World BirdWatch magazine article


World BirdWatch magazine article:

Saving Spoon-billed Sandpiper

This Critically Endangered wader is threatened with extinction, but the BirdLife Partnership is working across Asia to bring this charismatic bird back from the brink.

Spoon-billed Sandpiper, Eurynorhynchus pygmeus, is one of the world’s strangest-looking birds and certainly the weirdest wader. A small bird (only 14–16 cm) with as its name suggests, a spoon-shaped bill, it was uplisted to Critically Endangered in 2008 by BirdLife International on behalf of the IUCN Red List. It joined 189 other species with the dubious honour of being the world’s most threatened birds.

There are several potential causes for the decline of Spoonbilled Sandpiper. It has an extremely small population, which is getting smaller year on year. Recent studies show that it is declining at a rate of 26% per year but that the annual survival of adults and the average production of young per breeding pair are quite high.
However, very few of the successfully fledged young birds are surviving to become breeding adults: probably no more than one-fifth of the survival needed to maintain the population. This suggests that the decline is due to a factor that affects the survival of fullgrown birds during the nonbreeding season and kills many more immature than adult birds. Available evidence suggests that a combination of habitat loss at key feeding areas on migration and on the nonbreeding grounds, and the killing of waders by people for food at these non-breeding sites in South-East Asia are the most likely contributing causes.

However, little is known about the species’ ecology and behaviour and there is a real need to understand these aspects at all stages of the sandpiper’s life history. Also, the effects of climate change on the arctic habitat on which this species breeds may be having a detrimental effect on the population. Urgent study on these climatic effects is needed for Spoon-billed Sandpiper and the many other species that breed in northern Russia.

At the main known Spoonbilled Sandpiper non-breeding sites in Myanmar and Bangladesh, hunting of waders by various methods, including mist nets and nooses, is frequent and widespread. Numbers of Spoon-billed Sandpipers killed are not known precisely but appear to be a substantial proportion of the population. Young birds may suffer higher death rates than adults because they are easier to catch or because they remain in the non-breeding areas during the summer when they are one year old, when the adults have returned to Russia to breed. Hunting pressure on waders in Myanmar is thought to be particularly high in summer, which may explain why so few young Spoon-billed Sandpipers survive to return as breeding adults.

Bird Conservation Society of Thailand (BCST) has taken a major step towards Ramsar designation at Khok Kham, one of the most important nonbreeding sites for Spoon-billed Sandpiper in the Inner Gulf of Thailand. On World Wetlands Day 2010, local people sent a petition to Mr Suvit Khunkitti, Thailand’s Minister of the Nature Resources and Environment, requesting that Khok Kham be designated a Ramsar Site. Many Inner Gulf sites are still unprotected and under threat. BCST’s efforts to conserve and protect this huge area have been supported over the past three years by the Darwin Initiative through a project entitled ‘Strengthening partnerships for Ramsar implementation in South-East Asia’, and will continue into the future.

Another factor contributing to the decline are migratory stopover sites that are being lost to coastal development in East Asia. One example is Saemangeum in South Korea. This site was once one of the most important shorebird sites within the Yellow Sea and despite intensive lobbying is now being reclaimed for development, putting hundreds of thousands of migratory birds including Spoon-billed Sandpipers under threat. Coastal reclamation and development continues in South Korea, China and other East Asian countries and this threat remains a very real problem for all species on the East Asian-Australasian flyway.

Two recent surveys of nonbreeding areas however, raise some hope for the species. An expedition to the Gulf of Martaban in Myanmar in early 2010, found at least 74 individuals. Another 14 birds were found on Nan Thar island in the Arakhan state and one bird in the Ayeyarwaddy Delta. Even so, all along the survey routes the teams encountered evidence of significant hunting and trapping pressure on wading birds that included a number of Spoon-billed Sandpipers. Urgent action is required to safeguard the species here, and there is a need to collaborate with the local communities to establish alternative forms of income. BANCA (BirdLife in Myanmar), a BirdLife Species Guardian for the sandpiper is also involved in socio-economic surveys that provide the basis for efforts to address the hunting of Spoonbilled Sandpiper and other shorebirds in the Gulf of Martaban and is already achieving success.

Another survey in Bangladesh last year found a total of 49 Spoon-billed Sandpipers, the highest count in the country for over two decades, and this might still represent only a relatively small fraction of the total Bangladeshi wintering population. This underscores the relative importance of the country as a crucial wintering site and means that protection of sites threatened by threats as diverse as major infrastructure development and subsistence hunting is of paramount importance. Further surveys, especially aerial ones, are required to locate major shorebird wintering areas within the main delta and to pinpoint potential Spoon-billed Sandpiper feeding sites. Counts of other globally threatened birds such as Spotted Greenshanks Tringa guttifer, Great Knots Calidris tenuirostris and Asian Dowitchers Limnodromus semipalmatus were among the highest ever from Bangladesh and reinforce the notion of the importance of the region for these other shorebirds of conservation concern.

