Seoul Searching

Okay, not the most original title ever conceived.  But we were in Seoul, and we were searching, so the title fits.

Despite living in South Korea for nearly nine months now, Melanie and I had only been to Seoul a total of four times between the two of us.  And most of those trips were to the Incheon Airport to either go somewhere else or pick someone up.  So we decided to pick a weekend and just go.  I had made some arrangements with a friend, Birds Korea member, and fellow eBirder, Bradlee Sulentic.  Another Birds Korea member, Jason Loghry, would meet up with us.  We would spend one day at the Korea National Arboretum (국립수목원-구, 광릉수목원), and the second day would be put aside to do the more touristy things that I often neglect on my obsession-driven “holidays.”

The plan was to meet up at around 6:30am, then head over to the Arboretum and spend the day.  So of course Melanie and I missed our transfer on the subway, ended up heading northward out of the city, then finally realized our mistake and took another train heading back the way we had come.  We arrived at the pick-up at around 7am, only to discover that Seoul traffic had held up our companions, so we actually didn’t arrive at the Arboretum until almost 9am.  Which was perfect, actually, since the gates just opened moments earlier, so we had the place relatively to ourselves.

A quiet side trail at the Korea National Arboretum.  The weather's not looking too good right now...

A quiet side trail at the Korea National Arboretum.
The weather’s not looking too good right now…

That’s right around the time the rain started.  A little sprinkle at first.  Then some misting.  More sprinkles.  Then just rain.

Three hours into the birding, and we had seen only a handful of species.  Top on the list was a flock of nearly twenty hawfinches, but mostly just a lot of noisy brown-eared bulbuls and a few large-billed crows.  As Melanie was deciding to head back to the car and dry off for a bit, we got a call from Jason that he had located a Eurasian eagle-owl perched in a tree!  So off we ran into the woods to find him.  A more miserable and pathetic looking owl I have never seen.

A very wet and miserable Eurasian Eagle-owl (Bubo bubo kiautschensis)

It was at this point that we took our cue from the eagle-owl and headed to warmer and drier locales.  The Arboretum has a nice coffee shop, where you can pick up a latte and some snacks while overlooking a tranquil lake.  Despite the rain, the changing colors of the leaves gave the whole place a lovely atmosphere, and a hot caramel macchiato doesn’t hurt either.

We are not impressed with the rain.

We are not impressed with the rain.
Myself with fellow eBirder Bradlee Sulentic

Coffee shop overlooking Lake Yukrim

Coffee shop overlooking Lake Yukrim

Eventually, and by eventually I mean nearly 5 hours later, the rain stopped.  It never got sunny, but at least it wasn’t a torrential downpour anymore.  The birds seemed to like the change in weather too, because the activity really picked up in the afternoon.  While Melanie decided she had had enough of the cold, and happily read her book in the café, the three intrepid birders returned to the forest and continued the search.

Bradlee and I went to follow up on a sighting Jason had made earlier.  In a large mixed-species flock of birds, we found nearly a half dozen yellow-bellied tits feeding with Japanese tits and coal tits.  This species has been expanding its range; it was considered an endemic species to eastern China not a decade ago.  Now it’s starting to move into the Korean peninsula and northward into Mongolia and Russia.  This was easily the highlight of the trip for everyone.

Walking back towards the entrance to the Arboretum, Bradlee and I stumbled onto a Eurasian treecreeper, which was a bird I had more or less given up on finding in Korea.  It looks extremely similar to the brown creeper of North America, and it represents only the second member of family Certhiidae to grace my Life List.  Further down the trail we found a grey-capped woodpecker, another difficult bird to find in Korea.

Before calling it a day, we scoured the edge of a stream running along the border of the Arboretum.  Bradlee swore this was a perfect site to find solitary snipe, if not one of the best spots in the world.  We had been over the stream three times with nary a snipe to be seen.  Then Jason called in and said he had found one hidden in the grasses along the bank.  So we grabbed Melanie from her cozy roost in the café and made for the stream.  And just as Jason had promised, we spotted a solitary snipe foraging along the water’s edge…by itself, as its name implies.

This stream running along the edge of the Arboretum is reportedly one of the best places anywhere to see solitary snipe.  That is, if you are keen enough to spot this cryptic bird amid all the rocks and grasses.

