Days 1 & 2: Wed 12 & Thu 13 Jan – London - Seoul
We fly overnight from London to Seoul, where we meet our local guide and transfer to our hotel in preparation for the birding ahead. Overnight Hotel Niagara, Seoul. Please note, most accommodations in South Korea do not have English-language websites. we hope to provide links as soon as possible!
Days 3 & 4 Fri 14 & Sat 15 Jan – Han river, Yeoncheon and Namhansanseong
With any number of fantastic sites close to our accommodation, it is knowing where to start which will prove the biggest challenge! At the Han river, two of our prized targets, increasingly rare Scaly-breasted Merganser and quite spectacular Steller’s Sea Eagle may both may be found frequenting its upper sections. We hope for good views of these South Korean specialities, and also expect to see Whooper Swan, Falcated Duck, Chinese Spot-billed Duck, Smew, Goldeneye and Goosander.
Agricultural land around the estuary and at Yeoncheon can be very good for passerines and we may see our first cranes as we check the fields. Species in farmland and meadow habitat include Japanese Quail, Oriental Turtle Dove, Far Eastern Skylark, Bull-headed and Chinese Grey Shrike, Red-throated, Naumann’s and Dusky Thrush (with intergrades also likely), Japanese Wagtail, Vinous-throated Parrotbill, Oriental Greenfinch, Little, Rustic, Meadow, Chestnut-eared and Pallas’s Reed Bunting and perhaps Long-tailed Rosefinch. With plentiful prey, raptors are inevitably attracted to the area, with White-tailed Eagle, Rough-legged Buzzard, Goshawk, Peregrine and Merlin all possible. We also visit Namhansan Mountain, exploring the forests for Hazel Grouse, Japanese Pygmy and (scarce) White-backed Woodpecker. Other woodland birds we may encounter for the first time include Varied, Marsh and Eastern Great Tit, Eurasian Nuthatch, Eurasian Treecreeper, Daurian Redstart, Yellow-throated Bunting and Hawfinch.
Day 5: Sun 16 Jan – Cheorwon DMZ
Perhaps the best crane-watching site in East Asia, we visit the demilitarised zone between North and South Korea for one of the highlights of this tour! With five different species possible, and with the help of a local guide we access the best viewing areas to watch large flocks of White-naped and Red-Crowned Crane feeding in the fields. Common, Hooded and Sandhill Crane are regularly recorded too (with a very slim chance of Siberian Crane), and the area supports one of the largest (several hundred) winter concentrations of Cinerous Vulture.
Wildfowl also feature here, large numbers of Whooper Swan, Taiga Bean, Tundra Bean and Russian White-fronted Geese taking advantage of the abundance of winter stubble. Any unfrozen pools can provide feeding for Pintail, Gadwall, Tufted Duck, Pochard and occasional Baikal Teal and hunting raptors can include White-tailed Eagle, Eastern (Japanese) and Rough-legged Buzzard and we look for Eurasian Eagle Owl at dusk. With plans to spend the full day at Cheorwon, we can expect a good variety of eastern buntings and other passerines feeding in field margins and hedgerows too.
Day 6: Mon 17 Jan – Seoul National Arboretum
Just north of the city, situated in Gwangneung Forest, is the National Arboretum. Opened to the public in 1987, the 1,157ha site contains a diverse mix of trees and plants and is one of the healthiest forests in South Korea. On flowing streams, truly wild Mandarin Duck will be of interest to British birders though our main target will be a wader, the Arboretum having become one of the best places in the world to see Solitary Snipe! A few Green Sandpiper are often also present, and other desirable birds include Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker, Varied Tit and Chinese Grosbeak. Rare and interesting species can often be found here or at nearby parks and recent examples have included critically endangered Baer’s Pochard, Yellow-bellied Tit, Black and Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker. After a bird-filled morning, we cross the country arriving on the east coast in late-afternoon.
Days 7 & 8: Tue 18 & Wed 19 Jan – Birding on the north-east coast
The bays, harbours, fields and lagoons on the east coast can be busy with birds, and there are many key species occurring which are not found on the west. Pacific seabirds can be difficult to see well, and a boat trip gives us every chance of success. Ocean going species including Harlequin Duck, Greater Scaup, Black and (Stejneger's) White-winged Scoter, Red-throated, Black-throated and Pacific Diver, Pelagic and Temminck’s Cormorant, Red-necked and Black-necked Grebe, Rhinoceros Auklet, Brunnich’s and Spectacled Guillemot, Long-billed and Ancient Murrelet may all be seen from our boat, or in bays and harbours as we explore the coast over two days.
