Saving the Spoon Billed Sandpiper

Saving one of the world's rarest birds from extinction

Where have the tracked spoonies spent the last few months?

The last time you heard from us about the birds that are being satellite tracked was on the 17 November last year. Why no news since? There simply hasn’t been much to report. But no news is good news. The birds have all spent the non-breeding season at the sites they were last reported at: CT (green star on the map) at Zhao’an on the coast of Fujian province near the Guangdong border, in China; HU (blue star) at a site near Xitou in Guangdong province, also in China; and ET (yellow star) in the Gulf of Mottama in Myanmar, about 1,500 km further west than HU and over 2,000 km further west than CT.   All the tags are still functioning and it has been fascinating ‘watching’ the birds winter. In early January, we prepared a poster summarising the tagging efforts so far which was presented at the Arctic Migratory Birds Initiative (AMBI) East Asian-Australasian Flyway workshop in Singapore (8-10 Jan 2017). Here’s a copy of the poster: SBS tracking poster (right click and ‘Save target as’ to download).                           We’re now eagerly awaiting the first move east or north showing a bird beginning its journey to a breeding site. Stay tuned!

Final episode of ‘China: Between Clouds and Dreams’ tonight at 7pm on Channel 4

The final episode of the stunning documentary series ‘China: Between Clouds and Dreams’ airs tonight at 7pm on Channel 4 in the UK. Don’t miss it! This episode, called ‘For a Better Future’, sees little Gama studying at the largest Tibetan Monastery in China. Filmed for the very first time, Wumingsi is a breathtakingly beautiful city of bright red wooden houses, home to 20,000 monks and nuns. Little Gama befriends Zhou Jia, a hugely charismatic monk dedicated to saving Snow Leopards. Through little Gama’s eyes, we witness Sky burial and the tragic widespread poisoning of tiny Pika, the key animal of the grassland. In central China, Reporter Xu leads his band of volunteers in the fight against ‘electro fishing’, the mass killing of fish with electricity. His story climaxes with an unprecedented attack upon him by the People’s Daily. Beleaguered and alone, he faces humiliation. And from Beijing comes news of the results of the National Competition. Do the Four Musketeers have a chance? And what of China’s future? Is there hope for the next generation? If you miss it, you can watch again here (in the UK only): To join the conversation on Twitter and Facebook, follow the hashtags #ChinaDreams and #SaveSpoonie. In conjunction with the series, BirdLife International are raising money to help us continue our work to save the spoon-billed sandpiper: Please help us spread the word! Episode 5 synopsis from the filmmaker, Phil Agland (River Films) In this final episode we reach the climax of our environmental journey, Little Gama has arrived at Wumingsi, the largest Tibetan Monastery in China. A breathtakingly beautiful town of 20,000 bright red houses strewn across the hills and filmed here for the first time. He befriends Zou Jia, a Tibetan monk who has dedicated his life to saving the Snow Leopard. Zhou Jia regularly sleeps out in the snow at minus 30 degrees to track this ‘ghost of the mountains’, persuading nomadic farmers to join him in his quest. This loveable monk introduces Gama to the ecology and natural history of this magnificent grassland, witnessing hundreds of Himalayan Vultures at sky burials and encountering first hand the reasons why the Plateau is so vulnerable. Tiny Pika, the keystone animal essential to the survival of many plants and animals, is being poisoned through a government programme. On the coast, the Four Musketeers are taking their fight to save Spoonie all the way to the President of China. The plight of this little bird is increasingly urgent and little progress is being made. In central China, investigative Reporter Xu is leading his band of volunteers in a dangerous fight against the sinister use of electricity to poison fish on a huge scale. Vested interests and unseen gangs provide dangerous opposition. There is a traitor at work in the ranks of the volunteers. They must swear a blood oath to avoid losing their fight to save both their lake and the Finless Porpoise. The battle ahead will be dangerous! Back at Gama’s home on the other side of the high plateau, his parents are preparing their adorable daughter, Qulamu for a life at boarding school far away from home. It’s the human tragedy of this place, where so many families are being separated from their children having to go to school away from the Plateau. Through the story of Gama and his charismatic family we get ever closer to the sad dilemma of Tibetans. In the climax of our journey, we experience the crisis facing Reporter Xu. Attacked by an article in China’s leading newspaper entitled ‘the dark arts of environmentalism’, Xu finds himself under attack from all sides. Threatened with the loss of his beloved Porpoise Foundation, his job and his family, he faces national humiliation. Has his battle been worth it? From Beijing comes news of the result of the Environmentalists’ Competition. Schools across China have entered. Do the Four Musketeers and their animation video stand a chance of winning? What does the future hold for them? And for their beloved Spoonie? As all the strands of our story are finally pulled together, we return to the source of the Yangtze in the snowy mountains of the Tibetan Plateau, where this mighty river starts its eternal journey to the sea. What kind of future lies ahead for China, and for the children we have met on our journey?

