About seven kilometers off Jeju’s southwest coast, as the proverbial crow flies, lies Marado, South Korea’s southernmost bit of real estate. As such, it is an ideal spot to find and study migrating birds. During the spring, waves of exhausted birds coming mostly from Southeast Asia land on tiny Marado, desperate to rest before continuing their journey north to their Siberian breeding grounds.
Kim Eun Mi of the Jeju Wildlife Research Center has been conducting research since 2005 on the migratory birds that use Marado as a stopover. I’ve run into Kim or her researchers several times on Marado, while they were catching birds with large nets, then measuring and putting leg rings on the birds before releasing them. I recently caught up with Kim via email to discuss her research.
Ringing the birds is an important tool for bird researchers, as it lets them know where certain species that use Jeju as a migratory rest-stop spend their summers breeding as well where they winter down south. The research team on Marado has not only re-confirmed Jeju’s importance as a vital stepping stone for migratory birds, but it has also helped discover several extremely rare or newly-discovered birds for Korea.
The blue-winged pitta, discovered in May 2009, and the Fujian niltava, found in November 2010, are two important Korean firsts that were found by Kim’s research team on Marado. Other birds rare in a Korean context spotted by the team include the brown booby, pied weatear, rosy pipit, Japanese murrelet, Isabelline wheatear, white-throated rock thrush, and the black bittern. While some of these rarities are vagrants that lose their way or are pushed north by storms, others may be expanding their range for reasons like habitat loss and climate change. The data provided by the research teams can be important pieces of a bigger picture for bird researchers in the region.
Kim lists habitat loss as the biggest issue facing migrating birds in Korea and indeed the world. A shameful example of habitat loss can be found on the west coast of mainland Korea. The Saemangeum tidal flat, once an integral stopover point for migrating seabirds, has been “reclaimed” (destroyed) by developers. Habitat loss on a smaller but no less harmful scale is also underway on the heavily tourist-orientated Marado as increasing numbers of tourists and the facilities that service them encroach on the small areas that remain suitable for birds.
The issue of developers on Jeju tearing up natural habitat to make way for golf courses and tourist trails is a contentious one, as there needs to be a balance struck between profits and conservation. In the meantime, Kim and her small team will continue to sit amongst the dwarf pines on Marado, quietly building up critical data on Jeju’s smallest tourists.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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