Back in August this year I was fortunate enough to be invited to the British Birdwatching Fair by Jim Lawrence, the Manager of BirdLife’s ‘Preventing Extinctions Programme’. One of the highlights of a truly memorable day was meeting Dr Christoph Zöckler, a conservationist I’d been in occasional contact with over the years but never met.
Christoph has been working on Spoon-billed Sandpiper conservation for many years, and in his role as Chair of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper Recovery Team gave a wonderful illustrated talk at the BirdFair that succinctly explained just how parlous a state this unique shorebird was now in.
To my great delight after the talk Christoph invited me along to a meeting of the Recovery Team which was discussing and refining the Spoon-billed Sandpiper Action Plan – a group which included Christoph himself of course, Russian scientist Dr Evgeny Syroechkovskiy (a broad and broad-smiling man with the strongest handshake I think I’ve ever been gripped by), BirdLife’s Dr Nigel Collar (one of my conservation heroes), Tony (from Biodiversity and Nature Conservation Association (BANCA), the BirdLife affiliate in Myanmar), Minoru Kashiwagi (a co-representative of the Ramsar Network Japan, whom I first met many years ago in Tokyo), BirdLife’s Jez Bird, and several equally-important and upstanding conservationists who’s names I recorded – in preparation for this interview – but (rather shamefully) can’t pick out from a very noisy background of musicians, other conversations, and folks generally enjoying themselves.
Much of the interview that follows was recorded at the BirdFair, but there has (obviously I hope) been a great deal of follow-up work since. I’m very grateful to Christoph for sparing so much time and providing what I think is a genuinely fascinating interview in the process…
Dr Christoph Zöckler works with ArcCona Ecological Consulting, a network of independent consultants based in Cambridge (U.K.) and Kiel (Germany) conducting species surveys, monitoring and assessment work for nature conservation around the world. A hugely experienced conservationist he is currently the Chair of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper Recovery team.
Christoph studied biology in Kiel, Germany and Aberdeen, UK. His 25 years work experience includes 11 years with WWF Germany in nature conservation and site management, two years in a research project at the University in Bremen, and more than twelve years with the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) in Cambridge at their Centre for Biodiversity (UNEP-WCMC). Apart from wet grassland management, agriculture and river restoration in Northern Europe he has been increasingly involved in the conservation of Arctic migratory waterbirds. He worked and managed various international research projects, participated in as many as 13 expeditions to Greenland and the Russian Arctic and has led four research expeditions to South and South-East Asia through his company ArcCona. (He is also one of the friendliest people you could hope to meet!)
Dr Christoph Zöckler, British Birdwatching Fair 2009
Photo copyright Charlie Moores
Charlie: At this year’s British Birdwatching Fair you gave a short but informative and very current talk on the Spoon-billed Sandpiper and your survey work on the breeding grounds in Chukotka (eastern Siberia) and on the wintering grounds in south-east Asia. It was a truly fascinating update – and I wish more people had been able to hear it – but you began the talk by saying that though Chukotka is a hostile place it’s somewhere ‘you want to go back to once you’ve been there’. Your team has done ten seasons of monitoring up there now: could you just give readers a brief description of the region you were working in, and explain what you find so attractive about it?
- CZ: This is difficult to summarise, but I guess the most intriguing is the remoteness, the sense of wilderness, wild open spaces in fantastic scenery, amazing species alongside the Spoon-billed Sandpiper and of course good food if you like fish!
Charlie: You said that snow can a problem even in the summer?
- CZ: Yes, it can be. We are often delayed by bad weather and one year we had to wait for two weeks for good weather , so we could fly by helicopter, though we used sledge dogs and ‘go anywhere’ armoured vehicles we nicknamed “Russian camper vans” to get in to the more remote areas. They’re amazing vehicles. Snow is usually not a constraint and these vehicles can also swim across small rivers!
Charlie: You also mentioned a hazard that shorebird surveyors probably don’t have to face very often – Bears!
