Birding the China-North Korea border

After a couple of visits to Liaoning Province, I have been captivated by the birding promise, including the coastal mudflats between Dalian and Dandong and the migration potential at the southern tip of the peninsula, Laotieshan.  Last weekend I nipped across to Dalian, hired a car and went looking for shorebirds.  I was determined to make it as far as Dandong, on the North Korean border, a place that very few birders visit.  I had heard from Dalian-based Tom Beeke about the huge mudflats at the Donggang, just south of Dandong, so I knew the shorebird watching would be awesome.

The location of Dandong and Donggang on Google Earth

Sites on the coast between Dalian and Dondang.

It was great that Tom could join me for a half day and, after picking him up at Jinshitan (and seeing another old friend – see below), we spent the afternoon at the estuary north of Pikou, an excellent wader site between Dalian and Zhuange, on the way to Dandong.

"Sandy" at Jinshitan... a colourful reminder of the world volleyball championships held in Jinshitan a few years ago..

On the falling tide we set up our scopes and settled in for an excellent couple of hours watching the flocks of waders fly from their roosts to the freshly exposed mud to begin feeding.  It was quality birding with groups of Great Knot (26), Red Knot (3), Bar-tailed Godwit (161), Red-necked Stint (14), Grey (60), Pacific Golden (3) and Kentish Plovers (122), Grey-tailed Tattler (1), Terek Sandpiper (11), Marsh Sandpiper (25), Broad-billed Sandpiper (6), Greenshank (3), Far Eastern (14) and Eurasian Curlew (4), Whimbrel (5), Dunlin (63), Lesser Sand Plover (1), Saunders’ Gull (2), Caspian Tern (9) and Chinese Egret (10).

Great Knot, north of Pikou, Liaoning Province

We also checked out a few sites in between Dalian and Pikou and picked up Great and Little Egrets, Mongolian, Vega, Black-tailed and Black-headed Gulls, Temminck’s Stint, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper and many Yellow Wagtails.

I then left Tom and made my way up to Zhuanghe.  Here I enjoyed a healthy number (18) of Black-faced Spoonbills feeding on the estuary (a successful breeding season?), as well as good numbers of Far Eastern Curlews (57), Kentish Plover (160), Little Ringed Plover (1), Grey Plover (35), Spotted Redshank (6), Wood Sandpiper (2) and a single Blue Rock Thrush.

From here I drove up to Dandong and spent a whole day at the mudflats at Donggang.  These mudflats are vast….  I estimated 10,000 birds on the mud but, unfortunately, the tides were not great during my visit.. there wasn’t really a high tide, just a low tide and a lower tide (despite trawling the internet before the visit, I couldn’t find any information about tides in this area).  Hence, the waders were widely spread and, despite trudging out onto the mud with my locally bought 12 Yuan (GBP 1.20) pair of plimsoles, I was only able to scan carefully one large group of around 1,500 birds.  I was convinced that there was a juvenile Spooner out there somewhere but, if there was, I didn’t find it.

Local fishing boats near Donggang

Shellfish collectors on the estuary at low tide... tough work.

Birding the mudflats at Dongdang.. Getting muddy is a requirement here....

Despite that, there were some impressive counts…  over 500 Kentish Plover, 200 Great Knot, 100 Far Eastern Curlew, 30 Eurasian Curlew, 300 Grey Plover, 120 Red-necked Stint, 75 Bar-tailed Godwit, 60 Saunders’ Gulls, 250 Black-headed Gulls, 4 Terek Sandpiper, 600 Dunlin, 3 Broad-billed Sandpiper and 23 Greenshank.

Dunlin, near Pikou, Liaoning Province

A couple of local fishermen turned up and set up their rods on the ‘jetty’ which led me to think that the tide might be coming in… I asked them about the tide and they said that at 3pm the water would be in as far as the jetty…  Great, I thought… it was now 1.30pm so I settled in and waited for the birds to come to me, forced closer by the incoming tide… I waited…  and waited…  At 3pm the water was still a long way out (at least 500 metres) and seemed to have stopped edging closer.  Then a couple of other locals arrived and started laughing with (or at?) the fishermen…  they said that the water was not going to come anywhere near the jetty today..   By this time the tide had just about come to a standstill and my heart sank.  It was clear that the second group of locals were right and that the ‘high tide’ simply wasn’t very high that day.  I made a few final scans before leaving to check the pools inside the sea wall a little further north.

