South Korea Winter Birding Tour Highlights

by nickupton

The highlights of birding in South Korea in winter; huge flocks, majestic raptors and regional specialities.

Few people consider South Korea as a birding destination, instead being drawn to nearby Japan, particularly to see some of East Asia's most exciting winter birds. However, after visiting for a holiday with my wife, I realized what a fantastic alternative South Korea is with wonderful birds like Steller's Sea Eagle, White-naped Crane, Solitary Snipe, Varied Tit, Red-crowned Crane and Oriental Stork within easy reach of Seoul, the capital city. In comparison to Japan, these birds can also be seen within a much more modest budget in South Korea.

Since 2016 I have led several winter birding tours to South Korea and each time it has been extremely rewarding with many excellent sightings of spectacular birds as well as some really amazing bird congregations, often numbering in the tens of thousands.

Check out the details of my next planned South Korea Winter Birding Tour.

See Huge Numbers of Birds in South Korea in Winter

In so many places around the world the numbers of birds are much-reduced and bird watchers often end up scratching around to see a bird here or there hiding in the undergrowth such has been the human impact on bird populations globally. While South Korea very much has its own environmental problems, it is still a country where birders can go to see massive numbers of birds in spectacular flocks. In fact, some of the most incredible bird spectacles I have ever seen anywhere in the world occur in South Korea in winter.

White-naped Cranes
White-naped Cranes
Nick Upton/Calidris Birding Tours

In several places around this country birders can enjoy large groups of cranes. Three species can be seen in big numbers; Red-crowned Crane, White-naped Crane and Hooded Crane. Standing in places where these flocks occur is a magical experience, not only for the visual spectacle that thousands of cranes create but for the sound of their calls as they constantly chatter to each other.

At Suncheon Bay, in the south of the country, there is an area where supplementary food is provided for a flock of a few thousand Hooded Cranes and standing in the middle of this area is something that sits in the memory for a long time. Hooded Cranes in the fields feeding and flying overhead, calling as they go.

White-naped Cranes
White-naped Cranes
Nick Upton/Calidris Birding Tours

However, in the north, on the border with North Korea, one of the most atmospheric spectacles of cranes can be seen. In the morning hundreds of Red-crowned Cranes and White-naped Cranes emerge from hot springs in the demilitarized zone, where they roost, to fly into the rice stubble fields where they feed. Standing on a small hill gives birders a great vista and the perfect place to experience these birds as they fly ever closer as the numbers build up. I call this phenomenon "The Flight of the Cranes". A little over-poetic perhaps but such a natural wonder deserves a special name.


Large flocks of ducks, geese and swans are a feature of winter birding in many temperate northern hemisphere countries and South Korea is no exception to that. There is a wide range of wildfowl present in big numbers on any South Korea winter birdiing tour but before providing more details just take a look at this incredible flock in the following video.

This incredible sight is regular on the Geum River, near the city of Gunsan, in winter with half a million or more Baikal Teal representing the bulk of the world population of this colourful little duck. It is amazing to see this rolling flock of birds block out the scenery behind them when they take to the air as one and the atmosphere is enhanced by the collective sound of their wings beating.

Baikal Teal breed within a forested zone of Eastern Siberia but spend the winter in parts of East Asia, including Sout Korea. The global population of Baikal Teal has fluctuated a lot over the years due to various changes in habitat and hunting pressures but currently the Baikal Teal population has reached high numbers and this is partly due to the prevention of hunting in much of its wintering range as well as the construction of a barrage on the Geum River which, although has probably been detrimental to some species, has provided a large area of safe water for these wonderful little ducks to amass.

Greater White-fronted Geese | Smew | Whooper Swans | Swan Geese
Greater White-fronted Geese | Smew | Whooper Swans | Swan Geese
Nick Upton/Calidris Birding Tours

There are plenty of other wildfowl species to see in big flocks when birding in South Korea in winter too. Greater White-fronted Geese can be found in stubble fields al over the country, sometimes in the most unlikely of places, they are so numerous. Alongside them big groups of both Tundra and Taiga Bean Geese frequently occur and it is fun to watch them as they feed, with heads bobbing up and down every now and then, like a periscope, to check for danger.

While anyone can appreciate seeing a field full of a few thousand geese, serious birders always want to look through these flocks to see if anything rarer is mixed up among them. Lesser White-fronted Goose sometimes occurs with these large groups and Swan Geese sometimes join them rather than feed on coastal mudflats where they often forage.

