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?

Dalian

A short trip to Dalian over the Spring Festival holiday was simply brilliant. I nipped over with Spike Millington and met up with Dalian-based Canadian, Tom Beeke. Tom is a top man – he met us at the airport, arranged our hotel and took us to all the best spots in the area. His enthusiasm and knowledge of the local birds made for a thoroughly enjoyable trip. Highlights included finding a Pallas’s Gull (Great Black-headed Gull) in exactly the same spot where one was found last winter, 3 wing-tagged Mongolian Gulls, good numbers of both Pallas’s and Long-tailed Rosefinch, 9 Oriental White Storks, 4 Varied Tits (stunners) and an unusual winter record of Yellow-browed Bunting.

The trip started at Jinzhou dump for gulls. There is a small landfill site here and, although on arrival the gull numbers were quite low, they steadily built throughout the day. The vast majority were Mongolian Gulls (Larus mongolicus) with c230 individuals. Also present were Vega Gulls, Heuglin’s Gull (tamyrensis?), a few Common and Black-headed Gulls plus at least one Slaty-backed (a first winter) and a probable first winter Glaucous-winged Gull. Other species on the estuary included Mallard, Spot-billed Duck, White-tailed Eagle (at least 5 individuals) and 9 Oriental White Storks. However, the highlight was finding an adult Pallas’s (Great Black-headed Gull) that flew into the estuary in the mid-afternoon. A brilliant and unmistakable bird.

Andreas Buchheim had asked me to look out for wing-tagged mongolicus and it wasn’t long before I found three – “AB56″, “AF50″ and “AF63″. The ringing data shows that two were ringed at a colony in Lake Baikal (almost 2,000km away) and the third was ringed at Khokh Nuur in Mongolia (almost 1,300km from Dalian). It’s always great to see ringed or tagged birds and find out a bit about their history. Tom will now look out for more this winter.

On the second day we decided to visit the southernmost point of the peninsula at Laotieshan (about an hour and a half from Dalian). Tom had never visited in winter, so it was a bit of an unknown quantity. We might see lots of birds or nothing at all. On the way we jammed in on a flock of Bohemian Waxwings at Lushun – Tom’s first record in the Dalian area. On arrival at Laotieshan, the habitat around the point looked brilliant for migration and Tom recalled his ‘big day’ here in October last year – thousands of raptors and huge numbers of passerines passing through with Tom the only birder! In mid-winter, as expected, it was a bit quieter but, nevertheless, we did see some good birds. A nice male Long-tailed Rosefinch was a good start and a Chinese Hill Warbler checked us out while Tom lured it in with a remarkable imitation of its call. A roving tit flock in a small wood produced Tom’s second record of Yellow-bellied Tit among the Coal and Great Tits and Siberian Accentors and Yellow-throated Buntings appeared at regular intervals. A few Naumann’s Thrushes added a splash of colour and a single Hawfinch was the first of 27 we were to see that day (including a single flock of 26). After a lunch of delicious dumplings, the afternoon started brilliantly when a trail we took just north of the peninsula produced 4 Pallas’s Rosefinches – a key target bird – and a few metres further along we enjoyed a nice male Yellow-browed Bunting – an unusual winter record. A Peregrine and a Kestrel provided the raptor interest and we encountered more Long-tailed Rosefinches, Siberian Accentors, Meadow and Yellow-throated Buntings.

Our final day was spent on Tom’s local patch at Jinshitan and we visited several sites including a reservoir, the country park, the small fishing harbour and, best of all, the golf club. The first site of the day – the reservoir – produced both Pallas’s and Long-tailed Rosefinches, a brief Goshawk, Yellow-throated, Pallas’s Reed, Meadow and Rustic Buntings plus Coal Tit, Siberian Accentor, Japanese Quail and a beautiful male Hen Harrier. The country park and the fishing harbour were both quiet but on the way to lunch we enjoyed a very cooperative Rough-legged Buzzard that we originally thought might be an Upland due to the large whitish patch on the upperwing. Post-lunch we visited the golf course and it was here, in a lovely little wooded valley, that we encountered another target bird – Varied Tit. These birds are stunners and we enjoyed very good and prolonged views of 2 of these little gems in a mixed tit flock. Wow! A Treecreeper struggled to gain our attention, even though it’s a difficult bird to see in the Beijing area, and the supporting cast here included Chinese Hill Warblers, Pallas’s and Long-tailed Rosefinches and more Siberian Accentors. Two more Varied Tits were seen briefly alongside the road (definitely different birds due to their blotchy plumage) and a walk around the more open parts of the course produced more Long-tailed Rosefinches, several of which posed nicely for photographs before we reluctantly headed off to the airport for the flight home.

Big thanks to Tom for making all the arrangements and accompanying us on a brilliant trip.

Already making plans to revisit in migration season – the peninsula at Laotieshan looks simply awesome for migrants.

Long-tailed Rosefinch (male), Jinshitan, Dalian
Long-tailed Rosefinch (female), Jinshitan, Dalian
Varied Tit, Jinshitan Golf Course, Dalian
Varied Tit, Jinshitan Golf Course, Jinshitan, Dalian - one of 4 seen at this site.
Oriental White Stork with prey, being pursued by gulls, Jinzhou dump, Dalian
Chinese Hill Warbler, Laotieshan
Siberian Accentor, Jinshitan, Dalian
Rubbish record shot of the Pallas's Gull
Birding at Jinzhou dump (oh, the glamour...)
Hmmm.....