A bird-watcher’s delight on the DMZ
Maybe it was watching, “Fly Away Home,” a movie about a girl who saves wild geese, that made me excited to watch a flock of birds lift off. I knew I had a long way to go before I could start marveling at natural wonders, so I didn’t even mind waking up so early on a Saturday morning to take the 7:20 bus at Dong Seoul Bus Terminal. It took about two-and-a-half hours from Seoul to get to the Goseokjeong Tourist Complex, where the bird-watching trip departs. You can apply for the trip on the second floor of the two-story Iron Triangle Memorial Hall. The trip departs four times a day ― at 7, 9 and 11 a.m. and at 2 p.m. ― but for the 7 a.m. trip, you need to make a reservation one day in advance.
Our guide, who refused to reveal her name, said that 7 a.m. trip is the best for viewing flocks of white-fronted geese flying up into the sky, because they wake up at around that time, and the 11 a.m. trip is the most likely to see a wide variety of birds. “But I can’t guarantee anything, because it all depends on birds,” she added.
On top of the bird-watching, I was also excited to enter Mintongseon, a restricted area that faces the de-militarized zone (DMZ). Restricted to people, yes, but not to migratory birds, who go wherever they please.
Entering the narrow road near Mintongseon, the guide said that the North could spy on our car’s license number and even the color of our clothes from Mount Oseong, which sits across the border. When entering the zone, an official document had to be presented to armed soldiers, making it feel both dangerous and adventurous.
We first went to Togyo reservoir, which was built in 1976 to provide water to the Cheorwon Plains, one of the biggest rice fields in Korea, in order to lure South Korean farmers to the zone. Until 1966, farmers cultivated rice with the water from Lake Pongnae, whose source is in North Korea. Then Kim Il Sung, angry that southern farmers were profiting from his water, blocked its flow into the South. The South built three reservoirs to compensate for the loss: Togyo, Dongsong and Sanmyeongho.
As soon as we got to Togyo reservoir, we saw about 20 eagles resting on the reservoir dam; in the middle of reservoir, about 100 white-front geese were huddled so close together that they looked like an island. Closer to the dam, dozens of ducks paddled about in the water.
The soldier who was guarding the reservoir said that civilians were not allowed to walk on the dam, but walking on the slope by the dam was acceptable, which is what we did. This soldier’s primary job is to keep watch over the reservoir to see whether the North is invading the South, and to restrict civilians from entering the reservoir or photographing the North’s side, so we couldn’t take a photo of the white-front geese or ducks.
We didn’t go too close to the eagles (Natural Treasure No. 243), in order not to surprise or bother them. But while waiting quietly and carefully watching the eagles through our binoculars, one spread its wings and magestically lifted into the air. Others soon followed, performing what was perhaps the ultimate natural air show. One eagle flew toward me, and seen through the binoculars, it was like an arrow speeding toward me.
“Don’t worry, it won’t attack,” the guide said. She added that the eagles that come to Cheorwon are young, about two years old, and their lofty status as the strongest of birds doesn’t apply here. “They don’t even fight back when the crows attack, and sometimes, when it’s very cold, they’ll live in chicken coops next to the chickens.” One wonders what the chickens have to say about that.
Kim Su-ho, the head of the Korean Association for Bird Protection in Cheorwon, said that about 900 eagles came from Mongolia around mid-October. “As strong, healthy eagles take all the prey, the weak and young eagles fly down to Korea looking for food.” The government and civic groups provide about 10 tons of meat to the eagles until they go back to Mongolia, usually in April, Mr. Kim added.
We then headed to Dongsong reservoir, a hangout for cranes. On the way to the reservoir, regular cranes (Natural Treasure 202), and white-naped cranes (Natural Treasure No. 203), strutted about in the rice fields, some plucking at the rice. If you’re luckier than I was, you’ll see other birds as well, including white-tailed sea eagles and golden eagles.
“There’s a saying that you’ll live 10 more years if you see a crane,” the guide said. Cranes are a symbol of longevity in Korea, where people used to believe that the birds lived for 1,000 years. They’re also a symbol of conjugal harmony. Well, I saw at least 50 cranes, including white-naped ones, so I’ll see you around in the year 2505.
A crane’s second and third flight feathers are black, so when they furl their wings, it looks like their tail is black. Usually two or four cranes are together, as either a couple or a small family unit. Cranes lay two eggs at a time, usually in June. When the chicks hatch, their necks, second and third feathers are brown rather than black. More than 600 cranes come down from Siberia in late October and go back in late February.
White-naped cranes have blue-gray bodies, white heads and necks, and are reddish around the brows and eyes. About 1,500 to 2,000 white-naped cranes migrate from Russia, China and Mongolia, between late September to late February. Most of the birds simply stop by in Korea before flying on to Japan, according to Mr. Kim. He said that about 25 tons to 30 tons of grains are used to feed the birds that visit Mintongseon.
They may be thrilling to look at, but some are concerned that the migratory birds are also bringing the avian influenza virus (better known as “bird flu”) with them, as some are from Mongolia, Russia and China, where cases of bird flu have been reported. No case has yet been found in Korea, but the National Veterinary Research and Quarantine Service has been studying the excrement of migratory birds in Mintongseon since last month.
