Slimbridge’s Spoon-billed Sandpipers unveiled

slimbridge spoon-billed sandpiper feature

I’m just back in from an extraordinary day at Slimbridge, the Gloucestershire HQ of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust. I’ve been to Slimbridge many times over the years and know some of the key conservationists there quite well. I’ve also been active in Spoon-billed Sandpiper conservation for many years – mostly through Birds Korea (the NGO I founded with my brother Dr Nial Moores and Korean activist Kim Su-kyung), and the campaigns against the closure of the massive seawall at Saemangeum which (on its final closure in Apr 2006 after more than fifteen years of construction) enclosed around 400 sq km of critically important tidal flats and estuaries. Enclosing Saemangeum, as Nial predicted in the late 1990s, removed one of East Asia’s key shorebird staging sites, threatening not only Spoon-billed Sandpipers but Great Knots, Bar-tailed Godwits, and a mass of other migratory shorebird species. Why, we both asked continuously through the first half of the last decade, was international protest so muted?

One of those who was warning of things going awry – and obviously going awry very rapidly – was Dr Christoph Zockler, who had been monitoring the loose ‘clusters’ of breeding Spoon-billed Sandpipers in northeastern Russia for a decade. He noted that fewer and fewer birds were returning to the breeding grounds, that whole areas previously occupied by breeding birds were empty of Spoon-billed Sandpipers in the summer. His and Nial’s data were key to the decision by the IUCN to upgrade the Spoon-billed Sandpiper from Vulnerable (listed as such in 2001 in BirdLife’s Threatened Birds of Asia) to Endangered in 2004, and finally to Critically Endangered in 2008 when the global breeding population was estimated to only be a couple of hundred of pairs.

Back to today, and I’m sitting with Christoph in the cinema at Slimbridge listening to WWT Vice-President and broadcaster Kate Humble interviewing WWT’s heroic trio of Nigel Jarrett, Martin McGill and Roland Digby about their incredible work to bring back to the UK Spoon-billed Sandpiper chicks hatched from eggs laid in the wild just a few weeks before in Chutotka…

 


Kate Humble

Kate Humble and (l to r) Nigel Jarratt, Martin McGill, and Roland Digby

 

Highlight of the afternoon for most of the packed auditorium (apart from Nigel’s ‘heartbreak to happy ending’ story about an incident with the unhatched eggs which included the memorable line, “It’s not like you can go out and get more and chuck the old ones in the hedge…”) was perhaps Kate’s unveiling of a live CCTV link up with the specially-constructed Slimbridge aviary (finished just the week before). At the other end of the live link was WWT staffer Nicki Hiscock, the Spoon-billed Sandpiper’s ‘mum’ as she was introduced, one of the very, very few people allowed to go into the aviary and then on inside the heated space where the birds live. The curtain pulled back, the camera flickered into life, Nicki’s voice came over the loudspeakers, and suddenly there they were: 13 of the rarest birds on the planet, one mostly moulted into winter plumage, scampering around after mealworms, running over a bed of river sand, crouching under small pine branches…

 


Photos of images on the CCTV screen

 


It was a classic moment, a beautifully-produced promotional event that is – now – the way conservation needs to sell itself. Without public involvement and public investment these sorts of conservation projects are simply too expensive to develop: this breeding project has already cost £400,000 and it’s only just beginning. The CCTV link will go officially ‘live’ tomorrow for all visitors to Slimbridge to see, but we – paying public, supporters of WWT, campaigners, activists and others – were the first to watch it, the first outside a select few to have any glimpse at all of these precious, charismatic, beautiful little birds.

For some of us, though, the day wasn’t over. I – along with the good and the great like Janet Barber, Mark Avery, and some of the key partners from the RSPB (including Andre Farrar and Nicola Crockford) – had been invited to actually pay a visit to the aviary itself! While we wouldn’t be going inside the heated enclosure with the birds themselves (their welfare is of course paramount and extraordinary security and biosecurity measures have been in place since the birds were ‘collected’ as eggs) we were going to be shown around the aviary by Nigel Jarratt and Dr Baz Hughes, and be one side of a large one-way glass window with the birds just feet away on the other side…

 


Christoph Zockler, Janet Barber, and Nicola Crockford

 

