South Korea - The Hidden Winter Classic!
The Republic of Korea (South Korea) is not visited regularly by birders yet as a small country, with varied habitats and a wonderful mix of species, including large numbers of waterbirds, it offers the chance to see many rare species and regional endemics in a short space of time. In addition to several East Asian specials, many of which are globally threatened, including White-naped, Hooded & Red-crowned Cranes and the magnificent Steller’s Sea Eagle, many other species of special interest to European and North American birders are present as regular migrants, some presenting identification challenges from Pacific Loons and Slaty-backed Gulls to Dusky Thrushes, Siberian Accentors and Pallas’s Reed Buntings. This tour provides multiple chances to see and enjoy several of South Korea’s stand-out species such as Scaly-sided Merganser and Steller’s Sea Eagle, with a boat trip in order to get close-up views of several Pacific alcids and loons off the northeast coast. Although mammals are more challenging to find, species seen in recent winter tours to these sites include (Korean) Water Deer, Raccoon Dog, Eurasian River Otter and Amur Leopard Cat.
Beginning in the northeast of the country we will effectively make a full circuit of the nation and as this tour itinerary has in-built flexibility to take into account most recent bird news and weather conditions we expect to find a very high proportion of the target species. The pace of the trip gives us ample time to locate the target species and at the same time enjoy the abundance of birdlife found in South Korea, with multiple chances at all the rarest species.
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Following an overnight scheduled flight from the UK to Incheon Airport, Seoul, South Korea, we will meet our local expert, Dr Nial Moores, and drive to the national arboretum, close to the capital city of South Korea, Seoul. A stream here has become one of the best sites in the world to see Solitary Snipe and this cryptic species and will be our main target bird at this location. Birding around the lovely scattered woodland and gardens of the arboretum we will be able to see a number of South Korea’s woodland species with the regional endemic Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker highly likely as well as the beautiful Varied Tit, Daurian Redstart, Naumann’s Thrush, Yellow-throated Bunting and possibly Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker with Mandarin Duck in the streams. There will also be a number of familiar birds here with Coal Tit, Marsh Tit, Eurasian Nuthatch, Hawfinch, Great Spotted Woodpecker and Goldcrest all probable as well as our first Vinous-throated Parrotbills. A few other rarer species that we have a chance of finding here include Black Woodpecker and Pallas’s Rosefinch but this will certainly be a bird-packed start, in attractive surroundings, to our tour. After enjoying an afternoon birding in the woodland we will drive towards Cheorwon in preparation for the next day’s birding. Night in Cheorwon.
Day 2 Cheorwon
Birding around the fields and copses in this area could prove interesting for passerines with flocks of Rustic and Yellow-throated Buntings, Brambling and Oriental Greenfinch quite common, emerging to feed on spilt grains and perhaps a rarer species foraging alongside them – Black-faced, Chestnut-eared or Pine Bunting perhaps. Within these rough margins of the farmland we can also find Bull-headed Shrike, Daurian Redstart, Hawfinch and it is here that we have our first chance to find Chinese Grey Shrike and Long-tailed Rosefinch if we are lucky. At the end of the day we have a good chance to finish with views of Eurasian Eagle Owl. Night In Cheorwon.
*In winter 2015 & 2017 access was permitted but in winter 2016 it was not.
Day 3 Namhansanseong - Paldang
We will spend the morning in the hill forest of Namhansanseong Fortress, a site rich in birds and history. Our main target species in this attractive area of woodland will be the spectacular Hazel Grouse. Woodland species such as Varied Tit, Marsh Tit and Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker should be in evidence again and this is also a good place to catch up with White-backed Woodpecker and perhaps Pallas’s Rosefinch. South Korean woodland is quite rich in birds and it is likely that we will see Eastern Great Tit, Eurasian Jay, Eurasian Nuthatch, Naumann’s Thrush and Vinous-throated Parrotbill as we search for Hazel Grouse.
