My North Korean Bird List

Many birders, being obsessive types, like to keep lists of the birds they have seen.  This could be a “life list” (a list of the total number of species seen in one’s life), a “year list”, the total seen in a given year etc.  Many people keep national lists, for example a UK or China list.  I have to confess that I don’t know how many species I have seen in the UK (I know it’s roughly 400) and I have been lax recently at keeping my China list up to date (somewhere between 500 and 520).  However, I can proudly say that I know exactly the number of bird species I have seen in North Korea – 7!

Under the listing ‘rules’ it matters not that I haven’t actually been to North Korea as all have been seen over N Korean airspace from the China side of the border…

I have just returned from a few days in Liaoning Province with Paul Holt, Tom Beeke and Dandong-based birder Bai Qingquan – the perfect opportunity to boost my North Korea list!  We visited some sites in Dalian, southern Liaoning, before driving north to visit the area in and around Dandong, including the Yalu River, the waterway marking the border between China and North Korea.  In stunning weather, and temperatures approaching -20 at times, we saw some pretty special birds with the constant backdrop of North Korea providing a fascinating distraction.

Birding highlights from the trip north included Brown-eared Bulbul, Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker, White-backed Woodpecker, Varied Tit, Hazel Grouse, Cinereous (Black) Vulture, Alpine Accentor, Relict Gull (at Zhuanghe) and Slaty-backed Gull.  Another spectacle was the sight of 25 White-tailed Eagles at Jinzhou Bay, near Dalian, in the company of over 4,000 gulls, attracted by a landfill tip.  Birding takes us to some glamourous places.

Brown-eared Bulbul, Hushan (Tiger Mountain) Great Wall, Liaoning Province
Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker, Feng Huang Shan, north-west of Dandong, Liaoning Province
Varied Tit. A common resident at Feng Huang Shan.
Eurasian Nuthatch ssp amurensis, Feng Huang Shan, Liaoning Province

I began my visit by meeting up with Paul Holt at Dalian airport and heading to Dalian and Jinzhou Bays.  Dalian Bay, on the eastern side of the peninsula, was largely ice-free and produced an adult Glaucous Gull, Vega, Mongolian and Black-tailed Gulls, Goosander, Red-breasted Merganser, Great Crested and Little Grebes, Mallard, Falcated and Chinese Spot-billed Duck.  After an hour or so we crossed to the west coast to visit Jinzhou Bay.  Here the sea was frozen as far as the eye could see and an impressive group of around 4,000 gulls was loafing on the ice.  They were attracted by the large landfill site bordering the bay and this food source is clearly the reason why Jinzhou Bay must be one of the best gull-watching sites in northern China.

The vast majority of the gulls were Mongolian, with a sprinkling of Vega (a few hundred), Heuglin’s (up to 100), Common (20-30), Slaty-backed (3-5), Glaucous (2-3), Black-headed (2) and Black-tailed (2).  Paul Holt also saw a first winter Pallas’s Gull at this site before I arrived.  Searching through the Mongolian Gulls, recalling my sighting of 3 wing-tagged birds in February 2011 at this site, we were able to find a total of 5 wing-tagged birds during our visit (2 of which Paul and I both saw, 3 of which Paul found before I arrived and one after I left).  These birds were ringed by Andreas Buchheim and colleagues under a ringing scheme operated in Mongolia and Russia’s Lake Baikal.

The gulls were not the only scavengers attracted to the tip.  Each day we were there, a group of locals sifted through the rubbish and collected anything recyclable – bottles, cardboard, paper, metal etc..  It has to be one of the dirtiest jobs – they were black with grime – but despite the working conditions, they were a jolly bunch, laughing and joking with each other and they seemed thoroughly bemused that a couple of foreigners were joining them on the tip looking at gulls….  We showed them eagles through our telescopes and they showed us sacks of scrap paper..  :)

One of the locals collecting recyclable waste
It's a dirty job...
The constant flow of trucks provided a high turnover of rubbish through which to look for recyclables..
Despite their working conditions, these people were very jolly, friendly and more than a little bemused that two foreigners were looking at gulls!