Kwon Jun-hun, an official from the Avian Disease Division of the service, said that the testing did not discover any traces of the flu. “As the bird excrement could contain the avian influenza virus, people will not catch the virus as long as they don’t touch the excrement,” Mr. Kwon said. “After the bird-watching trip, people should sterilize their shoes.”
The bird-watching trip also includes a visit to the Iron Triangle Observatory, where one can peer into North Korea, catching glimpses of such landmarks as the Pyonggang Heights, the Kim Il Sung Heights and Bloody Ridge. On the way to the observatory, we could also see Sapseul Peak, also known as “Ice-cream Upland” because its collapsing shape makes it look like melting ice cream, and Baengma Heights, which was captured 24 times over 10 days during the Korean War. In front of the observatory is the Woljeong-ri train station, the last stop on the Gyeongwon Railway. The station now houses the remains of a train mangled by bombing during the Korean War.
It’s no wonder that many novelists use migratory birds as metaphors in works about the sadness and helplessness of national division. People love to watch birds because they have no ideology, no boundary. There is no razor wire that can divide a crane family.
Where else can a person enjoy birdwatching in Korea besides Cheorwon, Gangwon province?
Han River, Seoul
The best place for bird-watching in Seoul is equipped with six telescopes and five binoculars and is just a three-minute walk from the Yoido Full Gospel Church, western Seoul, and a 15-minute walk from Yeouinaru station, subway line No. 5, exit 2. From the bank of the river, one can see as many as 40 kinds of migratory birds, including great cormorants, pintails and wild ducks, on Bam island throughout February from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
For more information, call (02) 3780-0789 or (02) 3780- 0561.
At the island by the estuary of the Nakdong River near Busan, visitors can see wild geese, white-naped cranes, blackfaced spoonbills, storks, mallards, sheldrakes and pintails until early March. The bird-watching is best done across from the Eulsuk Island Rest Stop, located beside National Road No. 2, which connects Busan and Jinhae.
To get to the rest stop from downtown Busan, take subway line No. 1 and get off at Hadan station, exit 1. it’s a 20-minute walk from the exit. For more information, call (051) 220-4062.
Hwajin-po and Cheongcho
At Hwajin-po lagoon and Lake Cheogcho, both in eastern Gangwon province, one can see seagulls (herring and black-tailed gulls), black swans, whooper swans and ducks until early March, although no tours are available ― just go and enjoy.
From Seoul, take Yeongdong Expressway and change on the Donghae Expressway to head for Gangneung. Take National Road No. 7 at Yangyang and head for Sokcho for Lake Cheongcho and for Goseong for Hwajin-po. For more information, call the Goseong-gun Office of Culture and Tourism at (033) 680-3351.
At this bay in Seosan, South Chungcheong province, you can see wild geese, mallards, white cheek scoters, spectacled teals (95 percent of the world’s surviving spectacled teals visit here), little grebes, avocets, hooded cranes and storks until early March. The Seosan branch of the Korean Federation for Environmental Movement runs a program on migratory birds that offers a bus tour to Lake Banwol on weekends. The trip departs at 11 a.m. and at 1 and 3 p.m., and costs 5,000 won ($5) per person.
From Seoul, take Seohaean Expressway and exit at Hongseong to take Provincial Road No. 96 heading for Seosan A district tide embankment. For more information, call the program department at (041) 669-7744 or the federation at (041) 667-3010.
Reporting by Cho Jae-eun
1. Have patience ― birds are very sensitive and will flee even from small sounds. Remember that the closer you are, the more threatening you appear.
2. Bring the right gear. It’s best to have binoculars with seven-to-nine-times magnification. For birds out at sea, a telescope of 20- to 25-times magnification might be best.
3. Don’t wear red or white clothing. Pick colors that blend well into the environment. Don’t wear perfume or cologne, or any cosmetic with a strong fragrance.
4. Dress for the cold. Wear a warm hat, earplugs, scarf, jumper, a pair of gloves and waterproof shoes.
5. Take a pictorial book of birds to know more about birds you’re watching.
Source: Cheorwon County Tourism Division
by Park Sung-ha
To get to Goseokjeong, take a bus from Dong Seoul Bus Terminal in Guui-dong, eastern Seoul, to Sincheorwon. From there, take a cab to Goseokjeong for about 7,000 won ($7). At Goseokjeong, the entrance fee costs 1,500 won for adults, 1,200 won for students and 800 won for children. Apply for the bird-watching trip on the second floor of the Iron Triangle Memorial Hall, at least 10 minutes before the trip starts. The trip costs 7,000 won for adults, 5,000 for students and 4,000 won for children. For more information, call (033) 450-5558.
The Cheorwon County Government will hold its Durumi (crane) Festival from Dec. 31 to Jan. 8. The festival includes bird watching trips, sledding, skating and treks on the Hantan river. Most of the services will be free, but you still need to pay for the bird-watching trip and rental fees for snow sleds and ice skates. During the festival, there will be no entrance fee. For more information, call (033) 450-5365.