In many of the river estuaries along the west coast of South Korea birders can find large mixed flocks of duck species that include Eastern Spotbilled Duck, Mallard, Eurasian Wigeon, Common Shelduck, Northern Pintail and Shoveler while on inland lakes the incredible Smew can be in groups of 40-50 birds. Not quite the immense Baikal Teal flock but probably more Smew than most European birders have ever seen in one place.

On the east coast of South Korea rocky coastline can host incredible numbers of sea ducks at times. On a trip in January 2023 we counted over 4000 Red-breasted Mergansers arriving in small squadrons to a secluded bay in stormy weather; a very memorable half an hour of bird watching.

Gull Flock
Gull Flock
Nick Upton/Calidris Birding Tours

Gulls are not everyone's cup of tea but in South Korea in winter watching them is a very rewarding experience. Not only are there a lot of species but the numbers loafing around on rocks, beaches and harbours is very impressive indeed. Hundreds of birds in one place is a common thing to see, thousands is not uncommon either and sometimes there can be congregations of tens of thousands. The above photo was of part of a flock of 50000 gulls that took off when a White-tailed Eagle appeared. If you want to learn about gulls then you could not choose a better place than South Korea in winter in the company of knowledgeable guides as it is easy to see lots of them at close quarters.

Gull species that can easily be seen when birding in South Korea in winter include;

  • Slaty-backed Gull
  • Vega Gull
  • Common Gull
  • Mongolian Gull
  • Glaucous Gull
  • Black-tailed Gull
  • Black-headed Gull
  • Heuglin's Gull
  • Saunders's Gull

Of course there is always the possibility of finding something rarer when there are such big numbers and this is one of the fun things about watching gulls here.

Majestic Raptors

Steller's Sea Eagle
Steller's Sea Eagle
Steller's Sea Eagle
Nick Upton/Calidris Birding Tours

In the world of raptors it doesn't get much better than the spectacular Steller's Sea Eagle. If you have ever seen a White-tailed Eagle you will probably have thought it is massive but seen side by side, Steller's Sea Eagle is at least a head taller. This massive and strikingly-coloured bird breeds along the coast of Far Eastern Russia, which is a very difficult to access area for most birds. Steller's Sea Eagle winters along East Asian coasts, notably in Japan where it can form impressive groups but a cheaper option to see this remarkable bird is South Korea, where it winters in small numbers close to the cities of Seoul and Busan. Once seen, it is never forgotten.

Steller's Sea Eagle is one of those iconic far eastern birds that many birders think is inaccessible to them but with Paldang, on the outskirts of Seoul, being a reliable site it is actually a remarkably semi urban bird in South Korea in winter.

Cinereous Vulture
Cinereous Vulture
Cinereous Vulture
Nick Upton/Calidris Birding Tours

Another example of an impressive beast that birders can see on a winter trip to South Korea is Cinereous Vulture. Known in some parts of the world as Eurasian Black Vulture or Monk Vulture, this is a massive bird both in flight and when on the ground. This vulture is fairly common as a wintering species on South Korea and one can see them soaring when driving along the highway but in several key birding spots incredbly close-up views can often be enjoyed.

If there is an animal carcass around Cinereous Vultures will detect them and can sometimes be seen in big numbers near food. In several places around the country, local bird enthusiast groups provide meat for the Vultures and this can result in a really impressive sight. While leading one birding tour we came across 400 Cinereous Vultures loafing around near a feeding station. An incredible sight that even nearby soldiers were wary of.

On another occasion in early 2023 we were just about to leave Suncheon Bay after watching hoards of Hooded Cranes when a local bird group arrived in a small truck and dumped a pile of left overs from an abbatoir which resulted in around 40 Cinereous Vultures descending from here there and everywhere. We were able to get really close to these hulks as they tucked into lunch.

Cinereous Vultures
Cinereous Vultures
Nick Upton/Calidris Birding Tours

It is also not an uncomon experience, when winter birding here, to look up and see a Cinereous Vulute looming overhead as if ready to pounce if one should stop moving and look like a corpse. Tip: Don't look like a corpse when birding in South Korea.

Things can get very Raptorial
White-tailed Eagle | Hen Harrier | Upland Buzzard | Northern Goshawk
White-tailed Eagle | Hen Harrier | Upland Buzzard | Northern Goshawk
Nick Upton/Calidris Birding Tours

For those who like watching raptors South Korea is a good location. A number of species of raptors are quite abundant during the winter, perhaps most notably Eastern Buzzard which seems to be everywhere you look. While out watching other birds, passing Northern Goshawks and Eurasian Sparrowhwks are fairly common as they hunt for avian prey.

Perhaps surprisingly, White-tailed Eagle is also a common bird in a variety of habitats, even along beaches near habitation and suburban parks. In many parts of the world birders have to try hard to see this impressive eagle but in South Korea it is easy to see several of them every day day, no matter where you are birding.