As we filed into the aviary (wearing disinfected rubber boots) I really wasn’t sure what to expect, or how I’d feel. I’m one of the very fortunate few to have seen a flock of Spoon-billed Sandpipers in the wild – in 2002 as they fed along the tideline at Saemangeum a few years before the gates closed and destroyed a habitat used by hundreds of thousands of shorebirds – and I couldn’t imagine what it might be like seeing them again, behind glass, in a building in a field in Gloucestershire. Truth be told, I’m not even sure how I feel now, back home hours later. There is such incongruity in seeing Spoon-billed Sandpipers removed from the East Asian – Australasian Flyway and confined like this. There’s an inevitable feeling of ‘why has it come to this?’, of thinking of the tens of thousands of people driving past on the M5 just a few miles away who have never heard of a Spoon-billed Sandpiper and will never understand why the birds are here instead of a tidal-flat in Myanamar. That if the decline in the wild population isn’t reversed, these few birds might be the last of their kind. Ever. That’s not a comment on the amazing work being done here – after initial scepticism I support the project to breed them in captivity 100% – but just that I wish with all my heart (like so many of the people working on Spoon-billed Sandpipers) that the population hadn’t reached such a fine balance between survival and extinction that such a programme has become necessary…

We are, though, where we are: there is a good chance that the birds will breed here and can perhaps be re-released on the East Asian – Australasian Flyway where they should be; that Birds Korea can work with other regional and national NGOs to slow down the rate of reclamation in the Yellow Sea (and perhaps even halt it, especially at Rudong in China, where over a hundred Spoon-billed Sandpipers were found recently); and that Christoph Zockler’s work in Myanmar and Bangladesh will halt the incidental (or ‘bycatch’) killing of young birds on the wintering grounds that seems to have been an accelerant in the recent disastrous rush to extinction (*see comment below*); I hope so. Part of me even believes that it will be so – quite something after feeling the situation was almost beyond recovery for so long. In the meantime, though, here are a few images taken through the thick glass (without using flash of course) of an aviary I was so privileged to visit today.

Beautiful, charismatic, vulnerable, delicate, fragile, and so very, very rare…


 


Christoph and I are planning to talk for a podcast later this week on our feelings about the Slimbridge project and Christoph’s work on the wintering grounds – and about the country that has emerged as probably the most important for the long-term survival of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper: China.

For earlier blogs and podcasts about the Spoon-billed Sandpiper please go to /tag/spoon-billed-sandpiper/

 

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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 birded the world for twenty years before quitting my airline job and am now freelance. I co-founded Birders Against Wildlife Crime and Birds Korea. Trustee of the League against Cruel Sports On Twitter @charliemoores

7 Comments

  1. Nial Moores says:

    Hi Charlie,

    A highly informative and moving post about your visit to Slimbridge: thank you.

    It is wonderful to see the faces and to hear some of the stories of those that are doing so much for this species – and as you wrote, also a little emotionally-confusing to see the birds themselves – all far outside of the natural range.

    I was, however, surprised (confused?) by your sentence expressing the hope “that Christoph Zockler’s work in Myanmar and Bangladesh will halt the killing of young birds on the wintering grounds that seems to be at the root cause of the recent disastrous rush to extinction;”

    Hope it is okay for me to express my view that until the science is there, I believe this to be fundamentally an inaccurate and misleading assessment. Scientific pedantry and fine tuning of the message is important here.

    Is there yet any evidence of a rapid increase in hunting to explain the rapid increase in decline of the species? Is there much evidence that the majority of Second Calendar-years remain in the far south of the range during the boreal summer? If there is, it would be good to see it.

    As you already know, there is a clear and remarkable coincidence in the increase of reclamation in the Yellow Sea and Japan during the past few decades (and especially during the past two decades in the Republic of Korea and China) and in the rapid decline of this and many other shorebird species. There is also evidence that at least (a good) part of the non-breeding population of Spoon-billed Sandpiper migrates at least as far north as the Yellow Sea in late May. We have seen several such birds during survey work at Saemangeum and at the Geum Estuary.

    Hunting, which is still widespread and has been widespread in many countries for decades (and more) is driving declines – both at Sonadia Island (see the recent paper in Ibis by Sayam Chowdhury) and at Marteban. With so few SBS remaining, incidental hunting of SBS is undeniably one of the main threats to the species. Based on peoples’ first-hand accounts, it is also perhaps one of the least complicated of the main threats to stop. The excellent and essential work of Christoph and others to help stop “SBS bycatch” is therefore extremely important, urgent and it needs everyone’s support (financial and otherwise).

    This is surely a rather different thing, however, from saying that hunting is at the root (cause) of the recent disastrous rush to extinction.