Silent Spring: Episode 4 of ‘China: Between Clouds and Dreams’ tonight at 7pm on Channel 4

Episode 4, ‘Silent Spring’, of the documentary series that is telling the story of the current environmental struggles in China featuring the spoon-billed sandpiper is on the UK’s Channel 4 tonight (Saturday 26 November) at 7pm. The fourth episode in this series of five stunningly beautiful films delves deeper into the unseen consequences of pesticides. In Central China the dangerous impact of insecticides percolating through the soils and waters becomes ever more apparent as mothers seek safer food for their children, with tragic results as we encounter the story of little Wu, a 12 year old girl suffering from bone marrow disease. Novice monk Gama finally makes it across the Plateau to the largest Tibetan monastery in the world, and the Four Musketeers involve schools across Asia in their increasingly ambitious quest to save Spoonie. If you miss it, you can watch again here (in the UK only): To join the conversation on Twitter and Facebook, follow the hashtags #ChinaDreams and #SaveSpoonie. In conjunction with the series, BirdLife International are raising money to help us continue our work to save the spoon-billed sandpiper: Please help us spread the word! Episode 4 synopsis from the filmmaker, Phil Agland (River Films) In episode 4, China is facing a ‘silent spring’ where nature is fast disappearing. The breakdown of the ecological links in the chain of life are beginning to reveal the true cost of economic ambition. A poisoned land where parents are starting to understand the unseen threat to their children’s lives. Where mothers are banding together to seek safer food, ever further from their homes. High above, on the Tibetan Plateau, Living Buddha is taking Little Gama across the Roof of the World to the largest Monastery on Earth, to continue his education. Along the way, they will meet nomadic farmers who guard endangered Cranes and Tibetan Buntings. Their teasing, often funny relationship brings an enchanting humanity to this magnificent place. In central China sparks fly as reporter Xu brings the villagers to meet the Mayor to try to soothe passions and find an answer to the dangerous spike in cancer cases. Accusations of corruption and a contempt for their safety fly. Ms Wu hires a lawyer to take the factory to court. On the coast, the Four Musketeers are contacting children across Asia to to help create their animated cartoon to save Spoonie. Is there no limit to their ingenuity? Schoolchildren across China are being swept up in the enthusiasm for this national nature competition. We are to meet the adorable ‘Snoopy’, a 12 year old girl who has taken a lonely little boy under her wing; his mother has long deserted him. Together they are to make a film about the mystery of the honeybees dying in Granny’s garden – a mystery that leads to find clues to the cause of the catastrophic crisis facing bees worldwide. Living Buddha is to leave little Gama behind to travel down into central China where our theme of pesticides continues. We are to meet the band of mothers who seek uncontaminated food for their children, and the tragic, haunting case of little Miss Wu, a 12 year old dying of Bone Marrow disease – her family facing bankruptcy in their desperate race against time to find a cure. Our interweaving stories continue to reveal ever deeper layers of life in modern China, getting closer to the human heartbeat of this great land.

From Death Comes Life: Episode 3 of ‘China: Between Clouds and Dreams’ Saturday at 7pm on Channel 4

