Non-breeding Spoon-billed Sandpiper, Yubu Island, South Korea, October 15 2008
Photograph copyright Espen Lie Dahl
A few weeks ago I trailed a series of posts planned to give current data on one of the world’s most charismatic, rapidly-declining, and threatened birds – the Critically Endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper Eurynorhynchus pygmeus, a unique, migratory shorebird confined in rapidly dwindling numbers to the East Asian/Australasian Flyway (a migratory waterbird flyway extending from within the Arctic Circle in Russia and Alaska, southwards through East and South-east Asia, to Australia and New Zealand in the south, encompassing 22 countries. Migratory waterbirds share this flyway with 45% of the world’s human population.).
At the time I wrote that “Few birders outside of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper’s narrow range will have ever seen one and few probably know very much about where it’s found, what threats it faces, and what’s being done to protect it”, and that “my aim is to put flesh and bones on what to many birders is probably no more than a name in a book, or a potential tick on a world list. By looking at what has caused its decline I’ll also be looking at factors affecting many of the region’s threatened waterbirds” – factors like reclamation or barraging of wetlands, illegal hunting, and disturbance of breeding colonies which are affecting waterbirds all over the world.
And the decline of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper has been spectacular, if almost unnoticed. Breeding only in north-eastern Russia, staging on the enormous tidal flats of the Yellow Sea and Japan, and wintering in south-east Asia the species was probably never abundant because of highly-specialised habitat requirements at all stages of its life, but according to Nordenskjold (1881) it was encountered in such large numbers by members of an expedition to Chutotka “that they found their way to the officer’s table on many occasions” (Portenko 1972). Over the last thirty years, though, the global population has – to use a well-worn phrase – dropped off a cliff.
Listed in 2001 in the Threatened Birds of Asia: The BirdLife International Red Data Book as Vulnerable with a population optimistically estimated at between 2,000 and 2,800 pairs, there are now thought to be less than 300 pairs left, and – to quote BirdLife International – “action is now urgently required to prevent the extinction of this species”.
How did a species that – on the face of it – would seem to breed in an area almost untouched by man, that migrates through an area with some of the largest tidal-flats in the world, and winters (again) in vast areas of benthic-rich mud become so rare? Over the course of six posts, four of them interviews with conservationists heavily involved with trying to stop this beautiful bird joining an ever-growing list of extinct birds, we aim to provide the answer. As ever, we’re indebted to the people who have shared their knowledge, hopes and fears, and drive and commitment – their very passion for this small bird in fact – for the information that follows: if you have stories, images, or comments you’d like to share please do so.
Breeding plumaged Spoon-billed Sandpiper, Simpo, South Korea, May 22 2008
Photographs copyright Danny Rogers
Described by Linneaus in 1758 as Platalea pygmea and moved to Eurynorhynchus (loosely meaning ‘wide at the muzzle’) by Swedish zoologist Sven Nilson in 1821, the Spoon-billed Sandpiper is – at between 14 and 16cm – a stint about the same size as a Western Sandpiper Calidris maura.
Similar in general colouration to many of its congeners, its distinctive feature is of course its stout, black bill, which uniquely ends in a wide, flared, slightly concave tip unlike any other bird’s on the planet. Surprisingly hard to see in profile or at a distance (see Kim Shin Hwan’s image below), the use that this beautiful bird has for its most unusual ‘spoon bill’ has only just been uncovered by Australian biologist Danny Rogers of the Australasian Waders Study Group (AWSG) who spent long hours studying feeding Spoon-billed Sandpipers in South Korea. He has apparently found that rather than just sweeping the bill from side to side to filter organisms from water (like members of the Spoonbill Platelea family after which the species’ English name derives), the Spoon-billed Sandpiper actually first ‘hammers’ the substrate to turn it into a ‘soup’ from which it then extracts food objects. Full details and an explanation of his remarkable observations will be published in a paper soon, but doesn’t it seem remarkable that it’s taken until the 21st Century – when the species is on the brink of extinction – for us to learn this?