    Please consider once more: reclamation in the ROK has peaked during the past 25 years (during which time, several major estuaries have been barraged and much intertidal wetland, 50% of the historical national area, has been converted to land), and it appears to be still-increasing in scale in China. We saw the number of SBS at the Nakdong Estuary in the 1980s and at Saemangeum in the 2000s fall soon after barrage construction and then during and following seawall closure respectively – at rates greater than the global average decline, before numbers then found a new lower “equilibrium”. At the Nakdong, the number fell from “several hundred” in the 1970s, to 100 SBS were recorded in October 2011. This evaluation of threat is not just my personal opinion. Rather, it is stated clearly in the Executive Summary of the International Single Species Action Plan for the Conservation of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper (CMS Technical Report Series No.23, published in 2010): “The greatest threat to the survival of Spoon-billed Sandpiper is the destruction of the inter-tidal mudflats that it utilises on migration in China, Japan, Korea and on the wintering grounds…”

    If we are to save the Spoon-billed Sandpiper, and a host of other shorebird species on the East Asian-Australasian Flyway, domestic conservation organisations within the region and the wider world conservation community need jointly to increase our efforts to conserve intertidal wetlands. We need, all of us, to start speaking with a single voice. It is essential to make clear the message that we have evidence that reclamation and degradation of intertidal wetlands causes shorebird declines – including in the Spoon-billed Sandpiper.

    We have already missed (too) many opportunities to inform decision-makers of the vital importance of intertidal wetlands – for the Spoon-billed Sandpiper, as well as for fisheries, for carbon sequestration.

    Please – let us all keep this simple message clear and unmuddied: reclamation causes shorebird declines, and the rate of reclamation in the Yellow Sea and elsewhere on the Flyway increased in tandem with the rapid rate of decline of the SBS. Survival of the species depends on conservation of key intertidal wetland sites.

    This message needs to be heard over and over if all the amazing work that is being done for the species is to produce the result that all of us want: a thriving wild population of Spoon-billed Sandpiper. Thanks!

  2. Nial Moores says:

    Charlie,

    Seems part of my LONG comment was truncated in the para stating “Please consider once more”:
    In the middle part the missing bit was along the lines:
    ‘At the Nakdong, the number fell from “several hundred” in the 1970s, to <10 per year in the 1990s after barrage completion; to around five a year now. At Saemangeum, the number fell from a claimed 180-280 at peak in the late 1990s to a few dozen in the mid-2000s to five or so a year now, since seawall closure. Numbers fell rapidly, at a rate higher than the global average, with habitat loss and then reached a new lower equilibrium. There was no evidence of displaced birds successfully relocating to other sites. Reclamation caused declines in the population. Reclamation remains the major threat, with the most important staging site at Rudong in China (where c. 100 were recorded in October 2011) also threatened by reclamation.'

  3. Charlie says:

    Hi Nial.
    Thanks for having this discussion with me ‘in public’ as it were: so much that you and I talk about is never discussed openly and this is a great opportunity to debate this information (or lack of it) in an open forum for anyone interested to join in.
    You are of course absolutely correct, and have been for decades!, and I think in my own rush to get to bed last night I wrote a rather confusing sentence. My thinking after a long and emotionally confusing day was that now the population has reached such disastrously low levels following such massive reclamation projects, the hunting issues – as Christoph describes them from visits to Myanmar and Bangladesh – seems (to me at least) to be helping drive the final nail into the Spoon-billed Sandpiper’s coffin. If (and Christoph is convinced of this) adult mortality is low but young birds are not returning to the breeding grounds so an aging population is not seeing recruitment because (as he says, and I have no evidence to counter his argument) that hunting is removing these ‘recruits’ then hunting might (as I’ve re-written it) be the accelerant pushing the species over the precipice. He may be wrong, or the case is unproven as you say, and that is something we’d planned to discuss when we speak. as I for one would like to understand why it is that young birds don’t seem to be returning north. Of course juveniles may not be reaching the wintering grounds in the first place because of lack of refueling sites, but Christoph is clear that the trappers he spoke to all know what Spoon-billed Sandpipers look like and have trapped them recently.
    For the record (and as I wrote) Christoph (and everyone else I spoke to yesterday) says that reclamation in China is now the biggest threat to the few birds that remain and your suggestion of getting NGOs to work together and provide all relevant governments with data so that there can, in effect, be no excuses this time was being widely praised. No-one doubts that Rudong will be critical and the site must be protected. If Saemangeum and the Nakdong were still intact, living habitats then they would be (you’d hope) top of the list for protection – conservation organisations globally did indeed miss the opportunity to save these precious places and I’ve said as much whenever I’ve had a chance to bring the subject up.
    I’m not going to presume to tell you anything at all about conservation, but like all major conservation and environment issues there are surely many factors at work driving down what is in essence a species close to the end point, and I have to say that it makes sense to me that if trapping is taking place in the only sites where the tiny remnant population of Spoon-billed Sandpipers are overwintering (which is not disputed) then whether they are taken as ‘bycatch’ or not has to be having a major impact – and one that must be having an exaggerated effect now that the devestating effect of massive reclamation has caused the population crash that caused the upgrading from Vulnerable to Critically Endangered?

