WWT DVD: ‘Saving the Spoon-billed Sandpiper’

spoon-billed sandpiper DVD large

The blurb on the WWT website trails this amazing DVD with the words: “Shot guerrilla-style, in the field by its stars, saving the spoon-billed sandpiper brings real-life human drama to the nature documentary format. The film features stunning footage of spoon-billed sandpipers, as a handful of the last remaining pairs attempt to breed in the fleeting Arctic summer.”

Stirring stuff, and while I don’t really understand what ‘guerilla-style’ means (it seems to be ‘using hand-held digicams’ which is what you’d expect given the terrain and its remoteness) I have absolutely no quibble at all with the description or the sentiment. The film does feature stunning footage, it is dramatic, and the Spoon-billed Sandpiper is indeed down to its last few remaining pairs…

I won’t waste anyone’s time explaining what a Spoon-billed Sandpiper is (I’m confident that anyone who finds their way to this particular website will already know) except to say that it is one of the most threatened shorebird species on the planet. It’s being hammered by a combination of threats on the once-remote Chukotka breeding grounds (by eg climate-change, range-expansion of predatory Slaty-backed Gulls into the region on the back of growth of the fishing industry etc), by ongoing massive reclamation of the Yellow Sea tidal-flats they and a host of other staging shorebirds depended on for refuelling stops, and by reclamation and casual hunting on the few known wintering grounds. Never abundant the Spoon-billed Sandpiper is now right on the very edge of extinction, its global population shrinking by a quarter every year as not enough immatures are surviving to adulthood to replace ‘natural’ loss.

The decline of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper is nothing new or especially sudden though – even if the majority of the world’s conservationists and birders didn’t realise it at the time. Still listed as just Vulnerable as recently as 2001 in the ‘Threatened Birds of Asia: The BirdLife International Red Data Book‘ with a population optimistically estimated at ‘between 2,000 and 2,800 pairs’ it is now – just a few years later – recognised as being Critically Endangered. There are almost certainly not much more than 30 breeding pairs left. As a co-founder of Birds Korea I’ve been passionate about the Spoon-billed Sandpiper for more than a decade and as an organisation we’ve been asking for years for urgent action to be taken to save the species.

I recognise that that’s always been easier said than done of course. Both China and the Republic of Korea (countries which border the Yellow Sea) have policies in place that make destroying tidal-flats far easier than here in Europe. They are immensely wealthy and powerful countries that have historically had little regard for NGOs or environmentalists. Except for Russian scientists and researchers like ArcCona’s Christoph Zockler few people were able to visit the breeding-grounds (for logistical reasons in the main), and the presumed wintering grounds were vast and partly lay inside Myanamar, a country that at the time was virtually closed to outsiders. The data was difficult to collect in other words, and apart from observable declines in Chutotka (which couldn’t entirely rule out breeding birds moving to new unexplored areas) it wasn’t until Birds Korea’s ‘Saemangeum Shorebird Monitoring Programme‘ (2006-2008) that figures were obtained which demonstrated just what a catastrophic impact industrial-scale tidal-flat destruction was having on shorebirds using the East-Asian/Australasian Flyway (EAAF).

Readers of this article may be wondering why I’m filling a review of a Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust‘s DVD with a history lesson. It’s because I think it’s vital that the incredible efforts that (in particular) WWT’s Nigel Jarrett and Martin McGill went to in their mission to travel to Russia, collect (under licence and with full permission of course) Spoon-billed Sandpiper eggs, and bring the hatched chicks back to the UK, must be seen in the context of just how much work still needs to be done.

I don’t suppose there’s an interested party anywhere who has anything but respect and admiration for Nigel, Martin and the rest of the team (and particularly for WWT’s Dr Debbie Pain who is as committed a conservationist as you could wish to meet). In the DVD Nigel and Martin don’t as much as even hint that they might think of themselves as ‘heroes’ – but that’s what they are. The conditions they worked in, their care and attention to detail, and the energy they devoted to the chicks underpins the DVD. For all the beautiful scenery and the unprecedented footage of the breeding-plumaged adult birds, I’d be willing to bet that it will be the looks of both exhaustion and elation on Nigel and Martin’s faces that will remain in the memory longest.

‘Shot guerilla-style’ or not this is a remarkably well-made, well-edited, and highly insightful DVD. It’s well-soundtracked too, and not a minute too long at just over an hour. I’m not really in a position to urge anyone to buy it, but I would definitely recommend anyone thinking about doing so to go ahead. Not least because the money – it’s just GBP9.99, less than most birders probably spend on coffee in a week – will fund the conservation work that a truly admirable conservation organisation does (and forget any redundant thoughts you may have that WWT is all about tame ducks and teashops, it does fantastic conservation work around the globe now).