Pacific Golden Plovers

The pools were also productive with 5 Long-toed Stints, Common Snipe, 2 Ruff, 4 Temminck’s Stint and 6 Red-necked Stints along with more Far Eastern Curlew.  A nice side show included 2 Grey-faced Buzzards and 4 Pied Harriers in off the sea (defecting from North Korea!).

Saunders Gull with North Korea in the background...

Great Egret near Dandong, Liaoning Province

As dusk approached I made my way back south to spend the night in Zhuanghe.  The following morning I birded two areas 10-15kms south of Zhuanghe.  Here the high tide had pushed the birds right up to the road and I was able to sit and enjoy a fabulous few hours of birding as the tide turned and groups of birds flew in to feed on the first exposed mud.

Here I enjoyed more Great Knot, Red Knot (2 juveniles), Dunlin, Bar-tailed Godwit, Marsh Sandpiper, Greenshank (over 250), Kentish Plover, Whimbrel, Far Eastern and Eurasian Curlew, Lesser Sand Plover and Oystercatcher.

I drove on to the river estuary north of Pikou and settled in for what turned out to be another fantastic spell.  On the falling tide, shellfish collectors were digging on the furthest stretch of mud forcing the birds close to me.  I enjoyed spectacular views of many of the waders and counted 18 Broad-billed Sandpipers, 53 Red-necked Stints, 38 Oystercatchers, 31 Bar-tailed Godwits, 350+ Dunlin, 200+ Kentish Plovers, 4 Terek Sandpipers, Eurasian, Far Eastern Curlews, Whimbrel, Grey and Pacific Golden Plovers, Grey-tailed Tattler, Red Knot, Great Knot, Sanderling (my only one of the trip) and a good count of 24 Caspian Terns roosting on the spit.

Far Eastern Curlews

My final stop was at some salt pans just north of Pikou.  Here I encountered 12 Temminck’s Stints, 14 Spotted Redshank, 4 Little Ringed Plovers and 2 Long-toed Stints.

Long-toed Stint

So, no Spooner, Nordmann’s Greenshank or Asian Dowitcher but a thoroughly enjoyable trip, nonetheless..  all the more interesting given the location and the fact that hardly any birders ever visit.  I am sure if the area was covered regularly, all sorts would be found – it clearly has bags of potential and would make a fantastic local patch!

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About Terry Townshend

I am a British birder living and birding in Beijing from August 2010 until 2015. Through this blog I hope I can convey a sense of what it is like to live in this thriving, confident and contrasting city and the birdlife that can be found in its environs. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoy writing it! Terry Townshend, Beijing September 2010
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4 Responses to Birding the China-North Korea border

  1. Mark Walker says:

    Hi Terry,

    Sounds like an interesting trip and rewarding trip. Didn’t fancy dashing across the border? How long do you have left in China?

    Best Regards, Mark

    • Hi Mark,
      The border is unclear in places on the mudflats.. in some places it’s very close to the Chinese side and in others it’s on the far bank.. but no, I made sure I was on the Chinese side at all times. Was slightly worried when one of the locals picked up my camera and pointed it at an overflying Chinese fighter plane patrolling the border (!) but thankfully he didn’t know how to depress the shutter. Wouldn’t have wanted (even deleted) images of Chinese fighters on my memory card!
      Probably in Beijing until January and then almost certainly back to the UK. But there’s a small chance we can stay longer. Should know by end of October.
      Hope all is well in CPH! Cheers, Terry

  2. Very nice blog. I enjoy following this. One question: How accessible the mudflats are in terms of shorebird photography? I am planning a trip to the Yellow Sea probably next April/May.

    Best, Szimi

  3. John Holmes says:

    Fascinating place to go birding, Terry !
    Even the North Korean background in the Saunders’s Gull shot has an “other-worldly” appearance.
    Don’t let the frogmen get you !

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