Saving the spoon-billed sandpiper
The spoon-billed sandpiper is a Critically Endangered species, with a population that has undergone recent rapid declines. The most recent global estimate, from 2014, is fewer than 250 breeding pairs.
We are working to gain protection for a network of key intertidal staging and wintering sites, through site designation (such as Ramsar, which North Korea is due to join in May 2018, and in the Yellow Sea, through World Heritage where the nomination process is progressing in South Korea and China). Other activities include international flyway policy, casework and even habitat creation and management (managed re-alignment, which is increasingly common in Europe, could be an option at some sites in the future).
In early 2018, there was the amazing news that protection of coastal wetlands has been raised high on the environmental agenda of the Chinese government. They are seeking to protect 50% of the coastal wetland area, halt most further land claim and restore areas illegally claimed. While this is a dramatic and exciting positive move, there is much still to be done both in terms of enforcement and addressing other problems, such as how to remove Spartina from the mudflats, which threatens to cover important areas.
In Myanmar and Bangladesh, the most critical sites are being protected via designation as Ramsar wetlands, the Gulf of Mottama (Myanmar) and Sonadia Island (Bangladesh) being the first steps towards a comprehensive coverage.
Eradicating hunting of spoonies
Reducing the number of spoonies killed by bird trappers is essential if the population is going to stabilise and recover. This is being tackled through working with a wide range of partners in wintering countries. By providing trappers with alternative livelihoods, hunting of waders has been halted at some critical sites.
In China, the spoon-billed sandpiper has been given the highest level of protection in new legislation and deliberate trapping is being targeted by a network of volunteers who report violations to the police, but there are ongoing issues with accidental trapping in fishing nets that need to be addressed across the species’ range.
In the last few years since efforts have been made to tackle the hunting problem, the spoony population decline appears to have lessened to some extent, and the 25% losses per year seen in the early 2000s are no longer the norm. However there is still considerable uncertainty around the current population trend, and this bird is not safe yet.
Monitoring and research is helping steer conservation efforts for spoonies and other waterbirds along the east Asian-Australasian flyway. With our research partners we have surveyed and established the importance of key sites for spoonies along the flyway and on the wintering areas. This evidence has helped efforts to protect key sites.
We have ringed a number of spoonies so that we can use these individually-marked birds to measure annual survival rates. The only scientifically robust estimate of the world population to date (210-228 breeding pairs in 2014) was also made using resightings of these ringed birds, and the same method can be repeated to monitor future population change. We have also used remote sensing data combined with our field survey results to create mathematical models predicting areas of suitable habitat for spoonies.
This helps us guide future searches for key spoony sites – there is still much we don’t know about the annual migration cycle of this bird. We don’t know where they all winter, we don’t know where about half the population stops on their autumn migration to moult, and we only know the breeding sites of about a quarter of the world population. However, we are starting to fill these gaps in our knowledge.
Recently, the development of satellite transmitters that are lightweight enough for such a small bird have allowed us to track the movement of a few individuals along their migration. The data from this incredible technology has already helped identify unknown stop-over sites, potential unknown breeding areas in Russia, shown us how birds use key migration staging and wintering areas, and helped identify – then eliminate – illegal bird hunting at sites in southern China. The tagging has also provided fascinating insights into spoonie migration strategies, including how birds avoid weather systems and that instead of sticking to the coast as they travel from China to Myanmar and Bangladesh, they fly overland straight across south-east Asia.
Creating a “back-up” population
When the population decline of spoonies looked to be at its most serious, a captive population was established at the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) Slimbridge as a safety net in case the species were to go extinct in the wild – a very real possibility 10 years ago. The plan was to release captive-bred birds into the wild to supplement existing wild populations, or re-establish the species if it became extinct.
To establish the conservation breeding programme, eggs were collected in Chukotka in the far north-east of Siberia in 2011 and 2012. These were incubated and hatched, and the successful result of this herculean effort is a small population of breeding age birds.
Discovering how to get these birds to breed successfully in captivity is proving challenging, with no chicks reared to date. There is a continuous learning process taking place, and these are long-lived birds, so with further adjustments to their Gloucestershire residence, it is hoped that successful breeding will be achieved soon.
What can you do to help spoonies?
A strong international partnership of organisations and individuals is focusing on conservation efforts for this charismatic species.
- ArcCona Consulting
- Bangladesh Spoon-billed Sandpiper Conservation Project
- Biodiversity and Nature Conservation Association (Myanmar)
- Bird Conservation Society of Thailand
- BirdLife International
- Birds Russia
- British Trust for Ornithology
- The Darwin Initiative
- East Asian-Australasian Flyway Partnership
- Heritage Expeditions
- Hong Kong Bird Watching Society
- Moscow Zoo
- Moscow Museum? (Pavel’s affiliation)
- Nanjing Normal University
- SBS in China
- Spoon-billed Sandpiper Task Force (insert hyperlink)
- Viet Nature (Vietnam)
- Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust