Korea barriers (no. 4 in Birding in Asia series)

by Jeff Durbin

THE LANGUAGE BARRIER always has a few cracks in it. Birding in Japan with a mediocre knowledge of Japanese is not hard. It may be difficult in an abstract way (“hibari”—let's see, is that a skylark or a shrike?), but that's a small hurdle. Birding in Korea with a mediocre knowlege of Japanese is much tougher.

Among teachers in Japan, trips to Korea are popular for short vacations (from central Japan, Korea is only an hour away as the jet flies), or as the final step in getting a Japanese work visa. I was in Pusan—a port city at the southeast corner of the Korean peninsula—to get a work visa. When I discovered on my Pusan map a national monument for migratory birds at the Nakdong River delta, I had a destination that beat Pusan Tower or the cheap-shoe district.

The delta, according to the literature, hosts millions of birds in the winter, mainly ducks, swans, cormorants, and geese, though I wasn't expecting millions in late summer.

I took the subway to the edge of the city, then walked halfway across the Nakdong to an island. There I found a new-looking museum, designed to show off a five-year construction project, completed in 1987, by the Korea Water Authority: a huge gate spanning the river that can be raised and lowered in sections. Among all the technical displays was a large, ramshackle bird diorama, in which a couple of the ducks lay on their sides, and the egret either needed replacing or was a demonstration of the molting process.

While I was soaking this up, a young museum guide approached me. Between his English and my Korean we got nowhere, and he didn't speak Japanese. But by means of a scale model and just two words, “December” and “February”—extracted from his memory at great cost—he showed me the marshes and islands where the birds wintered. He then followed me around the displays, unable to help but dogged in his duties.

I don't enjoy taking the role of the English-speaker who makes little effort to learn the native language, but there I was, ready with “pong isim nee-ka” (“do you have a room?”) but not much else.

The guide, however, had an ace up his sleeve: he sat me down in the auditorium, while he went into the projection room. Movies apparently were not in the regular routine; periodically I heard the clacking of the film coming off the reel. Ten minutes later, possibly after he had learned the science of film projection from scratch, a short movie came on in English, produced by the Water Authority, about the migrating birds of the delta. The picture focus was elusive, and whenever it became too blurry the guide exclaimed something and ran back to the projection room.

But I finally learned the point of the gate (called a “barrage”), which was to block the entrance of seawater from the sea. The saltwater pushing upriver during high tides ruined irrigated cropland, and spoiled drinking water. One might argue that the sea was doing nothing more than being sea-like. And of course, the mixing of saltwater and freshwater, and the resulting richness of life, was what attracted birds in the first place.

Soon two more people appeared on the scene, and shortly after, Mr. Park, the local English expert from the Water Authority, pulled up on his bicycle. After introductions we headed straight back to the displays for a proper tour. The guide had his pointer, and now a translator, and he banged the glass in front of each bird in the diorama and described it for me. He was a happy man.

I quizzed Mr. Park about the impact of the water gate on the birds and fish (including salmon). He said, very matter-of-factly, that since the gate's installation in 1987 the bird population had dropped significantly. The fish were doing OK because (as best I could gather) the two outer sections of the barrage were opened 16 hours a day, at times when the tide was not flowing in with its load of salt.

Later, walking back toward Pusan over the barrage, I discovered a bilingual national monument marker that said bird populations were declining due to the barrage, land reclamation in the delta (presumably filling in wetlands), wastewater dumping, and insecticide use on upstream farms. Is this the most honest public marker in the world?

For the record, I had seen a gray heron, some egrets, black-tailed gulls, and a superlative guide (rare, but locally resident)—not as much biological diversity as the museum diorama, but probably normal for a barrage-August.