- CZ: Yes. Walking around the area is difficult because of Bears. The Spoon-billed Sandpipers tend to breed in very low tundra-type vegetation with few leaves – crowberry or willow – where bears aren’t so much of a problem, and it’s more when we go off exploring more bushy terrain when an encounter with a bear can be tricky. Some parts of Chukotka and Kamchatka are very densely populated by bears, Most of them run away before you see them. Some allow a distant view through the telescope and so far we had no problems. This year was a bit scary, but exciting as well, when a mother with three cubs passed my tent at night at only 30 meters distance. I did not notice them until a friend alerted me and then all swam slowly through the lake. Unfortunately, all this happened in heavy rain, so I could not take any good photos. We’ve encountered more than 60 or more in the breeding areas in the surveys so far in total!
Charlie: As if the birding wasn’t interesting enough! Let’s turn to the birds now, and of course the Spoon-billed Sandpiper. As I said you’ve monitored ten breeding seasons in both North and South Chutotka, and your talk highlighted the fact that there have been serious declines in Spoon-billed Sandpipers in both areas…
- CZ: There have been declines in both northern and southern breeding areas. In 2000 we visited several sites that previously had breeding birds but were abandoned. In 2003 there were still 80 pairs in just one of the key areas we monitored in South Chukotka – last summer there were just 15. Unconfirmed numbers this summer from Pavel Tomkovich suggest there maybe now just 14 pairs, perhaps even as low as just 10. Globally there has been a huge decline: in the 1970s there were perhaps 2000 -2800 pairs – now there seems to be around 130 pairs, perhaps as many as 200. A figure for the total population of 300 pairs remaining is often given but we more and more wonder where these pairs actually should breed. The estimate of 200 pairs max also corresponds with our findings from the wintering area.
Charlie: So you – or you and the Spoon-billed Sandpiper Recovery Team – don’t believe that globally there are even 300 pairs left?
- CZ: I am afraid not, but I hope I am wrong!
Charlie: That’s terribly worrying. I know that there’s no single cause for the decline – Spoon-billed Sandpipers are facing problems on the breeding grounds, staging grounds, and in their wintering areas – but is at least possible to indicate what’s happening to impact so heavily on breeding pairs and subsequent fledging rates?
Nesting Spoon-billed Sandpiper, Chutotka
Photograph copyright Josef Kaurov
- CZ: Not precisely, no, that’s something we’re still trying to determine. However Kamchatka is changing rapidly, with more and more commercial fisheries coming in to the area which means that the numbers of gulls are increasing rapidly as they’re attracted to the waste the industry creates. We counted 5000 Slaty-backed Gulls on one spit this year and they must be impacting on nesting birds. Hatching success has always been partly dependent on disturbance by gulls, foxes, and skuas though – there has always been these predators. They’re worrying, but they have always been there and numbers have actually been rather stable in large areas of the breeding range in Chukotka. The changes we observed don’t really explain the rapid decline we noticed.
Seven sites in our monitoring area have however been completely abandoned partly due to North American /European egg collectors and skin collectors acting though Russian middle men – so deliberate human disturbance even in such a remote area is a concern…
Charlie: So the number of Spoon-billed Sandpipers being born is falling. Do we know how the ones that are hatched are doing?
- CZ: Fledgling survival rates are not well known, no, so we need to look for young birds in the wintering areas and extrapolate back.
Charlie: To do that you need to be able to identify birds originating from your monitoring areas by banding or flagging…
- CZ: That’s right. We’ve banded or flagged every bird that we could, but we’ve stopped it now as the species has become too rare and we won’t jeopardise them by any further human interference. Exceptionally some 10 chicks this year were flagged by the very experienced Russian researcher Pavel Tomkovich, but due to adverse weather conditions it’s unlikely the chicks have survived. To identify our birds though we use two different colours: light green flags for southern breeding birds and light blue for birds breeding in northern Chutotka. Then we look for flagged birds in south-east Asia in the winter.
Flagged Spoon-billed Sandpiper chick, Chutotka
Photograph copyright Christoph Zöckler
Charlie: I know you’ve seen one of your birds in Myanmar, but before we move away from Chutotka can I ask you about the chicks. Chicks are actually born with the spoon-shaped bill aren’t they (and I hate the word ‘cute’, but Spoon-billed Sandpiper chicks really are ‘cute’ birds…).
- CZ: Yes, they are – right from the beginning they have the unique bill. They’re beautifully camouflaged in the nest, but they leave the nests very quickly – they start running after the last chick has hatched just after a few hours and independently pick at food. Adults accompany the juveniles for at least 16 days though, by which time they’re starting to moult out of juvenile plumage, but they’re still dependent on the adults for protection.