Episode 3, ‘From Death Comes Life’, of the documentary series that is telling the story of the current environmental struggles in China featuring the spoon-billed sandpiper is on  the UK’s Channel 4 tomorrow night, at 7pm on Saturday 19 November. The third episode in this series of five stunningly beautiful films continues the stories of Chinese school children, mothers and journalists investigating the effects of climate change across this vast country. On the Tibetan Plateau, novice monk Gama finds out how a huge open cast mine, 14 times the size of the City of London is threatening contamination of the headwaters of China’s ‘mother’ river, the Yellow River. In Central China a courageous young mother finds out that a local factory has been releasing poisonous hydrogen cyanide. And on the coast, the four young journalists enter a competition to highlight the plight of the critically endangered Spoon-billed sandpiper. If you miss it, you can watch again here (in the UK only): To join the conversation on Twitter and Facebook, follow the hashtags #ChinaDreams and #SaveSpoonie. In conjunction with the series, BirdLife International are raising money to help us continue our work to save the spoon-billed sandpiper: Please help us spread the word! Episode 3 synopsis from the filmmaker, Phil Agland (River Films) In episode 3, the stories of people’s lives across China continue to interweave as the larger picture emerges of China battling to balance economic ambition with the terrible environmental price that is being paid. How safe a world will their children inherit, a poisoned land or a home safe for future generations? On the Tibetan Plateau, Novice monk Gama has returned home to his nomad family, to the delight of his little sister Qulamu. There is a sense of unease however as the grassland is changing. An open cast mine, 14 times the size of the City of London is threatening contamination of the headwaters of China’s ‘mother’ river, the Yellow River. Commercial sheep grazing is hastening the melting permafrost on the Tibetan Plateau, releasing lethal methane, the worst of all the greenhouse gases. In central China, investigative reporter Xu and the villagers have gained access to the polluting factory to discover that it has been releasing dangerous hydrogen cyanide. The courageous young mother, Ms Wu, fears for her personal safety but continues her fight to gather evidence. Reporter Xu throws down the gauntlet, it’s up to her to lead the fight. Her small community is in crisis. On the huge Dongting Lake, love is in the air. Reporter Xu is marshalling the energy of unemployed fishermen to help save the Finless Porpoise. One of fishermen, Woody, who was badly beaten up defending the Finless Porpoise has fallen in love, having met his girlfriend on the internet. On the coast, the four young schoolchildren journalists continue their personal crusade to save the tiny Spoon-billed Sandpiper. A national nature competition gives them a chance to bring the plight of ‘Spoonie’ to the whole of China and as far as the President himself. Their class is visited by a Tibetan, Zha Duo, from the Plateau. He reminds them that the precious mudflats where Spoonie comes to feed has been created from high on the Tibetan Plateau, brought there by the Yangtze. He tells them of the magical Kekexili close to his home where all the mother Tibetan Antelope, the Chiru, return to calve every spring. The children learn of the sacrifice that Tibetan nomads have made to save the Antelope from poachers. Fabulously beautiful, Kekexili is one of the wonders of the world. It’s close to little Gama’s home. He learns of the ultimate sacrifice of a Tibetan, Sonandajie, who was murdered by poachers defending the antelope. The fur of the Chiru is the most valuable on earth. Little Gama witnesses the returning Antelope, running the gauntlet of their major predators, Tibetan Wolf and Brown Bear who lie in wait for the defenceless mothers. The Chiru used to number in their millions, now the population is less than a hundred thousand. Finally, Little Gama must take his leave of his family, to continue his journey across the Plateau to the largest Tibetan Monastery in the World.

Satellite tagged bird spotted and photographed in China

Today, Jonathan Martinez managed to catch-up with one of the satellite tagged spoon-billed sandpipers, HU, near the port town of Xitou in Guangdong province, China. HU has been at this site since the end of October, arriving a few weeks after being tagged on the Jiangsu coast. Jonathan shares his photos and the story of finding her with us here. In autumn, the sandbar even at high tide offers a large area for the birds to roost (almost 500 meters long by 200 meters wide) with other large islands of unflooded sandflat near by. This means, at high tide, the birds are dispersed in several groups across the sandbar. What also doesn’t help is that the sandbar is bumpy and the birds (especially the spoonies it seems) like to shelter in the hollows. My strategy today was to first scan the whole area from the access point on the beach, and then go further to scan the distant groups. I carefully checked all the Kentish Plover in the closest group of birds. Then a scan of more distant birds revealed one that I suspected could be a spoon-billed sandpiper. I wasn’t entirely sure but I followed my first impression and headed off slowly to this group, the difficulties being not to disturb any birds roosting in between… 20 minutes later, I was in front of the group and the suspect bird was a spoonie! Its legs were hidden but fairly quickly, I noticed something on its back… the satellite tag of HU! I couldn’t believe I had found the bird so quickly… it had been so easy, just straight away after a general scan… There were about 1,600 small shorebirds in front of me and half of them hidden behind sand bumps. My camera was in my backpack, but by the time I had managed to get the camera out, the bird was gone from my scope… Big panic!!! I moved the scope to the right, moved it to the left… nothing… I was fairly sure no bird had left but where did it go… Behind a bump of course!!! I decided to try to get a bit closer to the group where the bird was, and finally as a few birds walked a bit, she re-appeared… I managed to take some photos and watched her for about 30 minutes and then she decided to walk to another group… There was still almost two hours of high tide, so I decided to retreat and leave her. I was hoping I was going to be able to find her again later when she started to forage but this didn’t happen… I just spotted her once briefly as I scanned all the flocks to count the other shorebirds, again the bumps making it very difficult. After the time she has already spent here, I’m quite confident that she will stay for the rest of the winter. If she loses her satellite tag, we will still be able to identify her by her leg-flag so we’ll know if she’s here in December and later in the winter. But the satellite tag probably won’t be lost soon as she has not yet finished her moult. It is hard to see in the photos, but she still has a rosy tinge on her head which helped me find her amongst the other peeps. In total I saw three spoon-billed sandpipers on the sandflats at Xitou today. If all three overwinter here, it will be very encouraging. It will mean that the Xitou wintering population has gained a new bird each year since 2014 (there were two wintering there in 2015, a single one in 2014 and none in 2013, 2012 or 2011, but again the bumps make it very easy to overlook them amongst all the other birds)… The Mayor of the village has asked me for photos of the local birds to decorate his hotel near the sandflats, and he’s let me know that he has put up large signs, of steel and concrete, at different locations along the mangrove and along the road that leads to the sandbar, saying “Protect migrant birds, Illegal hunting is prohibited.” I’m so happy that the birds are being protected… I hope other sites will do the same. Thank you Jonathan – let’s hope you have many more sightings this winter!

