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.

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Overview

In the early 2000s, ornithologists were worried that the global population of spoon-billed sandpipers was dropping by a quarter every year. If this trend continued, the species was rapidly heading towards extinction. From an estimated 2,000-2,800 pairs in the 1970s, the population was down to possibly as few as 200 pairs. Fortunately, because of rapid interventions by a strong international partnership, the “spoonie” is still with us and there is evidence that the population is stabilising. Spoon-billed sandpipers breed in the far north-eastern corner of Russia and migrate down the east Asian coast before wintering in countries such as Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand and in southern China. 
 
On their journey, they face several dangers. They can be trapped in nets – either those deliberately set to catch birds for food, or accidentally caught in fishing nets. Large-scale loss of mudflats along the Yellow Sea coast to land reclamation has removed vital feeding habitat on their migration route. Even mudflats that have not been reclaimed can suffer from overgrowth by Spartina, a non-native invasive cord-grass. This loss of feeding and roosting habitat on intertidal and associated coastal wetlands not only affects migrating spoonies, but a host of other threatened birds, such as red-crowned cranes, black-faced spoonbills, great knots and spotted greenshanks. This habitat is the main reason why the east Asian-Australasian flyway holds more threatened waterbird species than any other of the world’s migratory flyways. If that wasn’t bad enough, spoonies face additional threats on their wintering grounds further south and west, from trapping of waterbirds for human consumption.
 
Our overarching goal is to support international efforts to prevent the spoon-billed sandpiper from becoming globally extinct, with beneficial impacts for many other migratory birds that share its flyway. Activities tackle the problems across the complete annual cycle of the species.
 

Objectives

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). 

Progress

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.

Spoonie science

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.

Results

The knowledge gained from trying to establish the captive breeding population has resulted in a further development - boosting productivity on the breeding grounds by a technique called "head-starting".

This involves moving eggs from nests on the tundra into incubators nearby. Once the eggs hatch, the chicks are reared in aviaries on the tundra and then released to migrate south. The benefit comes through removing the risk of nest failure due to predation and other natural causes, hence giving these eggs a "head-start" and greatly increasing the proportion that result in fledged young. 

Young spoonies, as with most wader species, are independent after fledging and don’t rely on following their parents on their first southward migration, so can be expected to behave naturally after being released. In addition, the wild birds that had their eggs taken usually lay a second clutch, so one pair of birds can potentially raise even more young within a single year. 

In the first year (2012), nine birds were released, going up to 30 in 2016, bringing the total to 141 head-started young by 2017. Head-started birds are now returning to Russia and breeding themselves. It has been estimated that head-starting could increase the population by 30% over 10 years. The development of the technique for spoonies has now also been applied to black-tailed godwits in England.

What next?

With such great achievements so far from this massive collaborative conservation project, what happens next?
 
Head-starting will continue to add birds to the overall population, and hopefully the captive population at Slimbridge will start to breed successfully. BirdLife Asia is leading work to ensure that the Yellow Sea coasts are protected, and our survey work, habitat modelling and satellite tagging science are all guiding us to find the missing spoonies along the migration flyway.  While this species is still Critically Endangered and its long-term security is not yet guaranteed by any means, with governments taking protection of this species seriously, and a strong NGO focus, the future for the spoon-billed sandpiper looks decidedly more optimistic than it did a decade ago.

What can you do to help spoonies?

Partners

A strong international partnership of organisations and individuals is focusing on conservation efforts for this charismatic species.

 

 

Contacts

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Ian Fisher

International Information Manager, RSPB

ian.fisher@rspb.org.uk
Tagged with: Country: Bangladesh Country: China Country: International Country: Japan Country: Korea South (Republic of) Country: Myanmar Country: Russian Federation Country: Thailand Project status: Ongoing Project types: Advocacy Project types: Education Project types: Species protection