Having enjoyed the morning in the woodland we will make the short journey to the Han river at Paldang where we have an excellent opportunity to enjoy the spectacular Steller’s Sea Eagle, potentially the highlight of the tour. A few of these amazing raptors winter on the river here alongside larger numbers of White-tailed Sea Eagle, both species loafing on the iced river and on islets, hopefully we can get quite close to these species with a little luck. This is a good site for lots of other raptors too with Northern Goshawk, Peregrine, Eastern Buzzard, Eurasian Kestrel and Rough-legged Buzzard all frequenting the area. In the rough vegetation alongside the river there are also good birds to be seen with Siberian Accentor lurking in the undergrowth, garrulous flocks of Vinous-throated Parrotbills, Bull-headed Shrike, Rustic Bunting and possibly Meadow Bunting to be found while on the river itself there are likely to be a great variety of wildfowl including Mandarin Duck, Smew, Eastern Spotbilled Duck, Whooper Swan, Goosander and many others but it is the Steller’s Sea Eagle that we will be concentrating on before driving towards our accommodation for the Northeastern river.
Day 4 North-Eastern River - Tabaeksan
With an early start the morning will be spent along one of South Korea’s most beautiful rivers enjoying a wide range of common land birds and duck species but the main focus will be on obtaining good views of the globally endangered Scaly-sided Merganser which has been found wintering here in good numbers and for conservation reasons the name of the river is not mentioned here as part of the ongoing effort to reduce disturbance at this important site. While Scaly-sided Merganser is the prime target here should also be able to find Long-billed Plover, White-tailed Eagle, Japanese Wagtail, Pallas’s Reed Bunting, Meadow Bunting, Bull-headed Shrike and Falcated Duck here. The habitat here also gives us a fair chance of species such as Azure-winged Magpie, White-backed Woodpecker and Long-tailed Rosefinch.
In the afternoon we will drive into the mountains and up to a ridge-top wind farm set among mountainside cabbage fields. This is a regular wintering site for a large flock of Asian Rosy Finches and we have been successful in seeing this sought-after bird in both our previous tours in 2016 and 2017. Woodland here is a good place to see most of the regular species, Eastern Great Tit, Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker, Varied Tit, but it is also a likely location to see Pallas’s Rosefinch, although in some winters it can be scarce. Siberian Accentor can also be found here and in 2017 we found a South Korean rarity among the Rosy Finches; Snow Bunting!
Having found our targets we will make a drive of a few hours to our very comfortable accommodation at the small fishing town of Daejin.
Days 5 - 6 North-East Coast
We will spend these two days birding at various locations along the coast, visiting fishing harbours, bays and sandy beaches in search of a wide variety of alcids, loons and gulls. From the coast we will be able to obtain good views of many species of gulls, including Vega Gull, Slaty-backed Gull, Glaucous-winged Gull and Glaucous Gull with a good chance of finding other species within flocks of birds. Offshore we can spot sea ducks with Harlequin Duck being high on our list of targets; Red-breasted Merganser will be more common and we should also be able to find American Scoter and stejnegeri White-winged Scoter. Loons and Grebes will also be a feature of our coastal birding with Arctic and Pacific Loons all probable in large numbers as well as Red-necked and Black-necked Grebes. Pelagic and Temminck’s Cormorants are two range-restricted species that we can also find over these two days, as well as more Cinerous Vultures. Also out on the sea there are some really good birds to be found and while we should be able to spot Thick-billed Murre (Brunnich’s Guillemot), Long-billed Murrelet, Spectacled Guillemot and Ancient Murrelet from the coast, we will take a boat trip (weather permitting) to obtain the best views of these birds and a close-up encounter with Rhinoceros Auklet will be highly anticipated.
Harbours will contain large numbers of gulls, creating quite a spectacle and as well as the afore-mentioned targets there will also be numerous Common Gulls and Black-tailed Gulls as well as smaller numbers of Mongolian Gull and Black-legged Kittiwake and perhaps a rarity such as Thayer’s or American Herring Gull. These harbours are also good for sea watching an finding Blue Rockthrush.
We will also have time to check out coastal vegetation where Siberian Accentor, Pallas’s & Long-tailed Rosefinches are regular winter visitors and in really cold weather we may be able to find a national rarity, particularly on our second day in this area when we plan to visit several areas which have turned up rare birds on a regular basis in the winter. On this second day we will drive south along the coastline, getting more views of birds on the sea and checking out small river mouths and harbours. Regularly occurring birds in these areas can include exciting species such as Long-billed Plover, Steller’s Sea Eagle and Japanese Wagtail while in the open country we can spend time looking for Japanese Quail and Chinese Grey Shrike. Overnights spent at locations on NE coast.
