lee Woo-shin, Koo Tae-hoe and Park Jin-young, published by the LG Evergreen Foundation, or the more comprehensive "A Field Guide to the Birds of South East Asia," written by Craig Robson, printed by New Holland Publishers. Many of the birds in Mr. Robson's guide to Southeast Asia can also be found in Korea.

Kim Hyun-tae, a bird-watcher here, has guided tourists from Japan, North America and Europe. "It's pretty easy for Japanese tourists to visit Korea, but the birds are similar," he says. "But the birds here are exotic to tourists from the West."

Guided tours are offered by the Korean Bird Protection Association (02-797-4765), the Korean Bird Association (02-992-6165) and Birding Korea (011-9303-1963).

Korea's dry areas and wetlands attract different types of birds. Wetlands are again divided into types -- floodplains and estuaries. Here are several places in Korea for bird-watching.


The DMZ -- Ignoring a no-fly zone

Habitat: Floodplain

Winters in the Demilitarized Zone are particularly good for spotting the the sinarious vulture and two species of cranes -- the red crowned and white naped cranes.

In addition to the DMZ, the neighboring areas are good for bird-watching.

Jeorwon basin, which is similar to a floodplain area, is the best place nearby to see birds. Its shallow streams and reservoir, and the area's few houses and roads, make this an attractive area for birds that frequent floodplains.


Saemangeum: Time is running out

Habitat: Floodplain

The tidal flats here extend 25 kilometers (15 miles), making them among the world's widest. Bird-watching along tidal flats can be frustrating because of the vast stretches of land. Timing and choosing locations are important, since certain areas attract the most birds, and only during high tide.

This area is being drastically altered by the government's construction of a sea wall. The area will be lost to bird-watchers in 2006 when the 33-kilometer (20-mile) seawall is erected. "The long-term implications for species such as the spoon-billed sandpiper and the great knot are extremely worrying," notes Wilton Farrelly on his bird-watching in Korea Web site. Environmentalists have tried to intervene, but haven't succeeded.

Visit Saemangeum before time runs out. While it supports a large bird population year-round, the busiest times are mid-April to mid-May, and mid-September to mid-October.


Seosan: If it's winter, there must be ducks

Habitat: Artificial Wetland

Until 20 years ago, Cheongsuman had extensive tidal flooding, allowing it to support a host of shore birds. But the government dammed the river heads, creating two reservoirs and rice fields that serve as an artificial wetland.

The fields here are mostly owned by Hyundai, which has left the area relatively undisturbed. Compared with other rice fields, there are few buildings or roads. Rare storks and blackfaced spoonbills like the area.

Seosan, Geum River and Gocheonnam support 90 percent of the world's baikal teal during the winter. These ducks used to be the most common species in east Asia. But with rampant hunting and pesticide use, the species declined to 40,000 worldwide by the 1980s. During the past decade, an increasing number have been found wintering in Korea, partly due to bans on hunting here. Bird watchers say people can see up to 300,000 baikal teal in a day.


Eocheong Island -- An avian rest stop

Habitat: Reservoirs and tidal flats

Eocheong Island is only 5 kilometers (3 miles) long and 3.3 kilometers (2 miles) wide. It's easy to traverse by foot. In addition to a small village, it boasts a lighthouse, a beach, a small reservoir and a forest. The island can be reached by boat from the city of Gunsan, South Jeolla province.

Eocheong is famous for small migrating birds, such as the grey thrush and the Himalayan swiftlet.

In February, the island is too cold for these birds. But from mid-March to mid-May, small birds migrating north from southeast Asia and southern China often stop at Eocheong Island after flying several hundred kilometers. Eocheong is one of the most westerly islands off Korea.

On rainy and cloudy days, the birds land on Eocheong to rest before moving on to the Korean mainland.

These conditions, while good for bird-watching, can also force cancellations of boat trips, so it's advisable to call ahead to make sure excursions are running.

Gagu Island nearby is another place where small birds congregate.


Upo: A museum of wildlife diversity

Habitat: Floodplain wetland

One of the most popular floodplains for bird-watching is Upo, South Gyeong-san province. This area is like a great nature museum, protecting not just birds but more than 160 species of plant life and 28 species of fishes. The marshes Mokpo, Sajipo and Jjokgibeol are nearby.

More than 60 bird species migrate here, including mallards, swans and spoonbills. As the wetlands around Korea continue to disappear, the number of birds that migrate to this 200-hectare reserve (1,000 acre) is increasing.

Upo was designated as a Ramsar site in 1998. The Korean government has pledged to maintain the population of birds and the ecological environment. The Ramsar Convention is an international conservation effort for migratory water bird habitats, signed by 120 governments. In order to qualify, an area must support 1 percent of the one of the world's bird species.

The star bird at Upo is the taiga bean goose, which feeds on the roots of water plants. Its population has declined about 90 percent worldwide over the past century. There are around 50,000 remaining in East Asia. The taiga bean goose is usually a nervous bird. But sometimes as many as 3,000 can be seen in one day at Upo. Other birds that frequent the area are white-fronted geese, spoonbills, mallards, teals and whooper swans.

Han River: Social captain likes to break the ice

Kim Jae-il sits facing the window that overlooks the Han River. He's impeccably dressed in his captain's outfit, yellow bars on the cuffs.

The sun is streaming in while his passenger ship sails out of a small port in Yeouido Island, past Bamseom, Bam Islet, where many birds congregate. This is a bird-watching cruise.

On the deck behind the captain's galley, two children are outside throwing saeukkang, or shrimp chips. Their mother watches nearby, occasionally throwing a couple chips, too.

The herring gulls are flocking, catching the snacks in midair, or gobbling them up from the river. Bird-watching is a winter treat for both the captain and his passengers.

"I like being able to tell a bird species by its shape," says Kim Ji-hey, 11. She took the boat last winter, too.

Semo Pleasure Boat runs a bird-watching tour down the Han River three times daily, at 11:30 a.m., 1:30 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. The cruise runs until Feb. 28. The deck has observation stations, free of charge.

As many as 300 people board the boat each trip to watch birds for an hour along the Han River. In February, you can see herring gulls, sea gulls and geese. In all, the Han River attracts about 35 species of migrant birds, some from as close as Incheon.

During winters, people ask about the different species of birds, which inspired Captain Kim to learn all he could.

Calling himself "the host of the Han River," he proudly began studying 11 years ago so that he could properly introduce his kingdom and its many feathered inhabitants. Now he knows them all.

"People say when the ice freezes, the boat can't go," he says. "But we move on, breaking the ice. And then the ducks, who like splashing around, happily swim in the wake of the boat."

by Joe Yong-hee
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