Charlie: At what age do birds start to leave the breeding areas?
- CZ: We have seen very few birds in the breeding colonies after the end of July and we assume that young birds leave a few days after becoming independent, lets say around 20-25 days old.
Charlie: At which point they – as far as we know – head down the coast to the Yellow Sea, perhaps into the Bay of Thailand, and then on to south-east Asia?
- CZ: Yes, and juveniles migrate separately from the adults.Their migration route is inherent and juveniles know their way like most sandpiper species.
Charlie: Which is remarkable. They may know the way, Christoph, but there have been huge changes to the habitats along the route. I’ll be discussing the problems with reclamation in the Yellow Sea with Nial (Moores) in more detail in another interview in this series, but can I just ask you what impact you think the huge Saemangeum reclamation on South Korea’s west cost has had on the species?
- CZ: I think it has had a major impact, because I think the species is not only site faithful on the breeding grounds but also on staging sites and in winter with little opportunities to escape. The numbers in Korea have dropped visibly since the reclamation and birds have not been seen elsewhere in larger numbers. The loss of such crucial stopover sites is having a major impact and the mudflats of the Yellow Sea area might be the bottleneck for this and many other wader species that rely on these important sites for refuelling.
Charlie: You mentioned after your talk at the Birdfair that there is a slight possibility that there may be some migration inland, perhaps over the Himalayas, and that birds may be staging at Donting Lake in China. Is that a real possibility – it seems unlikely for a bird so adapted for feeding on very specific estuarine substrates?
- CZ: This theory is much favoured by some within our team and although I don’t think the birds cross the Himalayas, some might actually make a short cut and cross southern China from the wintering areas in NE bay of Bengal (Myanmar and Bangladesh) to arrive in the stop over sites in Eastern China and Korea. It is an intriguing research question and also important for conservation but so far there has never been a record further inland than 7 km in the breeding as well the non-breeding areas, with the majority being less than 5km inland. In order to prove the theory we would need to attach transmitters, but they’re still not small enough to safely attach to a small wader without harming it.
Charlie: The majority though are presumably passing through the Yellow Sea in September/October and arriving in south-east Asia a month or so later. You’ve surveyed wintering areas in south-east Asia in 2008 and 2009 – and the picture is not all that encouraging there either. In Vietnam’s Red River Delta for example, where more than 27 individuals were recorded in the mid-1990s, not a single Spoon-billed Sandpiper was seen in January 2009?
- CZ: Yes, we surveyed between the 8-9th and 18th of January. Six expedition members – from Russia, Japan and Vietnam – looked at three key locations in the delta, Quan Lan, Thai Thuy and Xuan Thuy, where the species had been observed before. In spite of intensive efforts, no Spoon-billed Sandpipers were seen, although over 5,700 shorebirds were counted, and most of them identified to species level.
Charlie: Is that symptomatic of the overall decline or could birds have been elsewhere at the time of the surveys?
- CZ: The survey didn’t cover the whole coast and some may have been missed, but not in any serious numbers. Evgeny [Syroechkovskiy, a leading member of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper Recovery Team] has said it’s likely that local habitat transformation and illegal bird trapping were among the main reasons for the species decline, but problems at migratory stop over sites and on the breeding grounds may have contributed of course. We just don’t know at the moment.
Adult Spoon-billed Sandpiper, Chutotka
Photo copyright Christoph Zöckler
Charlie: I was surprised – given how long I’ve been interested in Spoon-billed Sandpipers – to learn from your talk that the much-discussed previous winter records from the Sundarbans, the vast mangrove area in Bangladesh and West Bengal, India, are mis-identifications?
- CZ: We went to the Indian Sundarbans and searched a huge area and found none at all. The records of 14 birds that were claimed turned out after careful investigation to be Temminck’s Stints or something else. They were also claimed in the wrong type of habitat. There are areas on the outer edges of the Sundarbans, sandy island with reasonable sized mudflats around them, that could host some Spoon-billed Sandpipers, but we did not find any at all. We have not been to the Bangladeshi Sundarbans, but consider now after our experience that the Delta islands, Eastern Bangladesh and Myanmar are much more suitable and important wintering sites.
Charlie: When you say ‘we’, Christoph, who actually takes part in these surveys by the way?
