Korea and Feathered Friends
It was in January 1999 when I embraced the icy, cold wind of Korea for the first time, visiting the homeland of my wife. My relationship with Korea since then has been growing stronger and stronger because of Korea’s unique natural beauty.
I have been fascinated by birds since I was a little boy and I have spent all my life watching them in various places in the world. That’s why I was so excited to come to Korea, finding new birds; especially endemic far eastern species.
I started our trip at the Imjin river and headed south along the western coast. This took us to areas such as Gangwha island, Gyonggi bay, Namyang bay, Asan bay, Seosan and the Gum river estuary. From here we crossed to Haenam, Suncheon bay on the south coast.
I watched birds for a long time like I was nailed in one place. Huge numbers of waterfowl migrate to Korea for winter, to the vast areas of tidal flats and coastal lakes and rivers. The numbers of birds here are truly impressive with thousands of geese flying overhead and countless ducks including huge numbers of Baikal teal, looking like smoke from a distance when in flight. Flocks of dainty little Saunder’s Gulls and, at one southern bay, a few relict gulls. At a dried river bed several painted snipe: one of the first winter records in Korea. Azure-winged magpies perching on branches in the early morning sun is another image fixed in my memory.…. I was absorbed with watching them.
After the western coast and southern parts of Korea, I headed up to Junam and across to the Nakdong estuary then up the east coast via Guryongpo and north as far as Gangnung and Sokcho where I turned inland heading for Chunchon and then down to Daegu.
I love the eastern coast, so different from the west and south. Every fishing harbour full of gulls including Glaucous gulls trying to find food around drying squid fields along the eastern coast, various divers, grebes, auks and murrelets on the sea. I was so absorbed by the birds here that my wife was complaining that I came here only for birding. My only excuse was that this first visit to Korea was too short. I was sorry for her, who was a real beginner at that time, having to manage the hard going all day long from dawn to dusk.
Birding was an unusual hobby in Korea all those years ago. Rather than just being a foreigner, wearing binoculars and wandering around the edge of wetlands attracted passers-by even more. Some people would ask what I was up to and expressed curiosity about what they could see through a telescope. Whenever I said that I was watching birds, most looked baffled saying “What birds? Are there any birds?” But as soon as they looked through the telescope, they were amazed with what they saw, beautiful birds feeding in a mud flat.
As you know, Korea has many great areas for birding and its wetlands are of international importance for migrant shorebirds, which depend on the west coast mudflats for feeding up on their long and hard migrations, and for wintering wildfowl.
All these birds draw me back to Korea regularly. In different months and in different seasons, the Korean landscape changes its colour and mood. Even though it is beautiful scenery, the different birds in the different habitats greatly enhance the beauty for me. I hope that this unique Korean beauty will last for many generations to come because it is an important asset and will be more so in the future.
Over the last decade, I have seen birding becoming a new leisure activity in Korea. There are several bird watching organisations and web sites where I can view posted photographs of birds sighted. I am delighted to see that Korean people are beginning to appreciate and enjoy their natural environment and appreciate what beauty there is there as a contrast with the extensive industrial and infrastructural developments in recent years.
Wildlife tourism is very common in the UK. Many companies provide wildlife holidays to areas all over the world. In Asia popular destinations include India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, China, Thailand, Vietnam and Taiwan and so on. Many of these countries actively promote their wildlife attractions and eco-tourism in the UK.
I think Korea has great potential (in terms of birds and infrastructure) to be well able to compete with these countries. With more positive promotion campaigns abroad, Korea should make more practical and realistic efforts than now towards the conservation of important habitats and avian biodiversity. It will be a good example of the “green growth” which Korea is pursuing. I hope that one day I will receive eco-tourism travel brochures in the UK showing destination to Korea.
When the icy cold wind returns, I would love to stand where I was before with my child to greet the winter birds, my old friends. My daughter often pesters us to visit Korea again. I am as keen on the idea as she is and especially miss the bird-rich bays and estuaries of the coasts.
About the author
Martin Sutherland: An ecologist in his 50s and English living in the UK with his Korean wife and 10 year old daughter. He has got a passion for wildlife, especially for birds. He had been travelling all around the world as a leader of birding tours and also worked as a warden in many bird observatories and conservation centres at home and abroad. Now he works as a freelance ornithological consultant.