Just north of the landfill, a still unfrozen stream flowed into the bay, attracting some duck – mostly Mallard but also some Chinese Spot-billed Duck, Ruddy and Common Shelduck.  In turn, these attracted the attention of birds of prey and we counted 25 White-tailed Eagles in the bay on Sunday morning – an impressive count for anywhere in China.  The stream also proved popular with the Common Gulls and we saw both henei and kamtschatschensis subspecies here.  I’ll follow up this post with a dedicated gull post soon.

One of the 25 White-tailed Eagles at Jinzhou Bay. The vast majority were immature birds and they caused havoc during their occasional forays over the bay.
When one eagle found something to eat, it would soon be harrassed by the others trying to steal its find.

And this Merlin flashed through, surprisingly putting up most of the gulls as it did so..

Merlin, Jinzhou Bay, Dalian.

From the landfill at Dalian, we drove north to meet with Tom Beeke at Jinshitan and set off to Dandong, a city of 2.5 million people on the North Korean border.  Here we met up with local birder (possibly the only birder in northern Liaoning!), Bai Qingquan, a great guy who was not only a talented birder but also excellent company and extremely knowledgeable about the sites in this special province.

The gang in Dandong. From left to right: Mr Zhang (our driver), Tom Beeke, Paul Holt and Bai Qingquan

We started birding along the promenade in Dandong, just a few hundred metres from North Korea which we could see clearly just across the Yalu river.  Dandong is an interesting city.  It is home to the “Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge”, one of the few crossings between the two countries and, immediately next to this is another bridge – the “Short Bridge” – that was partially destroyed by a US bombing raid during the Korean War.  The town also hosts a museum dedicated to the “War to Resist US Aggression”…  We didn’t have time to visit but next time I am in town, I fancy a look in there!

We tried several sites along the river from Dandong and to the north looking for Scaly-sided Merganser.  This rare bird is regular along this stretch of river in spring and autumn, breeding a little further north and wintering in central and southern China.  This winter had been unusually mild with no snow and Bai had seen the Mergansers in December, so we thought we’d try our luck.  Unfortunately, despite 4 pairs of eyes scanning the river, we drew a blank.  Next we visited the Hushan (Tiger Mountain) Great Wall, catching up with Brown-eared Bulbul, Alpine Accentor and enjoying panoramic views of North Korea.

North Korea, as viewed from the Great Wall, north of Dandong.

The next day was spent at Feng Huang Shan, a mountain roughly an hour north-west of Dandong.  It was a bitter -18 here but, after driving up almost to the summit, the birding was spectacular.  Almost immediately we encountered a Varied Tit, followed by a couple of White-backed Woodpeckers and then at least 3 Japanese Pygmy Woodpeckers, all within a few minutes of getting out of the car…  Superb!  We wandered up and down the track and, after hearing at least two Hazel Grouse calling, a careful 30-minute stalk was  eventually rewarded with views of a male perched on a rock on a hillside..  fantastic.

Hazel Grouse, Feng Huang Shan, Liaoning Province

On the way back south, we stopped at Zhuanghe, a port town between Dandong and Dalian, to look for Relict Gulls, a large flock of which Paul found a few days before.  We saw only a handful, probably due to the high tide, but with a little time on our hands we decided to look at the deep-water harbour for sea duck.  As we arrived, a ferry was about to leave to some of the outlying islands and, with a bit of negotiation from Qingquan, we were soon on board and sailing through an almost Antarctic-esque ice-filled sea.  It was bone-chillingly cold on deck but we were rewarded with over 60 Long-tailed Duck as well as good China species such as Pelagic Cormorant, Slaty-backed Gull and Red-breasted Merganser.

From left to right: Tom Beeke, Bai Qingquan and Paul Holt. On the ferry from Zhuanghe to outlying islands.
Our first stop.
The sea was almost Antarctica-esque..!

After returning to Zhuanghe around dusk, we headed into town to find Qingquan a taxi back to Dandong and to warm up with some hot food before heading south to Dalian.  A thoroughly enjoyable trip…

So, after all that, what are the seven species on my North Korea list?  They are, in chronological order, Saunders’ Gull (from Sep 2011), White-tailed Eagle, Mongolian Gull, Kestrel, Goldeneye, Goosander and Mallard.  Anyone beat that?

Gulling

Gulls… They say that, as a birder, you either love them or hate them. Well, I am definitely in the ‘love’ category, even though I find the large white-headed gull complex an identification challenge.