- CZ: The Myanmar survey in mid-January was conducted by an international team of German, British, Russian, Canadian and Burmese scientists, led by BANCA (BirdLife in Myanmar) and myself. Volunteeers are welcome by the way. Surveying tidal flats is incredibly dirty work – we end up covered in mud every day – but it is very interesting and very rewarding. These surveys are recording data on one of the world’s rarest birds after all, in areas few birders have ever been to and we collect a lot of other very important bird data and enhance coastal conservation.
Charlie: Sounds fantastic – mucky, but fantastic. Anyone interested in joining the survey teams should contact you directly Christoph?
- CZ: Yes. Please email cz – AT – arccona.com
Charlie: The Sundarbans must have been very disappointing but you had more success in surveys in the core wintering areas in Bangladesh and Myanmar?
View Larger Map
- CZ: Southern Bangladesh and the Gulf/Bay of Martaban [due east of the capital Yangon/Rangoon] in Myanmar, yes. In total, 63 birds were found by two teams, operating on the Rakhine (Arakan) coast and in the Bay of Martaban. The total of 48 birds in the Bay of Martaban was similar to the 2008 figure, but at the island of Nan Thar near the Bangladeshi border, only 14 were recorded, compared with 35 in 2008. The apparent decline on Nan Thar may be because birds dispersed more widely at the prevailing neap tides at the time, but that’s something we need to find out in future years.
We do consider the Bay of Martaban to be the most important wintering area though – we found birds in both 2007/2008 and 2008/2009 and as you said earlier we even found one of our own birds with a light blue flag from northern Chutotka. One of our own birds all the way down in Myanmar…very exciting indeed…
Charlie: I can imagine! Martaban is a huge area isn’t it – there could have been more birds there than you found?
- CZ: It’s very big indeed – too large and broad to survey completely with a small team in fact and also quite dangerous due to its dynamic character developing regularly tidal bores. Our survey covered only 25-40% of suitable habitat, and the flocks of waders were difficult to approach. The surveys also took place during neap tides, when some prime feeding areas had dried out resulting in considerable local movements within the bay. The 48 birds we observed are a minimum count, and probably well below the total number that winters in the estuary. Taking everything into consideration Martaban may hold more than 100 Spoon-billed Sandpiper in winter – by far the most important site we know of. We also estimate a total of more than 100,000 waders, making it one of only 20 global coastal mudflats that have this significance for shorebirds.
Charlie: Is the site protected at all?
- CZ: It has no protected status at present, no, putting the site at risk from development.
Charlie: Talking at the Birdfair, Tony from BANCA – who is from Myanmar of course – said that he thought that development in the Bay is not a threat at the moment. Estuaries worldwide are under immense pressure. Do you feel confident that Martaban can survive intact without formal protection?
- CZ: This is difficult to answer and of course any guess is speculative as we do not know of any plans. But considering the huge and increasing investment of Chinese companies, plans to embark the entire estuary could come up quite suddenly. Would ‘protection’ stop that is a different question, but I do think that the close vicinity of the capital Yangon might deter anybody from making too crazy development plans. The recent news of some oil or gas pipeline crossing the Bay are of course also worrying, but that’s still in planning I believe. But it tells you that we have to be on the alert and any kind of formal protection would help.
Charlie: Can coastal development along the East Asian/Australasian Flyway be stopped?
- CZ: SE Asia and China and Korea in particularly are developing at a very fast pace, and we are not so naive to think we can stop any kind of coastal development. We can only appeal to them to also consider the issue in relation to the loss of ecosystem services that go with the loss of coastal habitats: in fact small-scale fisheries are increasingly threatened by the lack of mudflats and intertidal areas that are vital for fisheries and shrimp farming. Only if we can find partners within the local population and within the corporate side, in governments, we will be able to turn the tide and save some crucial coastal sites for the species and of course for human well being.
Charlie: There have already been huge changes to estuarine sites in Bangladesh though?
- CZ: We found enormous changes along the Bangladesh coastline – dams, embankments along the mudflats, salt pans, shrimp farms etc – none of it good for Spoon-billed Sandpipers. It’s still highly significant as a wintering area for them but we are very concerned that the last suitable habitats for them will be destroyed over the next few years.
Charlie: And the number of Spoon-billed Sandpipers wintering in Myanmar near the Bangladeshi border have declined recently already?