Day 7 Busan - Nakdong Estuary
We will spend a few hours birding at various sites along the way to Busan with possibilities including Buff-bellied Pipit, White-cheeked Starling, Dusky Thrush, Red-billed Starling and Hen Harrier plus many of the commoner birds seen along the way. It may be possible to see Daurian Jackdaw among flocks of Rook along the way and on our trip in 2017 this area turned up Chinese Grosbeak.
We plan to arrive in Busan by mid-morning where we can immediately begin birding along the Nakdong Estuary. Although this site is essentially in the middle of South Korea’s second largest city there is still a wealth of birdlife to be found both as there is a broad mix of habitats from forested coastal parks to riverside parks and an estuary with islands and tidal-flats. We are likely to see the osculans subspecies of Eurasian Oystercatcher here and a few other species of shorebirds but it is Relict Gull and Saunder’s Gull that we are looking for here with both best seen as the tide is dropping and mud begins to become exposed. On both our 2016 & 2017 tours we have seen Steller’s Sea Eagle here and this is also the most reliable site in South Korea for lineatus Black Kite and Eastern Marsh Harrier.
The day will include checking forest parks for woodland species including Pale Thrush, Oriental Greenfinch, Japanese White-eye, Japanese Bush Warbler, Olive-backed Pipit and perhaps Grey Bunting which is present in most winters; some of the trickier birds we will try to find in this habitat are White’s Thrush, Red-flanked Bluetail and Light-vented Bulbul. Checking some riverside habitat could prove fruitful too for Chinese Penduline Tit, Dusky Thrush and good views of Bull-headed Shrike. Overnight Busan.
Day 8 Busan - Junam Reservoir
We will spend the morning scanning the estuary and checking out the parks for any species not seen satisfactorily such as Japanese Bush Warbler or Grey Bunting and there are sure to be Olive-backed Pipits, Rustic Buntings, Yellow-throated Buntings and possibly Yellow-bellied Tit or Light-vented Bulbul. This time can also be used for ensuring we get good views of Relict Gull and Steller’s Sea Eagle if we have not already done so.
We will also visit the nearby Junam Reservoirs; this is an area of shallow reservoirs, with small areas of rice-fields and woodland edge. If unfrozen, this area is a reliable site for small numbers of Baikal Teal and usually 3-5 Swan Goose and 1-2 Lesser White-fronted Goose, in among thousands of Taiga Bean Goose and Greater White-fronted Goose. A small flock of White-naped Crane is also regular here and can be seen feeding in the stubble fields. The lake should have large numbers of wildfowl on it with Falcated Duck, Smew, Goosander, Whooper Swan, Tundra (Bewick’s) Swan and perhaps even Baer’s Pochard.
There is some really good birding to be found in this area and it is likely that we will catch up with Grey-faced Woodpecker, White-cheeked Starling and Eurasian Hoopoe while more sightings of Dusky Thrush, Naumann’s Thrush, Brambling, Daurian Redstart, Tits, Buntings, White-tailed Eagle, Bull-headed Shrike and Woodpeckers are expected. Overnight near Suncheon.
Day 9 Suncheon Bay
This area of mudflats, pools and farmland is famous in South Korea for having the largest reedbeds in the country as well as its large flock of Hooded Cranes which we can appreciate both in flight and on the ground feeding on grain. These spectacular birds are very numerous here and by scanning the flocks we may be lucky to find Common or even Sandhill Crane among them. The reedbeds at Suncheon represent our best chance of seeing Chinese Penduline Tit and if we have not already seen them, Pallas’s Reed Bunting should be found here. Flocks of Far Eastern Skylark also frequent this area and we should be able to see this interesting species feeding in the open along with Buff-bellied Pipit.