But if you do buy it please then spend some time looking into the subject after you’ve watched it. Have a look at what is happening on the EAAF, have a look at the work that is being done regionally and along the EAAF, and ask questions. Yes, while there is now a very welcome conservation-breeding programme and a ‘reservoir’ of Spoon-billed Sandpipers in protection, how will those birds ever get back on the Flyway if there is no habitat to support them? How would they survive if hunting pressures aren’t alleviated? How will anyone KNOW when it’s safe to put them back if there’s no funding to ensure research can take place in Russia, Korea, China, Myanamar etc? The answers are that without continued funding they won’t…

I don’t mean to sound churlish in any way (and there’s a danger that I do) but while I’m 100% supportive of WWT and the work they do, we’re actually still a very long way from ‘Saving the Spoon-billed Sandpiper’ just yet…



Show Notes

The Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT) is a leading UK conservation organisation saving wetlands for wildlife and people across the world.

Founded in 1946 by the naturalist and artist, the late Sir Peter Scott, WWT is the only UK charity with a national network of nine specialist wetland visitor centres. With over 60 years experience of wetland conservation, WWT is committed to the protection of wetlands and all that depend on them for survival.


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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


  1. Ken Tucker says:

    Hi Charlie

    You’re right, of course, we are still a long way from saving the Spoon-billed Sandpiper. You of all people know that after your supreme efforts to protect this species’ habitat in Korea. However, WWT are not working alone. Things have come a long way in the last few years and now the Spoon-billed Sandpiper Task Force involves people and organisations from every part of the bird’s range and beyond. As you know only too well, stopping land reclamation on its East Asian flyway is not going to be easy, but momentum is gathering in China and more and more people are sticking up for this bird and the others that share this flyway that are going the same way. On the wintering grounds, money provided by e.g. the two species champions (Heritage Expeditions and Wildsounds) has helped to develop alternative livelihoods for people that were hunting waders for food and this has been put into place very quickly. The Spoon-billed Sandpiper is still a long way from being saved but things are now finally being done – it’s not just conservation breeding. I don’t know if it will be enough to stop the species going extinct in the wild, its future hangs in the balance. The needless loss of Semangeum was a terrible blow, but I hope it need not spell the end for this species. The Spoon-billed Sandpiper Task Force is so much more than this video which depicts just one small, vital part of the work being undertaken. There is always a need for more money, more commitment and more support from range states… but the Task Force is working together in a way that is rare and worthy of credit. There is progress being made. We can only hope it is not too late.

    All the best

  2. Ken Tucker says:

    PS – Forgot to say that this video is as good as Charlie says and I would recommend that you buy it. The WWT is an organisation putting its money where its mouth is and striving so hard for the future of some of the worlds most endangered species. They deserve our support.

  3. Charlie Moores says:

    Hi Ken
    Many thanks for your important comments. Yes, there are things being done for the Spoon-billed Sandpiper – and the Task Force, the Species Champions, and the groups around the world are working extremely hard. Perhaps I didn’t express it clearly enough, but what I meant by asking anyone who buys the DVD and is enthused by the story was to go and look at what work is being done and support that too. I linked to quite a few posts and interviews on the TN site to hopefully steer people in the right direction – maybe I should have been a little more obvious!

  4. Ken Tucker says:

    Hi Charlie
    I totally agree with you. Lots of aspects that can be supported and lots of information out there. What a change from when you and Nial were campaigning to save Saemangeum and it all seemed so far away and with so little known about SBS.
    Keep up the good work.

  5. michael jackson says:

    About the dvd saving the spoon billed sandpiper, i baught the dvd at the birdfair mainly because it was helping the conservation effort, expecting a routine begging type dvd, i was suprised and entertained by what i saw i would reccomend the dvd to anyone interested in helping the WWT and the project. the film was well made and the footage of the birds was stunning a follow up dvd must surely be in the offing following the birds in the uk and the subsequent return trips to collect more eggs, more footage of the birds of the area that share the tundra with the spoon billed sandpiper would be nice. keep up the good work only wish i could work on the project too.
    regards michael

  6. Charlie Moores says:

    Thanks again Ken. Yes, thankfully the days when the SBS was at the top of everybody’s ‘most wanted’ list but no-one knew much about it are long gone…the next ten years will be very interesting I’m sure :)

  7. Charlie Moores says:

    Michael, thanks for your comment. The DVD is – as you rightly say – NOT a ‘routine begging DVD’. It’s so much more than that, and – I agree – if they do make another one some footage of the other birds out there wouldn’t be a bad thing :)

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