Large concentrations of gulls regularly gather on this coastline, with Vega, Glaucous-winged, Glaucous, Black-tailed, Slaty-backed and Kittiwake featuring. The selection of wildfowl in the fields includes swans and geese, Blue Rock Thrush may be found at harbours or in urban areas and coastal scrub is often the winter home of a Siberian Accentor, Long-tailed Rosefinch or Tree Sparrow plus various Asian buntings.
Day 9: Thu 20 Jan – Taebaek Mountains
A change of scenery as we head into the Taebek range where Taebaeksan Mountain, at 1,567 meters above sea level is the highest peak. Historically considered the father mountain of South Korea, water originating from here forms both the Nakdonggang and Hangang rivers and enriches the plains below at Yeongnam. From mountain roads, we investigate good habitat for finches and buntings with Siberian Accentor, Pallas’s Rosefinch and Asian Rosy Finch top targets, the latter having established a regular, winter flock at Taebaek. After spending most of the day in the hills, we drive south to Upo in the afternoon.
Day 10: Fri 21 Jan - Upo Wetland
The largest natural wetland in South Korea and one of its most important floodplains, Upo is perhaps one of the best known birdwatching sites in the south. It is here, that Crested Ibis was re-introduced in 2019 having suffered extinction some 40 years ago (a species best known in Korea for a famous children's song, composed under the period of colonial Japanese rule which was consequently banned by the authorities for being considered subversive!). We hope to see the newly wild birds, and during our visit to the reserve look out for Great Egret, Eurasian and Black-faced Spoonbill, Oriental Stork (a few winter annually), Whooper and Bewick’s Swan, Lesser White-fronted, Tundra Bean and Swan Goose among several thousand Taiga Bean Geese, plus waders, gulls and passerines, perhaps including Chinese Penduline Tit and Buff-bellied Pipit.
Day 11: Sat 22 Jan – Jiri Mountain and Suncheon Bay
Mount Jiri is the second tallest mountain (at 1,917m above sea level) in South Korea, and in the morning we explore the forested lower slopes within the Jirisan National Park. Established in 1967, this was the first National Park in South Korea, and the trails may give us White-backed Woodpecker, Brown Dipper, Japanese White-eye, Siberian Blue Robin, Red-flanked Bluetail, Pale Thrush, Olive-backed Pipit and more.
Later, we drive south to Suncheon Bay, an important tidal eco-system supporting the largest wintering population of Hooded Cranes in South Korea. With more than 3,000 recorded in recent winters we spend the afternoon watching the cranes feeding in the rice fields before they head off to roost en masse just as the sun sets.
Day 12: Sun 23 Jan - Geum Estuary
One of the top five birding sites in South Korea, it is at Geum that we hope to witness one of the greatest spectacles in the avian world. Half a million Baikal Teal, more than half of the global population, overwinter in the area, and the late-afternoon flight of such a number of wildfowl will be a staggering encounter never forgotten! Around 5500 Far Eastern Oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus osculans thought to be half the world population, and recently split as a distinct species, also winter here. The estuary also supports many other birds, notably waders and gulls. Far Eastern Curlew may be identified among Eurasian Curlew, and we should also see Long-billed, Kentish and Grey Plover, Eurasian Greenshank, Sanderling, Dunlin and Common Sandpiper. Relict and Saunders Gull are top targets at Geum, and we may also see Slaty-backed and Black-tailed Gull as we scan the flocks.
Day 13: Mon 24 Jan - Seosan, Cheonsu Bay
On the west coast of Chungcheong province, Cheonsu Bay is one the most attractive birdwatching sites in South Korea. Large rice and paddy fields are filled with hundreds of thousands of geese and ducks, and the area is perhaps the most reliable for critically endangered Oriental Stork. Raptors can include Black-eared Kite, Eastern Marsh and Hen Harrier, Eastern Buzzard and Peregrine and we should also see Oriental Turtle Dove, Azure-winged Magpie, White-cheeked and Red-billed Starling, Brown-cheeked Bulbul, Buff-bellied and Water Pipit on this, our last full day birding. We return to the comfortable Hotel Niagara in Seoul for our final two nights.
Day 14: Tue 25 Jan – Seoul and Changgyeonggung Palace
We return north to Seoul in the morning to explore the city and enjoy a little final birding around the parks and gardens. We will plan to visit the impressive Changgyeonggung Palace in the heart of the capital, which was built in the 15th century by King Seongjong and has been the royal palace of the Joseon Dynasty for many years.
Day 15: Wed 26 Jan – Departure
We fly from Seoul to the UK, arriving in London the same day.