Once again birding around the margins of the farmland and villages can be rewarding with the possibility of Dusky Thrush, Chinese Grosbeak, Azure-winged Magpie, White Wagtail, White-cheeked Starling and raptors such as Cinereous Vulture and Eastern Marsh Harrier. Other raptors that we have found here on previous trips include Rough-legged Buzzard and Upland Buzzard while a flock of Eurasian Spoonbills may hold one of the few Black-faced Spoonbills that winter in the area. The wetland areas here usually play host to a small number of Swan Geese and Lesser White-fronted Goose in winter and we will have plenty of time to look for them as well as all our other target birds in this scenic area. Later in the day we will drive to a lake in search of the large flock of Baikal Teal that spend the winter in South Korea and we hope to be able to finish the day watching an incredible spectacle as most of the world’s Population of this species become airborne, taking off from the lake. Overnight Gunsan.
Day 10 Geum Estuary.
The west coast offers a mix of wide tidal flats, and extensive rice fields for birding; we will spend the day in this area. The rice fields are favoured by some raptors, including Upland Buzzard in most winters, and used by huge flocks of eastern Rook and some Daurian Jackdaw. On the tidal flats flocks of Eurasian Curlew will be seen and we can practice our identification skills by trying to spot the few Far Eastern Curlew that may be among them. Here there is the largest concentration anywhere of Far Eastern Oystercatcher, a bird which is increasingly split as a full species, Haematopusosculans, with a total taxon population estimated at 11,000, half of which winter in this area. This is also a very good area for gulls, with a few Relicts and very good numbers of Saunders’s present giving us another chance to admire these sought-after birds. Riverside vegetation can contain flocks of wintering birds including Brambling, Long-tailed Rosefinch and Pallas’s Reed Bunting while fields often have good flocks of Rustic and Yellow-throated Buntings.
We will also search for Oriental Stork this day, although it is becoming increasingly rare and hard to find. This day also gives us a very good chance of seeing flocks of Tundra and Taiga Bean Goose and another opportunity to find Lesser White-fronted Goose while Azure-winged Magpie is also likely. Overnight Gunsan.
Day 11 Seosan - Han River
Today we will spend the morning driving through the rice-fields and reclamation lake of Seosan to search for wild Oriental Stork if we did not see them the previous day; this is another endangered species that we have a good chance of finding. This can be a very birdy area and we should be able to enjoy a wide range of species such as Hen Harrier, Dusky Thrush, Buff-bellied Pipit, Taiga & Tundra Bean Geese with another chance to find Lesser White-fronted Goose. On our previous trip we found a good selection of Buntings including Meadow, Common Reed, Black-faced, Yellow-throated, Rustic, Chestnut-eared and Little Bunting and there is also the possibility of locating a Black-faced Spoonbill among the flocks of Eurasian Spoonbills as well as seeing genuinely wild Ring-necked Pheasant. Chinese Penduline Tit can be found in the reedy areas and perhaps one of South Korea’s few wintering Dusky Warblers. For those who enjoy waders the mudflats here offer a chance for us to add to our list with Northern Lapwing, Green Sandpiper, Dunlin, Grey Plover to be found and maybe something rarer for the vigilant.
In the afternoon we will have the option of revisiting the Han river at Paldang for more views of Steller’s Sea Eagle. It is unlikely that we will have any target birds to add to our list so we will concentrate on getting good views of one of the best birds of the trip to finish with before driving to our hotel at the airport where we can reflect upon our favourite birds over dinner and a beer. Overnight Incheon Airport.
Day 12 Seoul – UK and End of Tour - 15th January
This morning we will transfer to the airport for our international flights back to the UK/Europe and conclusion of a wonderful tour.
Leaders: Nick Upton and Nial Moores
Ground Price: £3350.00 - Seoul/Seoul
Airfare: £550.00 - £750.00 (Approx) - UK/UK
Single supplement: £0.00 - Everyone will be allocated single rooms as there are no twin rooms in South Korea.
Included in cost: Accommodation in single rooms, all ground transport including boat trips (if available), all entrance fees and permits, bottled water, and services of experienced English-speaking guide.
To maximize birding time there will be picnic lunches and hot evening meals will be taken in local Korean restaurants.
Expect the weather conditions to be cold and dry in midwinter South Korea. There could perhaps be one day or more of precipitation (most of precipitation tends to be on the east coast: snow can be absent or 2-3m deep). In cold winters, minima at dawn can be as low as -30C rising to -10C in Cheorwon. In mild winters, temperatures range from -10C at night in the coldest areas to +13C in Busan and the southeast as maximum.
To see our Photo Gallery - South Korea Photo Gallery
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