Why ET, HU or CT might lead us to missing spoonie sites

With the third spoon-billed sandpiper on the move, Prof. Rhys Green gives us his insights on why these three birds could lead us to as yet unknown sites, and how that could have important implications for conservation efforts. From Prof. Rhys Green The journeys of the three tagged spoonies, ET, HT and CT, may help us to solve a puzzle that is important for the conservation of their species. The first test of a new method for estimating the total number of wild spoonies in the world was published recently in the journal Oryx. The estimate was based on scan surveys of spoonies in flocks of shorebirds staging on the Jiangsu coast near Shanghai in September-October 2014. This is the area where ET, HU and CT were tagged. Scan surveys involve recording the proportion of all spoonies seen that have an engraved plastic flag on the leg. The surveys showed that about one in 25 of the adult spoon-billed sandpipers seen had these flags. The flags had been applied to nesting adults thousands of kilometres away at Meinypil’gyno in arctic Russia. About twenty leg-flagged adults were alive in autumn 2014 so, if birds from different breeding areas mix on migration, the world population of adult birds is 25 times 20, or about 500 adults or 250 breeding pairs. Given that the autumn population includes juveniles and one-year olds as well as adults, this result indicates a total population of 600-700 individuals in autumn 2014. Now here’s the puzzle. If the counts of spoonies for all known wintering sites in China, Thailand, Bangladesh and Myanmar are added together the total comes to about half of the number estimated from the scan survey. Where are the missing birds? The explanation could be one or both of two things. Maybe there are really more spoonies than have been counted at some of the wintering sites we already know about. That is certainly possible. Some sites, like the Gulf of Mottama where ET is now, are huge and it is difficult to ensure complete coverage on surveys. More exciting is the possibility that there are one or two sites we do not yet know about yet that hold large numbers of wintering birds. Which is it? If there are undiscovered wintering sites, finding them would allow conservation action to protect them there. It is still early enough in the winter that any or all of our three intrepid voyagers could still supply the vital clues before their tags fall off.

The third tagged spoonie CT is off!

A satellite fix has just come in showing that the third tagged spoon-billed sandpiper has made a move away from the Jiangsu coast! CT, presumed to be male, has been at the Tiaozini mudflats on the Jiangsu coast since he was tagged in early October. His female counterparts made their moves away from the staging site weeks ago with HU moving south within days of being tagged and ET heading off two weeks later on 23 October. CT has taken his time, perhaps waiting to finish his annual moult of flight feathers, but now he’s made a definitive move south with the latest fix coming from just off the coast of Fujian province near the Guangdong border, over 1000 km from Tiaozini. The big question of course is where is he going? Will he stop in Guangdong with HU? Will he continue to the Bay of Mottama in Myanmar to join ET? Maybe another familiar wintering site in Thailand or Bangladesh? Or will he lead us somewhere new, to an as yet unknown wintering site? Check back regularly to see his progress. Good luck CT!