  4. Hi Charlie,
    Thanks for this excellent post. I, too, was initially sceptical about the merits of the SBS project but thanks to your podcasts with people like Debbie Pain and Christoph, I was completely convinced that it was a necessary step to increase the chances of this species’ long-term survival. I have seen for myself the scale of the reclamations in China and it is staggering. Some of the work by Yang Hong-yan in the Bohai Gulf (focusing on the Red Knot) shows that the reclamations are having a devastating effect on populations of these bird. All of the other species using these sites are likely to be affected in a similar way. I know that the Global Flyway Network is in discussions with WWF China and officials to see what can be done and they have a proposal to try to secure agreement to protect a fraction of the habitat that is left in the Bohai (and there is still quite a bit left). I am also raising the importance of inter-tidal mudflats with my contacts in the Chinese government here in Beijing.
    China has many good environmental laws and regulations but implementation at the local level is a real challenge; “The mountains are high and the emperor is far away” is a saying that is heard often here. So getting the local politics right is key. The weakness in China, of course, is the lack of effective NGOs to challenge the government. Education and building local capacity to get involved in issues like this is crucial but of course this takes time and time is something that some species don’t have a lot of. Nial’s point is right – to maximise the chances of effective action, all interested parties should be speaking with one voice and delivering a simple message to decision-makers at every opportunity. I am happy to offer any assistance I can in Beijing.
    Terry

  5. Nial Moores says:

    Hi Charlie,

    Thanks for this. I am in complete agreement of course: hunting at key sites could become the final nail in the coffin unless it can be stopped. Those working to develop alternatives for local stakeholders and to conserve Spoonies in Bangladesh and Burma are doing a great job and need and deserve everyone’s support (as I wrote earlier).

    It is great too that folks are looking at Rudong / China and that there is the awareness now (about Spoonies, Yellow Sea intertidal wetlands and perhaps about reclamation) that simply was not there when we started our work for Saemangeum more than a decade ago.

    It would be even greater (!) if more conservation organisations and scientists were willing to state openly and unambiguously that there is a clear link between reclamation and declines in certain shorebird species: the science is now good enough on this and on other Flyways to be able to do so.

    While I still have some major concerns about captive breeding of Spoonies (which if its okay I would like to add a sentence or two on below), I also want to applaud the wonderful expertise and work of those who have been and who are now undertaking the project: fantastic. Like you in the UK, we will do what we can here in the ROK to help make sure the conservation breeding program works over the long-term – by working for conservation of intertidal wetlands, and by promoting the strengths and planning for some of the weaknesses of the program. This is fully in the understanding that with the rate of decline there might well have been no other way forward apart from this kind of conservation breeding program – and it is excellent that the world’s best are the ones now doing this work

    Towards success, a few suggestions:

    Every mention of the conservation breeding program, every video clip and article about it should come with a clear statement that unless reclamation (and hunting) stops the species will go extinct. Media must be encouraged to tell this clearly.

    Loopholes that might encourage some nations to start their own captive breeding program of Spoon-billed Sandpipers should be closed. We already have very poorly-advised captive breeding here in the ROK of Crested Ibis (that never bred in the wild in the ROK…); and of crane species (that also never bred). The Slimbridge program should not create incentive or space for similar captive breeding program to be attempted here in the ROK or elsewhere where the expertise is lacking.

    Efforts need to be made in advance too to advise potential funders that a million dollars invested in captive breeding is not adequate mitigation for destroying the species’ habitat.

    Much more effort simultaneously also needs to go into researching in the field what this species feeds on; its roosting needs; and to learn more about its migration phenology (all things already recommended in the Action Plan); and also its moult strategy (enabling us all to age birds in the field reliably).

    And to end with a question about moult: were you and others yesterday also a bit puzzled as to why several of (all of?) the Slimbridge Spoonies are still in juvenile plumage? Spoonies we see here in the wild are already in a grey and white non-breeding plumage by mid-October…and a couple of the Slimbridge birds are still in a plumage more typical of birds in August. Not anything to be concerned about?

    Finally, thanks again for the post and your comments too, Charlie. Hope very much that you will also be able to post a few more images that can then also be used on our blog and websites!

    .

  6. Charlie says:

    Thanks Terry and Nial – your local knowledge and expertise adds a fascinating dimension to this discussion. You are absolutely correct of course that this breeding programme must not be seen as a ‘get out’ for governments in the range states when it comes to implementing legislation to protect key staging sites. I’m sure this is appreciated by conservation organisations involved with Spoon-billed Sandpipers – but I also agree that awareness is one thing but speaking with a coordinated voice has sometimes been another…

    A quick remark about moult. I did ask about that and it’s thought that the birds arrested their moult because of the trauma of the trip to the UK (and ‘trauma’ was used several times yesterday, certainly no-one at WWT was trying to imply that these birds have had an easy time!) and the artificial heat/ lighting conditions they’ve had to be kept in: once the winter accommodation is ready the birds can experience a more natural day length and the thought is that normal moult sequences should be established by the time they’re approaching breeding age.

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