New Trip: starting point, South Korea!!

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August 5th 2013
Published: August 6th 2013
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Aaaand, go! Yes, I am off on another wildlife-hunting trip. This one is a bit different to the others because the first four countries of this trip I have never been to before, which is exciting (well, five countries if you include Hong Kong airport.....and count Hong Kong as a country.....). But I’m not going to say what those countries are or where else I’m going or even how long I’ll be travelling for. This will be a thread of surprises – not least for me, because I haven’t really had a lot of time to do as much prep-work as I would have liked!! As usual I will be travelling alone, no guides, no language skills, no hope.....

I can promise some very interesting and exciting animals along the way though (or, at the very least, searchesfor those animals; finding them will be another matter entirely!!).

A little background to this trip: I got sick of working so I decided to just go travelling again. The end.

I’m at my best when I’m wandering. One of my favourite quotes is from Jack London, “The function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.”

Or, I guess, from Jack Sparrow: “Better to not know which moment may be your last....every morsel of your entire being alive to the infinite mystery of it all. And who's to say I won't live forever, hey? It's a pirates life for me. Savvy!”

Arr matey, I know it will be a good trip because I got a new passport and it has birds on the pages inside!! How’s that for foreshadowing?!

Anyway, I set off from New Zealand on the 3rd of August, flying Wellington to Auckland where I had a three hour wait, then a very bumpy flight from Auckland to Hong Kong where I had a six hour wait, and then Hong Kong to Seoul where it was the end of the next day. I stayed inside the airport at Hong Kong and met up with alocal birder, who bought me breakfast which was good because I had no Hong Kong dollars, so I'll buy him lunch when I return (I think that was his plan, to make sure I came back to Hong Kong). He also pretty much sealed me going to Japan, which I wasn't going to, by telling me about the Ryukyu giant long-tailed rat – and if there's one thing I like it's a giant rat! I passed some more time looking out the windows with my binoculars ut all I saw were a couple of white birds which I figure were reef herons, and a couple of mynahs perching on a distant pole so I don't know which species.

Now, South Korea isn't actually a destination country on this trip, more of a passing-through country. It wasn't in the original plans and was only added in because it was the easiest route to get to the first proper country, and I only have nine days here. August is also the absolute worst time to visit Korea. It is the middle of summer, usually between thirty and forty degrees with high humidity and there are few birds around. Not that many birders go to South Korea anyway! But those that do go in the winter when all the migrant waterfowl and waders and so forth are here. This time of year, not so much around.

I left the Windflower Guesthouse at 5.30am on my first morning to try and get to Dongmak lagoon early. It was already so hot that just the short walk to the subway left my t-shirt wet with sweat. Dongmak is just on the edge of Seoul, and the lagoon there has a breeding colony of black-faced spoonbills. It is easy to get to, just three train rides from where I was staying. I got there at about 8am and quickly found the lagoon. The first birds I saw were spot-billed ducks, loads of them, along with a great flock of gulls loafing around on a mud-bank in the middle. New Zealand has three species of gulls, all very easy to identify: the field guide for east Asia has nine pages of gulls! There was no way I was going to be able to identify those at the distance they were at so I was going to pretend they weren't there, but fortunately I soon found a few which were much closer, and even more fortunately they were black-tailed gulls, probably the easiest species to identify due to the bill markings. There were a few (very few) sandpiper type jobs wandering here and there but none close enough to conclusively identify for me. In the middle of the lagoon is a big ugly pile of rocks and dirt, and that is the island for the spoonbills. Sure enough there were about ten of them perched on top. Black-billed spoonbills are the rarest of all the spoonbills. They were also my main bird I wanted to see in South Korea, so that was nice and easy. And that was pretty much it for the water birds apart for lots and lots of grey herons, great white egrets and great cormorants. Like I said, not exactly the best time of year for birding in Korea!

There were a few birds in the trees between the lagoon and the road, but again only a few. Only two of them were new for me. Oriental turtle doves kept flying out of trees just ahead and disappearing. I knew they were Streptopelia and I knew the only one here should be the Oriental turtle dove but it took a while before I managed to see some perched so I could actually look at them. The other lifer was a bit more tricky because I didn't have a clue what it was! The first ones I saw I thought must be juveniles of something because of the way they looked and the noise they were making, but I kept seeing them without any “adult” birds with them, and eventually I got a long enough look at one to figure out it was actually a brown-eared bulbul! One of the more nondescript birds I must say! But it is the most northerly species of bulbul, so that probably counts for something. The only other passerines I saw were tree sparrow, great tit and common magpie (although depending on how you want to split them, those last two could also be considered lifers, as eastern tit and Chinese magpie).

After spending the morning not seeing much at Dongmak, I took another three trains from there to the COEX Aquarium, which was pure madness. I've never been in an aquarium so packed with people before and with the narrow pathways it certainly wasn't designed with huge numbers of visitors in mind which is a bit odd given the population of Seoul. My sole reason for going was to see African manatees, of which they have three, and which I saw despite the crowds. So now, with regards to sea cows, I have seen dugong at Sydney Aquarium, West Indian manatee at Singapore Zoo, and African manatee at COEX Aquarium. Just the Amazonian manatee to go, but there are none outside South America. Of course I haven’t seen any of those in the wild yet but, you know, baby steps.

It is a good Aquarium but it has some really odd exhibits inside,like the tropical (i.e. heated) bannerfish tank inside the chilled swimming tank for the Humboldt's penguins, or the entire section devoted to weird aquariums (phone-boxes, traffic lights, refrigerators, etc, turned into fish tanks), or the prairie dog enclosure designed as a martial arts studio for some inexplicable reason.

The entrance to the Aquarium is through an aquarium archway (i.e. a tank made up of two pillars and a top-tank), and the first section is a cluster of cylindrical tanks for tropical marines. At almost no point in the entire visit could I get a photo of a tank without people in front of it. There was basically a conveyor belt of visitors and it did no good to stand and wait for photo opportunities because they never came. The path led on through a section for nice tanks for Asian fish, I gather all local to Korea and surrounding countries (there was almost no English on any signs apart for the common name of the animal), through a goldfish pond area and into the “Fish's Wonderland” which was all the weird ones I mentioned earlier. In this area were also kept the prairie dogs, Prevost's squirrels and sugar gliders in similarly bizzarely-themed enclosures. And I thought Wellington Zoo's marmoset doll house was bad!

From here you pass an average glass tank for Egyptian fruit bats and on into a walk-through Amazonia forest area with lots of tanks for big fish (the regular sort of things like electric eels, arapaima, arowana, red-tailed catfish, etc), not all from South America, as well as a small glass box for a lone squirrel monkey. A bit of a surprise was an enclosure for European beavers! I've never seen beavers before and the pair here were very active (they were also being fed which probably helped). Rather unusually they shared their enclosure with various tortoises and an arowana! Small-clawed otters and a saltwater crocodile also lived here (in two other encosures!) but I skimmed past them in the crowd and moved on to the marine part of the Aquarium.

There are loads of marine tanks from really big ones for sharks and rays through to small ones. A surprise in here was southern pigfish (a NZ species). But it was the Marine Mammals part I was most interested in, because here of course were housed the African manatees. There was also another big tank here for harbour seals, which as far as I could tell could only be viewed from under the water-line. The three manatees were very very active (just been fed on lettuce) and it was cool watching them push themselves along the bottom of the tank with their front flippers, just like a human swimming along the bottom of a pool would do.

Additional photos below
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7th August 2013

ooo southern pigfish!

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