Local heroes battle to save their environment: Episode 2 of ‘China: Between Clouds and Dreams’ tonight at 7pm on Channel 4

The documentary series that is telling the story of the current environmental struggles in China featuring the spoon-billed sandpiper continues in the UK on Channel 4 at 7pm tonight (Saturday 12 November). In Episode 2, ‘Local Heroes’, the stories introduced in the first episode continue. A young monk learns that a new dam threatens the snow leopard’s habitat. The four children’s investigating threats to the spoon-billed sandpiper discover a mystery illness is affecting people living on the coast. And little Ray, who cannot hear or speak, continues her battle to overcome her disability as she learns more about the Finless Porpoise. If you miss it, you can watch again here (in the UK only): To join the conversation on Twitter and Facebook, follow the hashtags #ChinaDreams and #SaveSpoonie. In conjunction with the series, BirdLife International are raising money to help us continue our work to save the spoon-billed sandpiper: Please help us spread the word! Episode 2 Synopsis from the filmmaker, Phil Agland (River Films) People across China are fighting for a safer environment. The stories tumbling out of the first episode continue to gather strength. On the Tibetan Plateau we encounter Snow Leopard, filmed for the first time in China. Little Gama learns of the impending threat of a Dam planned for the Snow Leopard’s Gorge, the first gorge of the Yangtze. Tibetan herdsmen agree to work together to protect this iconic animal and its home. Little Ray, the adorable little girl in central China who cannot hear or speak, battles to overcome her disability as she continues to learn more about the Finless Porpoise. Her teacher discovers ever increasing threats to these last remaining porpoises on earth. On the coast, the Four Musketeers have renewed their quest to save the Spoon-billed Sandpiper. They are determined to have their article published and, driven on by the advice of the newspaper editor, their investigation takes a darker turn. People living close to the coast appear to be suffering from mystery illnesses. They are to discover that the land is suffering, that people’s crops can no longer grow. Eventually they return to the newspaper editor with a new article, citing damning new evidence. Is he brave enough to publish? And a new story explodes onto the scene. Reporter Xu is door-stepped by a young mother who begs him to help her town. People are dying of cancer, already 14 in a single year, and the community believe it is caused by an aluminium factory in the heart of the town. This charismatic young mother, a real life ‘Erin Brockovich’, is a reluctant hero, she simply wants her baby daughter to grow up safely. But who else is brave enough to take on this factory? Her story is to take us deep into a troubling aspect of life in rural China where economic considerations often outweigh the safety of people’s health. Encouraged by Reporter Xu, she embarks on the dangerous task of collecting the evidence. Little Gama is to leave his tiny monastery to be taken across the giant Plateau by Living Buddha to his new Monastery in Sichuan, the largest Tibetan monastery in the world. But first they must pay a surprise visit home, to his nomadic family living in their summer pastures high in the mountains. Through Gama and his family we are to be taken ever closer to the beating heart of Tibetan culture. These intimate stories of ordinary people’s lives take us deep into one of the greatest challenges that China faces today as it emerges as a world superpower. How can China make people’s lives safer as the environment pays the price for rapid economic growth? What kind of world will future generations inherit? For the moment, the answer to that question is being sought by the ordinary people of China.

ET settling in at the Gulf of Mottama?

ET arrived at the Gulf of Mottama in Myanmar at around 9pm on Saturday night (UTC, 2.30am on Sunday morning local time). 12 hours later, she appeared to be moving to the north west perhaps heading on to Bangladesh after a rest in the gulf. The two fixes since then, however, have been back in the direction of Mottama suggesting she may have settled there, perhaps for the winter. BUT all three of the fixes since Saturday night have been low quality with long distances of error (>100km). Hopefully, some better data will come in over the next few days so we can get a better picture of what she’s been up to since arriving at Mottama. HU has remained near the town of Xitou, Guangdong province (about 250km west-south-west of Hong Kong). And CT is still enjoying the mud flats at Tiaozini.

Is ET heading for Myanmar? 1000km closer in the last 24 hours

Just a quick update to let you all know that ET, the satellite tagged spoon-billed sandpiper who yesterday, was just south of the island of Hainan, has flown across Vietnam, Laos and most of Thailand today! The last fix from her came in at 14:09 (UTC, 21:09 local time) showing her to be about 250km north of Bangkok and about 150km from Thailand’s western border with Myanmar. That’s a journey of over 1000km in just less than 24 hours! We hope your journey continues safely ET. —— UPDATE @ 16:46 UTC In the time it took to post that last blog she crossed the border! So yes, she definitely was heading to Myanmar.

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