Speaker: James Robinson
Reporter: Sue Gale
James Robinson is lucky enough to work for the Wildlife and Wetlands Trust (WWT) at Slimbridge, although like most of us he is spending more time at home than at Slimbridge at the moment. WWT has been a leading partner in the international efforts to save the Spoon- billed Sandpiper from extinction, so who better to tell us the story and give us the latest update?
Why is this small wader worthy of all this attention? It is a unique wader in that it has a spatulate bill which makes it immediately identifiable to everyone, birder or not. No-one has a clear idea of why it has this bill, but it does make it a charismatic little bird that captures the imagination – important for campaigning purposes! It has been chosen as the flagship species for intertidal wetland conservation along the East-Asian /Australasian flyway. Over 50 million birds use this flyway each year, of which 8 million are waders, and all of them are threatened by changes
along this route. The Spoon-billed Sandpiper, however, is critically endangered. The population is down from 2500 pairs in the 1970s to around 350 pairs in 2005. Saving this bird will also help the future prospects of 50 other species using the flyway that are at risk of global extinction.
So, what is the problem? Principally that 80% of wetlands in this part of the world are under threat, mostly from human development. 50% of intertidal areas in China and South Korea have already been lost to land reclamation. The Sandpipers nest in Arctic Russia, in sparsely vegetated coastal areas, in particular in Meinypil’gyno! (I won’t be using that name again!)
Habitat here is still fine however, and investigators have realised that the problem is the loss and degradation of the staging sites, where all of these birds rest and feed up when migrating. There has been extensive reclamation in the Yellow Sea area in China, for example around Saemantium where 400square kilometres of intertidal wetland have been lost. Another problem is the subsistence hunting of waders, where illegal mist nets can trap huge numbers. Our Sandpipers are only an accidental victim, but their loss can be crucial to their survival.
So, what is the plan? WWT and its international partners have established and enacted a 5- point plan to prevent extinction:-
1. Establish a conservation breeding programme. ie create an ark where a population of captive birds can guarantee the future survival of the species while work goes on to solve the problems. This, however, seems to be far from easy. In May 2011 a team from WWT travelled to arctic Russia to collect eggs for the project and transport them back to Slimbridge. Here
there are experts who have participated in captive breeding of other species, that should give the project a good start. The first challenge is to locate the nests of these elusive little birds – after waiting for the snow to melt. A total of 25 eggs were located and carried with the greatest care to the mainland. Here the eggs were placed in incubators, where some hatched. Eventually 12 eggs and 8 chicks were taken to Slimbridge via Moscow zoo. 13 Arrived in the reserve, which was not enough for the programme. A team repeated the process in 2012 and returned with 17 more. For the next 3 years there were signs of breeding activity but no eggs. Then in 2016 two pairs laid eggs. Two hatched but the chicks died in days. In 2017 there were no eggs, partly explained by the fact that the two breeding males of 2016 had died in the interim. Everything was being tried to persuade these birds to breed, and eventually in 2019 there were three eggs, two of which produced fledged birds, and these two males are still alive. The flock by this time was reduced to only 8 birds, 5 of which were male, including the two young ones. 2020 saw no breeding. This is obviously an ageing population now, and scientists are taking stock of the situation and considering whether this tactic needs to be repeated.
2. Headstarting in Russia. WVBS members will remember that this technique has been used at Welney to help the Black-tailed Godwit population. Aviaries have been set up in the breeding areas and eggs transferred to them for rearing. This gives a far greater productivity than
breeding in the wild, as it gives good protection against predation, and obviously guarantees food supplies etc. The 0.6 fledged chicks per pair in the wild is increased to 3.1 in the Headstart project. In 2012 9 birds were released, and currently 20-30 birds are released each year. Many Headstarted birds have been sighted on the flyway and 20 are known to have returned to breed between 2014 and 2019. In 2017 a pair of Headstarters were seen to breed together. This project will most certainly continue.
3. Reduce the killing at non-breeding sites. This work proceeds on several fronts. For example, in Myanmar awareness raising has been accompanied by hunting mitigation. Local people have been provided with the necessary equipment to replace the bird killing by fishing for food. In Bangladesh work in schools has helped to stop young people taking up the killing of birds, and community work has induced enthusiasm for the birds’ survival. In Southern China improvements in law enforcement have also helped.
4. Reduce the impacts of Yellow Sea reclamation. Here great strides have been made by working with governments on better ways to manage intertidal wetlands. The Chinese government has actually banned intertidal reclamation, and key areas have been designated World Heritage Sites. An excellent way of increasing local pride and interest.
5. Identify and protect unknown breeding, staging and wintering sites. This is by no means easy in Eastern Asia, and in particular little is known about habitats in North Korea. However, much is being learned by satellite tagging of adult birds. In October 2016 3 birds were fitted with solar tracking devices in Jiangsu, China. This led to the identification of 4 staging sites, 3 wintering sites, and the confirmation that birds wintering in Myanmar took and overland route to their destination. When sites were found where mist netting was being used in China, the government immediately removed the nests. Other information has been gleaned about the travelling on non-breeding birds, and a moulting site has been found in North Korea. Tentative talks are starting with the North Koreans.
James concluded that there were hopeful signs but a lot more still to be done. The immediate critical actions are –
• Protect the World Heritage Site process. A truly international effort led by the RSPB
• Protect the newly discovered moulting site in N Korea. It is thought the global population may all use this site
• Continue Headstarting to increase the population
• Continue advocacy and hunting mitigation
• Review the role of captive breeding.
Many thanks to James for a fascinating account. Further information is available at