Birdwatching in the Koreas


(This 1135th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on December 23, 2012.)


The Cheonchuksa Temple in Bukhansan National Park


Like many birders University at Buffalo librarian Chris Hollister keeps lists of the species he sees. As of September this year his life list included 565 species. Having seen that many birds, it is not often that he adds new ones. But in early October he had an opportunity to do just that.


Hollister's daughter, Jessica, is studying anthropology and history at UB and this semester she accepted an invitation to study in South Korea. Her dad jumped at the chance to visit Jessica for a week while she was there. And, of course, he went with a hidden agenda: he would take the opportunity to add Asian birds to his life list.


As is true of many librarians, Hollister is well-organized so he planned for his trip. He obtained a copy of Mark Brazil's "Birds of East Asia" to use as a field guide. He contacted international birders, people who keep what are called world lists. Unfortunately none were of much help. In fact, they warned Chris that he would have serious trouble not knowing the Korean language. Beyond Korea University in Soeul where Jessica was studying he would find few Asians with whom he would be able to communicate. And no one could identify a single Korean birder who could help him. Somewhat daunted, Chris realized that he would be birdwatching on his own.


Despite these problems, however, Hollister did remarkably well. The remainder of this column is based on his notes.


Arriving at the Incheon airport exhausted from 24 hours without sleep, Chris saw his first Far Eastern species: a bit of a let-down, it was a pigeon, the same bird we see in our city parks picking up bread crumbs. But on the drive to Soeul along Yellow Sea shallows he picked up his first lifers: great white egret and gray heron.


On a brief tour along the Han River in the Soeul city center with Jessica and Professor Choon Shil Lee from Sookmyung Women's University, Chris added several more species including a Mongolian gull, very similar to our herring gull.


Refreshed by a much-needed night's sleep, he set out the next morning hiking through the city up into one of Soeul's richly forested mountain parks. "As if I didnŐt already stand out enough, using my binoculars on bustling city streets certainly brought stares." Among the common urban birds he found Eurasian tree sparrows, replacement for our ubiquitous house sparrows.


The mountaintop proved to be remarkably remote and peaceful in the middle of this vast congested city of over ten million. In these wild surroundings he found more than a dozen new species including ones with strange names like mugimaki flycatcher and vinous-throated parrotbill.


The next day Hollister visited Bukhansan National Park where he found still more new species including an elegant bunting, a bird with plumage similar to our dickcissel. This was more than a birding expedition, however. He found this "one of the most beautiful hikes of my life." Along the way he came upon the magnificant Cheonchuksa Temple.


The next day Chris reentered the academic world. He gave a talk to the Sookmyung Women's University's library school students, all of whom he found conversant in English. He notes: "Now I know what the term 'treated royally' really means."


Back to birding the following morning, this time in another of Soeul's mountain parks. More lifers including a striking red-flanked bluetail, somewhat like our bluebird. He and Jessica visited the King's Palace that afternoon.


On Hollister's final day, Chris and Jessica traveled to the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea. There they joined a strictly controlled tour: they had to sign a waiver indicating that, if they were killed, the United Nations would not be responsible. This waiver was serious: our Camp Boniface there is named for an army captain axe-murdered by North Korean soldiers in 1976 and during the tour similar soldiers constantly "pointed their guns at us." Jessica responded by pinning a peace ribbon to one of the 30-foot security fences.


An exciting tour with birding sidelights: the number of life birds added on Hollister's Asian trip, 48; his world list is now 613; and his North Korean list, seen across the border over the shoulders of those menacing guards, is six.-- Gerry Rising