It’s taken this long because very few people – including birders and conservationists – have actually wanted to or been able to watch a Spoon-billed Sandpiper for any length of time. Contrary to what many might think this isn’t because the species rarely comes into contact with us. True, until recently the Russian breeding-grounds were almost devoid of humans, but it passes through one of the world’s most densely populated regions, the Yellow Sea, twice a year – but (and I’m theorising here slightly) few Chinese or Koreans even noticed the Spoon-billed Sandpiper as it fed quietly amongst shifting flocks of shorebirds out on tidal-flats so huge that it would have taken a day to walk across them. Separating migrating Spoon-billed Sandpipers from migrating Red-necked Stints and Dunlins would have been extremely difficult even if locals had wanted to see them, and after they left the Yellow Sea and spiralled down onto the massive estuarine mudflats of Bangladesh and Burma they effectively vanished…
Two Spoon-billed Sandpiper with Red-necked Stints and a Dunlin, South Korea, May 22 2008
Photographs copyright IKim Shin Hwan
Moulting adult Spoon-billed Sandpiper, Yubu Island, South Korea, September 12 2007
Photograph copyright Nial Moores/Birds Korea
I can feel some conservationists wincing at such a romanticised version of events, and perhaps they’d be right to. The truth is more likely to be that the scientific study of birds came relatively late to eastern and south-eastern Asia: most birds were (and still are in many cases) often thought of as little more than a seasonal and transient protein resource. Relatively wealthy ornithologists in the West may have had time to look closely at birds, but to a member of a subsistence society it hardly mattered what species was in the net – common or unique and scarce, once it was caught it would be eaten. Thanks may have been given to whatever deity it was thought provided the annual harvest, but otherwise it really was of no consequence whether the bird had an odd bill or not…
In reality the Spoon-billed Sandpiper was just one of a wide range of shorebirds that arrived and left, regular as clockwork, mostly unnoticed, mostly unremarked upon. Linnaeus may have described the species in 1758, but it’s likely that apart from the occasional specimen ‘collected’ on scientific expeditions like the one referred to above, very few Spoon-billed Sandpipers indeed were identified and even fewer studied until birding (and overseas travel) became popular around the 1970s and birders began to explore previously rarely visited areas. For tens of thousands of years it flew up and down the Flyway, essentially a narrow corridor of suitable sites linking the breeding and wintering grounds, without anyone noticing.
Adult Spoon-billed Sandpiper, Simpo, South Korea, April 22 2008
Photograph copyright Richard Chandler
In the last fifty years, though, the natural world the Spoon-billed Sandpiper evolved in has unfortunately been changing massively and irrevocably. The Russian breeding-grounds – once remote and only dotted with small habitations – have become increasingly disturbed and exploited for its minerals and fish; the tidal-flats of the Yellow Sea have absorbed tens of millions of people and have been largely separated from the sea and developed; and the human population in Bangladesh (and perhaps to a lesser extent in Burma) has exploded, putting enormous pressure on wetlands and other natural resources. As its habitat has been taken away from it across its entire range, the population of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper has plummeted – precisely at the same time that the interest in birds has rocketed upwards.
When I was growing up the Spoon-billed Sandpiper, and to a lesser extent two other eastern shorebirds, the Red-necked Stint and the Long-toed Stint, was right at the top of my ‘most wanted’ birds. Like many of my birding friends I fantasised about where one would would first be found in the UK, and about getting the phone-call which gave directions to the bird and details of what time we’d leave to go and see it. The call never came. In truth it was probably never likely that it would: it’s a distinctive species but it has never been identified in Europe, has hardly ever been seen outside the east Asian/Australasian Flyway, and I strongly suspect now that it’s so rare it never will.
Individuals were being seen elsewhere though. The world-renowned Mai Po in Hong Kong became THE place to see the species in the 1980s – but records there have more or less dried up now. In the 1990s it seemed that Khok Kham, a small area of salt pans south of Bangkok in Thailand, was the best bet for travelling birders to add Spoon-billed Sandpiper to their world list (the hype became a little silly though given how the species only wintered here in tiny numbers and I remember one over-excited mail to a listserve giving directions to Khok Kham which was ludicrously headed ‘The most important map in the world’ ) – one or two still turn up every year now, but for how much longer? In the late 1990′s – early 2000′s my brother Nial Moores, now Director of the NGO Birds Korea, noted flocks of Spoon-billed Sandpipers staging on a very small number of estuarine tidal flats in South Korea: birders began planning spring and autumn trips to South Korea but now every site he discovered and reported from has been developed (most critically the huge area known as Saemangeum, which was perhaps the most important shorebird staging site in the Yellow Sea and which was finally closed off from the tide behind a 33km seawall in April 2006) or is under threat of development, and the species is becoming ever harder and harder to find.
Recently Christoph Zöckler, who leads the Spoon-billed Sandpiper Recovery Team has found the species wintering in what now seems like large numbers (48 in total) in the Bay of Martaban, Burma/Myanamar, but at the same time found that this incredibly rare and wonderful bird is dying as ‘bycatch’ in nets set to catch larger shorebirds. Christoph’s colleagues in Russia have reported from the breeding grounds that most of the known breeding sites – and the species is noted as being very site-faithful – have been abandoned: rather than move to new areas it’s far more likely that there are simply fewer and fewer birds in the general population, and many of those are not surviving on migration routes that no longer hold the habitat they need to feed.
The Spoon-billed Sandpiper’s global population is dwindling and ageing – a situation that means that without urgent help the species can not last for much longer. A unique, wonderful bird that most birders badly want to see and most serious ornithologists know virtually nothing about is disappearing from the planet almost as we watch…
Adult Spoon-billed Sandpiper, Nakdong Estuary, South Korea, September 19 2007
Photograph copyright Jan Van der Kam
All images copyright as captioned and strictly used with permission
- Tomorrow as part of a series highlighting the Spoon-billed Sandpiper we will be posting a fascinating interview with Christoph Zöckler looking at his work with the Spoon-billed Sandpiper Recovery Team and launching an appeal to fundraise for a trip he is making to Myanamar in the winter.
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’.