Identification of claimed Spoon-billed Sandpipers in China (Part One)

I’ve just uploaded two new posts to the Birds Korea blog (which I help to manage and update). One – reposted below – concerns a short discussion by Dr Nial Moores of four birds seen on December 17th in southern China which are currently being claimed as possible Spoon-billed Sandpipers, the second (a longer, more dissective post with some wonderful Spoon-billed Sandpiper photos can be found at The importance and relevance of these discussions is of course that there are now thought to be less than 100 pairs of Spoon-billed Sandpiper, and many of the global population estimates are at least part-based on surveys on the presumed remaining wintering grounds in Myanamar and Bangladesh: a record of four in China in December is therefore extremely important. I have added a comment here that I left on the Birds Korea blog, and I would be extremely interested to hear what any TN readers think about the birds in the images below:



Discussion of Identification of claimed Spoon-billed Sandpiper in China:
Nial Moores, December 27th 2011

Sometime during 2011, I found myself added to an English-language mailing list sharing some wonderful bird information from along the Chinese coast. While much of the discussion has been focused on separating apparent dealbatus (“Swinhoe’s” or “White-faced Plover”) from nihonensis Kentish Plover, a recent mail was of even greater interest. It included some very low resolution stills and video of two or more shorebirds tentatively identified by the finder (Jonathan Martinez: JM) as Spoon-billed Sandpiper Eurhynorhynchus pygmeus (SBS). The birds were found at an apparently excellent estuarine wetland discovered by JM at Xitou near Yangxzi on December 17th in southwest Guangdong, China. The SBS now has a world population of probably fewer than 100 pairs and is classified as Critically Endangered. Birds Korea is responsible for collating records in the ROK (as part of the international SBS Task Force), and like all others focused on this species’ conservation, we have a special interest in its distribution and in the status of sites it uses. Finding a new site for overwintering SBS is not just great for the finder – it would be great news for the species.

In his mail describing finding the birds, JM wrote (kindly quoted with permission, and edited for easier reading):

“Then a huge flock of Dunlin (about 400 birds) mixed with Kentish Plover arrived…I noticed a few Red-necked Stint and an obvious Sanderling…At about 200 meters range in much better light, I noticed 4 birds contrasting with the Dunlin with a more pale greyish mantle. My first impression was that they were probably Sanderling, but the birds weren’t pale enough and they were foraging in a curious way…they didn’t pick up prey by up and down movement but held their bill in the shallow water and moved it a bit horizontally for a short period (it was a bit similar to what spoonbill “platalea“) can do. The distance didn’t allow me to pick up more features (especially the bill shape that I know is quite difficult to catch at big distance) so after having made a few digiscope images and a short video, I decided to approach them, but the group flew away and I wasn’t able to locate the birds again”.

Lacking prior experience of SBS, JM attached two heavily-cropped video stills and 12 seconds of digiscoped video of the birds, and asked those on the mailing list (including several of the region’s “big names” in bird ID) to give their opinion on the identity of the birds. The responses he received (apparently six positive, two negative and one undecided by Dec. 25th) were considered sufficient to tentatively support the ID as SBS.

We are posting the images and video clips here in order to give more people an opportunity to add their own comments.


Video Clip: Shorebirds at Yangxzi, December 17th, southwest Guangdong, China


The comment I left on the Birds Korea blog is as follows:

“Much as I would love for more Spoon-billed Sandpipers to have been discovered (and another four in China in December could open up all kinds of possibilities about birds not being included in surveys on wintering grounds in Myanamar etc on which some global population estimates are part based) I’m afraid I just can’t see why there are any SBS in the above photos.

I’ve seen SBS in Korea with Red-necked Stints and Dunlin etc, had very close views just last week of thirteen in the aviary at Slimbridge, and looked for them many times in Hong Kong and elsewhere. The first thing I would have expected to see in any photos – no matter how distant – is a stint-sized bird and I just don’t. Every single person at Slimbridge last week who’d not seen SBS before commented on how small they were; observers in Canada in 1978 commented that a vagrant there was the same size of Western Sandpipers (of which – along with Least Sandpipers – I’ve seen many thousands), and I well remember trying to pick them out at Saemangeum and being struck by how similar in size they were to Red-necked Stints. They have never appeared as bulky as Dunlin or Sanderling in my experience, and I’m afraid to say that when I first saw these photos I couldn’t even be sure which birds I was supposed to be looking at.

I’m happy to leave minutiae of plumage details to the more expert, but I would have to say that if I’d been sent these photos, not told where they were taken, and asked what the birds close to the tidal-edge were, I’d have said Sanderling and Dunlin: the thought that I could be looking at SBS wouldn’t have crossed my mind.

I’m not going to pick apart the plumages as seen in these photos (and I accept that my identification skills can be challenged anyway), but nothing I see here points to SBS, and what is surely not in doubt is that the implications of accepting a mid-winter record at the northern end of the (old? – the range has apparently been contracting southwards for decades) wintering range of 1%+ of the global population of a Critically Endangered species need to be taken into account, and any such potential record needs to be extremely well scrutinised before gaining acceptance and possibly being used in future species action plans.”


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About the author

Passionate about animal welfare and conservation, veggie and dairy-free, I live in the Wiltshire (UK) countryside. I co-founded Birders Against Wildlife Crime and Birds Korea. Trustee of the League against Cruel Sports On Twitter @charliemoores

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