- CZ: There has already been a huge decline since 2008 and we found just 14 birds. Something other than habitat loss must have happened, but what? The major problem appears to be fishermen catching shorebirds instead of fish. They’re catching many different shorebird species, not targeting Spoon-billed Sandpipers specifically as they want larger birds, but while they’re catching larger shorebirds some 2 out of 3 of the smaller shorebirds they trap die as ‘bycatch’ in nets which are often left for hours before being checked.
Charlie: That’s absolutely tragic. Yet despite all of this bad news and large declines in the global population you sounded quite optimistic at the Birdfair. In fact you’re quoted on the BirdlIfe International site saying that, “There is still hope for the globally threatened Spoon-billed Sandpiper”.
- CZ: Yes, I do believe that there is still hope for the Spoon-billed Sandpiper. We have a very good Action Plan now. Birdlife has given us great support, and the species is of course a key part of the ‘Preventing Extinctions Programme’. WildSounds [we have an interview with WildSounds' Pieter Wessels coming up in this series] has contributed major new funding by becoming Species Champions for the Spoon-billed Sandpiper.
We’re also working on the ground of course: we want to establish coastal zone management in both Bangladesh and Myanmar, and provide economical alternatives to catching birds – possibly through developing eco-tourism. And the people who live where the birds are found are willing to help once they understand the problem. Fishermen in the region don’t want to catch rare birds. They’re very poor people but very open-minded. With the support of a member of a local environmentalist group we negotiated an immediate halt to trapping with the hunters from two villages which take birds from Nan Thar in return for a small compensation. We asked them to stop and they did for very small amounts of money – the Lighthouse Foundation provided a small grant to fund that work which we’re grateful for…In Russia similarly we’re training people make them aware of what they have, to appreciate the treasures they have right on their own doorsteps.
Most people don’t know anything about Spoon-billed Sandpipers so we’re going into schools etc and once they realise what they’ve got they’re happy to help. There are opportunities to save the species, so, yes, I think there’s still hope.
|Drs Christoph Zöckler and Evgeny Syroechkovskiy, key members of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper Recovery Group. If anyone still thinks that conservation is a dry academic exercise conducted by dry academics hopefully this photo will help bury that myth once and for all…|
Charlie: Christoph, that’s a motivating place to end this interview, so I’ll stop there. Thankyou so much for taking the time to talk to us. Before you go though, you plan to go back to Mynamar and Bangladesh to continue your work halting shorebird trapping. You’re launching an Appeal – for anyone interested in contributing could you tell us what you’re looking to achieve, and at the same time can I announce that we will be donating 150USD to get the appeal off to a good start.
- CZ: Thank you for your support! From recent surveys in the wintering areas we’ve learned, as I said, that bird trapping is happening at a large scale in Myanmar, Vietnam and Bangladesh. The Bay of Martaban is also highly targeted by local people. We need to find out how many people trap regularly and how many birds are taken. We also need to find out more about the people’s social and economic needs in order to address the trapping and find economic alternatives. Climate Change and coastal development are much harder to address but among the many issues facing the Spoon-billed Sandpiper this is the most urgent and the most rewarding as we can address it immediately.
Charlie: Many thanks Christoph, and the best of luck.
- CZ: Thanks Charlie, and thanks to any of your readers who might be thinking of helping us.
All images copyright as captioned and strictly used with permission
- Tomorrow as part of our series highlighting the Spoon-billed Sandpiper we will be posting another fascinating interview, this time with my brother Nial Moores, Director of the conservation organisation Birds Korea, who has been working to conserve the Spoon-billed Sandpiper and wetland habitats in East Asia for many years. He is also one of the last birders/conservationists who will ever see a large flock of Spoon-billed Sandpipers on migration…
The series of posts on the Spoon-billed Sandpiper has been written with Birds Korea to promote wetland conservation and as part of our commitment to Birdlife International’s ‘Preventing Extinctions Programme‘, which we signed up to as Species Champions in January 2009.
Species Champions are ”a growing community of Companies, Institutions and Individuals who share our concerns and demonstrate their commitment to protecting the planet’s natural heritage by funding the work undertaken by our Species Guardians”.
- For a full list of Species Champions please go to BirdLife Species Champions ‘Roll of Honour’.