The BirdLife Asia Division was contracted by the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) Secretariat in 2005, to compile an International Single Species Action Plans for Spoon-billed Sandpiper. Three experts on the species (Drs. Christoph Zöckler, Gillian Bunting and Evgeny Syroechkovskiy) were invited by BirdLife to compile the International Action Plan (IAP), which was launched in February 2010 at the East Asian-Australasian Flyway Partnership (EAAFP) meeting in South Korea.

The BirdLife Asia Division was contracted by the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) Secretariat in 2005, to compile an International Single Species Action Plans for Spoon-billed Sandpiper. Three experts on the species (Drs. Christoph Zöckler, Gillian Bunting and Evgeny Syroechkovskiy) were invited by BirdLife to compile the International Action Plan (IAP), which was launched in February 2010 at the East Asian-Australasian Flyway Partnership (EAAFP) meeting in South Korea.

BirdLife was involved (through the Wild Bird Society of Japan) in the establishment of the EAAFP, and is one of the formal NGO partners, and acts as the national secretariat to the Partnership. A new EAAFP Secretariat office was recently opened in Korea and BirdLife is working with the other organsations to strengthen the Partnership as a mechanism to promote the conservation of migratory birds and their key sites and habitats in the region, including by encouraging South-East Asian countries to join. Unlike the CMS, the EAAFP is non-binding and voluntary and has more East Asian countries as Parties.

At the Fifth Meeting of the EAAFP, held in Siem Reap, Cambodia in December 2010, the partners agreed to establish a Task Force for the Spoon-billed Sandpiper. The Task Force is a medium-term arrangement that will address the specific task of implementing the International Action Plan for this species. The pre-existing Recovery Team for Spoon-billed Sandpiper will be incorporated in the new EAAFP Task Force. Representatives of the sandpiper’s range states, shorebird experts and the EAAFP Shorebird Working Group will be among the members of the Task Force.

One of the most challenging issues faced by conservationists working to save Spoon-billed Sandpiper has been establishing exactly where they breed in the vast coastal areas of the Russian Far East. For the past two decades, local Russian and international scientists working with Birds Russia and BirdLife have been monitoring diminishing populations at a handful of important breeding sites in Chukotka and Northern Kamchatka. However, given the numbers still seen on the nonbreeding grounds, other as yet unknown breeding sites must exist.

New mapping techniques have identified several areas where Spoon-billed Sandpipers are highly likely to be nesting. However, getting to these places is by no means straightforward. The sheer scale of the areas to be surveyed, their remoteness and their inaccessibility has, to date, presented an insurmountable barrier to visiting potential new breeding sites.

Now, BirdLife Species Champion and award winning expedition travel company Heritage Expeditions is providing the necessary logistical and financial support that will enable surveys to be conducted in an area with particularly high potential by making an approach from the sea.

A new Heritage Expeditions voyage ‘In the Wake of Bering’ will take place in June/July this year, which will incorporate a dedicated search for breeding Spoon-billed Sandpipers in the previously inaccessible Olyutorskiy Bay area.

Those customers making this pioneering voyage will split in to small groups and participate in searches for the birds under the supervision and guidance of BirdLife scientists. As this area has never been surveyed before, all species encountered will be carefully recorded and detailed notes will be taken on the suitability of habitat encountered.

After searching for new breeding sites, the voyage will continue north to the main Spoon-billed Sandpiper study site at Meynypilgyno—an area where Birds Russia, in conjunction with BirdLife International, are monitoring breeding Spoon-billed Sandpipers. Whether the earlier searches are successful or not, here Heritage’s passengers should have another good chance of seeing nesting Spoonbilled Sandpipers under controlled conditions that minimises disturbance.

BirdLife’s work to save two key resting and feeding sites in China used by Spoon-billed Sandpiper has received a huge boost from Disney’s Friends for Change initiative. The project, ‘Saving Spoony’s Chinese Wetlands’ won first prize of $100,000 after children around the world decided to give it their vote.

BirdLife’s China Programme, the Hong Kong Birdwatching Society and Chinese groups, including the Wild Bird Society of Shanghai and Fujian Bird Watching Society will work at two wetlands near Shanghai, which Spoon-billed Sandpipers stop at on their way round China’s coast. Gathering information about all the waterbirds that use these two wetlands will help give them better protection.

Talks, games and field trips will be organised for children at local schools, to inspire them about the values of wetlands and wildlife. Students will be encouraged to form Conservation Groups, and become the ambassadors for the Spoon-billed Sandpiper, telling local people and the government that there is a bird that really needs their help.

And this work goes to the core of what is required across the region: the need to get people and government engaged with and understand the importance of wetlands for themselves and the other species that rely on them.

On both the breeding and non-breeding grounds as well as sites along the migratory route BirdLife International, through its national Partners, will continue to work on this odd and charismatic species. There is still much to learn and do but the work being carried out will benefit not only Spoon-billed Sandpiper but also the many other species of wader that use, feed and breed on this important flyway.

'Saving Spoon-billed Sandpiper' article by Martin Fowlie - World Birdwatch magazine March 2011

Category: Spoonbilled Sandpiper
Download our latest brochures Sign up for our free newsletter
Latest news & specials Kayaking available
Heritage Expeditions on youtube