A silly bird with serious problems

Further to our recent emails about our work with BirdLife International to save the Spoon-billed Sandpiper this story was published in The Times in the UK.
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Spoon-billed Sandpiper

Tragically it looks as though we won’t have to put up with the silly-looking spoon-billed sandpiper for much longer
The spoon-billed sandpiper is possibly the silliest-looking bird in the world: a jolly little wader not dissimilar to those you can see in their thousands in British estuaries across the winter — apart from the fact that it has a daft little coffee-spoon for a beak.

This is an extraordinary affectation. The bird has been seen digging with it, swishing it from side to side in shallow water, pecking and probing with it. It works for the bird, that’s for sure, the right tool for the job, but that doesn’t stop it looking silly. Still, we won’t have to put up with it for much longer; not the way things are going.
This is one of the birds that’s right on the edge. The most recent figures indicate that between 100 and 200 pairs bred in 2009, and that numbers are declining at a rate of 26 per cent a year. They are elusive, remote and difficult to understand, which makes their problems difficult to address.

They breed right on the far rim of Siberia, on the Chukotsk Peninsula and the isthmus of the Kamchatka Peninsula, and migrate to escape the winters there, mostly to Burma and Bangladesh.

Migration was once a robust solution to natural problems; now it is a precarious one. Changes to the world have made migration an increasingly dangerous option. That counts double on the migration run of the spoon-billed sandpiper, which takes it across one of the fastest developing coastlines in the world.

Valuable inter-tidal zones are turning into buildings and industrial projects, and pollutions spread, destroying the food sources that the migrating birds depend on. The refuelling spots along the route are disappearing. But possibly the single biggest problem is subsistence hunting on the wintering grounds.

It came, then, as cheering news when a new breeding population of spoon-billed sandpipers was discovered a couple of weeks ago. Arctic Russia is a pretty big place, so it was splendidly unexpected when the birds were found by an expedition, run by the commercial firm Heritage Expeditions, which has taken on the role as a species champion for the spoon-billed sandpiper under the scheme run by Birdlife International.

The expedition found the bird on what is called “a remote location on the Chukotka coast” — are there any other kinds of location there? — and established that there was a pair looking after three eggs and another individual behaving in the manner of a breeding bird.

The news is, in a quiet way, encouraging. Encouraging because there are many schemes now being organised to secure the bird’s future. It’s a shame to lose any bird, but to lose a bird of such spectacular silliness would be a huge sense of humour failing by the entire world. It will need a big international collaboration to keep a hold of this bird — and that’s precisely what’s being done, largely through BirdLife and its partner organisations in the countries involved. A reduction of winter trapping is the first and most obvious step.

There are advanced plans to try captive breeding, a scheme that will involve the Wildfowl & Wetland Trust in Slimbridge, Gloucestershire. This is a counsel of despair, but we are long past the point of despair. This is a wonderfully silly bird in a horribly serious situation.

We all need more wildness in our lives — and more silliness, too. The spoon-billed sandpiper stands uniquely for those twin essentials in human life.

Article by Simon Barnes
Printed in The Times on Saturday 16th July, 2011
Category: Spoonbilled Sandpiper
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