Living in Beijing, a very dry and land-locked metropolis, sightings of any gulls near to home are few and far between. So the opportunity to visit Choshi, just east of Tokyo, was too good to miss.

This port, situated on the edge of the vast Pacific Ocean, is home to hundreds of fishing boats and I saw huge catches of yellow-fin tuna, mackerel, sardines and some larger species, including what looked like swordfish. The sheer quantity of fish, and its associated waste and by-catch, means that there is plenty of food for gulls and, during winter, they are attracted here in their thousands. The most common gull by far is the Black-tailed Gull, an east Asian endemic, closely followed by Vega (a Herring Gull lookalike) and Black-headed Gulls (ssp sibiricus). Among these are reasonable numbers of Slaty-backed Gulls with a few Glaucous-winged, Glaucous, Common (ssp kamtschatschensis) and the odd Mongolian Gull (Larus cachinnans mongolicus) mixed in. During my visit I also saw a Ring-billed Gull (the first Japanese record of this American species was as recent as 2002).

Access is easy and free – I had no problem at all walking around with binoculars and a camera and the great thing for photography is that you are generally looking north from the harbour towards the water, meaning that the winter sun is mostly with you.

If you are interested in gulls, this is as close to heaven as it gets. However, Choshi is not just about gulls – many more sought after species can be seen well here. The local Black Kites (ssp lineatus or ‘Black-eared Kite’) also enjoy the bounty provided by the fishing boats and there are good numbers of Temminck’s and Pelagic Cormorants plus Black-necked and Slavonian Grebes just offshore. A single Harlequin Duck near the lighthouse at Cape Inubo was a nice addition to my visit and Dusky Thrushes were common in suitable habitat. Around Cape Inubo there were also Blue Rock Thrushes, Japanese White-eyes, Bull-headed Shrikes and a single Brown Thrush.

I will follow this general post with some detailed posts about specific species but, in the meantime, I am posting a selection of images to give you a feel for the place.

Getting there: Choshi is within easy reach from Tokyo and Narita airport and a day-trip from either is very doable. Catch any train from Narita Airport to Narita and change for the hourly local service to Choshi, which takes around 90 minutes (cost cGBP10). The staff at the airport are incredibly helpful and will point you in the right direction and give you advice on purchasing a ticket. Once at Choshi, it is a 5-10 mins walk to the north to reach the river Tome, from where you can walk east along the whole length of the harbour for 3-4 km (the whole stretch is good for gulls). Further along the coast to the south-east lies a famous lighthouse at Cap Inubo. It would probably take 2-3 hours to walk to this point from the station, so a taxi is a good option if you want to explore this area (but beware, taxis in Japan are expensive – it cost me almost GBP 20 pounds for the 10-minute journey from Choshi town centre to the lighthouse). I found only one hotel in Choshi where the staff spoke any english – the Choshi Plaza (half way from the station to the river on the right hand side) – which, at GBP50 per night, is reasonable value in Japan.

Best areas: there are boats all along the harbour wall running from just east of the Tome bridge to the sea, with three fish markets interspersed. The best area for viewing gulls depends on the activity in the harbour and which boats are offloading their catch but, about half-way along, there are a couple of good areas of sea wall parallel to the road which are good places to scan – hundreds of gulls rest here and there are good numbers all day.

A sardine boat returning to Choshi port after a night on the seas

Fishermen warming themselves around a fire at Choshi port

Yellow-fin Tuna on sale, most of which will be destined for Tokyo sushi

A fresh catch of sardines, Choshi

Adult Black-tailed Gull, Choshi, Japan

Adult Vega Gull, Choshi, Japan

Slaty-backed Gull, Choshi, Japan.

Adult Glaucous-winged Gull

First winter Glaucous Gull, Choshi, Japan. Note the dark-tipped pale bill

Black-headed Gull ssp sibiricus

Common Gull ssp kamtschatschensis

Black-eared Kites are common scavengers around the port

Dusky Thrushes are common at Choshi in suitable habitat

Pelagic Cormorants are fairly common at Choshi

Hundreds of Temminck's and Great Cormorants can be seen along the sea wall at Choshi. This one is a Great.

Black-necked Grebes are common winter visitors to Choshi