For many European birders Hen Harrier is no longer a frequent sighting but a visit to South Korea will produce plenty of sightings. Indeed, at Hwaseong Wetlands Hen Harrier is one of the commonest large birds present. In fact this site is particularly good for raptors being a key location for Rough-legged Buzzard as well as a few Upland Buzzards. 

Add to the list Peregrine Falcon, Eurasian Kestrel, Merlin, Black Kite and the occasional Greater Spotted Eagle, Golden Eagle, Eastern Marsh Harrier or even Japanese Sparrowhawk and you can see a lot of raptors here.

Regional Specialities

Solitary Snipe
Solitary Snipe
Nick Upton/Calidris Birding Tours

Of course, when travelling to far flung places bird watchers want to see birds that are specialities of the region. Sometimes these can be rare birds which are more easily seen in one place than others or more often they are birds which have restricted global ranges. South Korea has plenty of these birds to offer and one of the most special of these, in my opinion, is Solitary Snipe, which can be seen pictured above. Like most species of Snipe this is a skulking bird that can be really difficult to see and given that its global range includes many very inaccessible places, possibly the easiest place to get a good view of one is at the National Arboretum not too far from Seoul. I have led five winter birding tours to South Korea now and every time we have had great views of this fantastic bird.

Varied Tit

Who doesn't like Varied Tit? This colourful and busy little bird is restricted to a fairly small part of East Asia and its striking colours make it one of the most anticipated species for any birder visiting South Korea at any time of the year.

Anywhere where there is a little woodland is likely to contain a Varied Tit or two, even suburban parks and gardens. The first time I went to South Korea, on a family holiday, I hoped that I might find this beautiful bird and it turned out to be very easy to see and photograph.

Despite it being common here, it is more or less only found on the Korean peninsular and the Japanese archipelago with small populations along the Chinese coast and Taiwan; a real regional speciality.

Oriental Stork

Oriental Stork is a genuine global rarity and another East Asian speciality. It is probably at its most abundant at Pohang Lake in China but several locations around South Korea are maybe easier locations to visit. Hwaseong Wetlands and Seosan along the west coast are excellent locations for finding this endangered species. 

Considerably bigger than White Stork ithis species also has a black bill and distinctive wing pattern. There have been programs to reintriduce Oriental Stork in both South Korea and Japan with these birds having rings on their legs. However, there are genuinely wild ones to be seen too.

Relict Gull

A rare bird that breeds on scattered saline lakes in North and Central Asia in many places that are hard to get to. However, in winter these birds come to the East Asian coast where they favour mud flats.

There are areas in East China where I have seen them but some of the most reliable and easiest to access wintering locations are in South Korea, particularly on the Nakhdong Estuary at Busan and aseveral spots along the west coast. However, Relict Gull is not at all common and it can be difficult to find making it all the more exciting when you do connect with them.

Japanese Wagtail

From the name Japanese Wgtail one might think that this bird is restricted to Japan. I certainly did before visiting South Korea. However, this smart wagtail is also rather common along stony rivers in South Korea.

On one visit we were birding along a river near the town of Yang Yang when a couple of Japanese Wagtails appeared close by, feeding on insects in a small meltwater muddy patch. With much of the environment frozen solid, this little patch with food meant the wagtails repeatedly returned and allowed us to wait and see them in detail.

Birds of East Asia Field Guide

There is no field guide of birds designated to the country of South Korea but "The Birds of East Asia" published by Helm covers the whole region and includes all the bird species likely to be seen when birding in South Korea.

I would recommend this book to any bird watchers visiting South Korea.


If you would like to go birding in South Korea why not join me on my next trip alongside Nial Moores of Birds Korea? On this trip you not only see all the birds I have presented in this article but you get to learn a lot about the birds and the conservation issues that affect them.

South Korea Winter Birding Tour

The groups I lead in South Korea always have a good time as well as enjoying the birds with a great atmosphere in the evening as we enjoy some local food, local drinks and good discussion about the birds we have seen and the places we visit.

Updated: 06/25/2023, nickupton
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WriterArtist on 05/30/2023

Your photos in the article are good enough to qualify South Korea for bird watching. It is true Korea as a tourist destination is known to few people whereas Japan has attracted many tourists year after year. I must say you must surely love the country if you have made many trips to it.

nickupton on 05/30/2023

Glad you enjoyed the article and photos.

Veronica on 05/29/2023

You are so right. I had never considered Korea to be a birding destination. You have opened up anew train of thought for me.

Your photos are superb. Ty.

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