This stream running along the edge of the Arboretum is reportedly one of the best places anywhere to see solitary snipe.  That is, if you are keen enough to spot this cryptic bird amid all the rocks and grasses.

Solitary Snipe (Gallinago solitaria japonica)

We ended the day on a high note.  I had tallied four lifers (yellow-bellied tit, grey-capped woodpecker, Eurasian treecreeper, and solitary snipe) and got some excellent views of some amazing birds.  Melanie counted two lifers (Eurasian eagle-owl and solitary snipe), and though she never was able to shake the chill from the rain, she did enjoy hanging out with some great people.

See the full eBird report for the day here.

eBird: Birding in the 21st Century

I don’t typically do this, but in keeping with the spirit of sharing opinions and information, I thought I’d write a little blurb for eBird.  eBird is an online database hosted by Cornell University and the National Audubon Society, which acts as a portal for the citizen science movement.  Established in 2002, eBird is now a global repository for bird sightings, and catalogs millions of sightings worldwide each year.  Just recently, eBird reached its 100 millionth record, and is showing no signs of slowing down as more and more birders across the globe begin to input data.

I’ve been using eBird since 2008.  A good friend of mine from Ottawa got me onto the site, and I’ve been hooked ever since.  The allure of eBird is multi-faceted: it automatically catalogs all of your sightings and organizes them into multiple formats, allowing you to keep track of how many species you’ve seen within a given county, state, country, continent, or hemisphere.  It also creates lists of bird sightings for month, year, and lifetime, so you can keep track of Year Lists without any extra work.  All that is required is logging in and inputting your sightings for the day…eBird does the rest.

But it’s more than just a useful tool for the bird-obsessed.  The data are used by scientists to track and monitor migration movements and population trends, which is especially useful in creating policies that protect or destroy critical habitats or species.

eBird began as a repository for North American sightings, but quickly expanded and now covers every country around the world.  Individual reports are reviewed at a local level by volunteers, so rare or unusual sightings are reviewed and confirmed before entering into the data stream.  The eBird database is also updated about once a year, to include new species and other taxonomic updates that are critical to our understanding of birds and their evolution.

Data entry is simple, and with the smartphone app, you can enter data right in the field.  I’m still a traditionalist and keep a notebook and pencil with me on my outings, but the online entry form couldn’t be simpler.  You can create locations by using a number of options, including finding it on Google Maps, inputting GPS coordinates, or simply choosing from a list of local “hotspots” that you may already be familiar with.


Once the location is set, add a little information concerning the time and date of your sightings, and whether you were travelling, searching over a set area, or just happened to see something from you bedroom window.  You’ll be presented with a list of common and expected species for the location you chose, and you can enter in the number of each species, add species that don’t appear on your list, and even go as far as identifying the subspecies of a bird (if you know it).  Then just hit submit.  Any unusual species, or higher-than-expected numbers, will be flagged for review.  You can also add information about gender, age, and breeding information, include photos and make comments that might be relevant to the sighting.


Besides keeping track of your totals and checklists, eBird compiles all of the sightings entered into the database onto a searchable map, which allows you to locate sightings of a given species anywhere in the world.  This is a great tool for locating rare sightings in your area, or for planning a birding trip somewhere new.  Going to Yosemite National Park and you’re interested in where the best place to find an American dipper is?  Search “American Dipper” in the Range & Point Maps section to bring up color-coded maps of every sighting reported to eBird of that species.

A detailed map showing all the American dipper sightings throughout North America.

A detailed map showing all the American dipper sightings throughout North America.

A closer look at Yosemite National Park.  More recent sightings are marked in red.

A closer look at Yosemite National Park.  More recent sightings are marked in red.

The only downside I’ve found with eBird is that it follows the Clements taxonomic profile, endorsed by the ABA (American Birding Association), and as such may not list as many species as other taxonomic profiles, such as the IOU (International Ornithologists’ Union).  This mainly affects birders outside of North America.  For example, the IOU recognizes three species of herring gull; Clements and the ABA only recognize one, and considers the three forms to be subspecies only.  This can pose a slight problem if you are an international birder, as some of your lists may not correspond to the eBird lists.  In my case, I have two species listed on my Life List that are only recognized as subspecies by eBird.

Overall, eBird is a tremendous tool, both for birders and professional scientists alike.  I’d highly recommend checking out the site on your own, and giving eBird a try.