Now back in the UK – Update from the Spoon-billed Sandpiper survey team

Written by Nigel Clark


A team lead by SBS in China and with five international wader experts: Nigel Clark from BTO, James Phillips from Natural England, Guy Anderson and Andy Schofield from RSPB and Rich Hearn from WWT, has come together to survey the autumn concentration of Spoon-billed Sandpiper on the Jiangsu coastline. The survey has been supported by the MBZ Species Conservation Fund, RSPB, WWT and the participants. Nigel reports on behalf of the team.

Now back in the UK and struggling with jet lag, at 4am, it is time to write a final post about this amazing survey. It’s a survey that nearly didn’t happen! Initially we planned to stay in China for three weeks and spend time trying to mark some more Spoonies. Virtually all the marked birds in the population come from one breeding area and we do not know if this is representative. Unfortunately we could not get all the permissions sorted for this year.

Then, 24 hours before our flight, when we tried to check-in on line, we couldn’t. It was then we found that the Air France pilots were on strike. After three hours of frantic emails we were all convinced that the trip was off and I was mentally working out all the other things that I could do in the next 10 days! Then I got a phone call to say that we had seats on a Virgin Atlantic plane direct, rather than via Paris. They say that bad luck comes in threes and I was waiting for the third – it nearly came – the pilots would still be on strike when we were due to return! Eventually we got our plane, only 2 hours late, but at the gate they said they had to change the seats. We were too exhausted to argue, but when we got to them we found we were in business class! A glass of champagne (or two) later we reflected on the experience we had had and what it meant for Spoonies.

Before the trip I had hoped that we would find about 100 Spoonies and, if we were lucky, we would see one or two leg flagged birds. Well, we did better than that!

Our absolute minimum estimate of the number of Spoonies present on the three survey sites was 226, although we all felt that there were more as it would take 20 or more people to cover the whole area intensively. We know that there were 18 individually marked adults that left the breeding grounds this summer. We know that at least eight of them were in our survey area going through their annual wing moult – a critical time when they need safe places and abundant food resources. In addition we found Lime 8, the first from the pioneering group of nine that were headstarted in 2012 that returned to breed this summer.

There were undoubtedly more marked birds as about a third of the marked birds that we saw could not be identified. They were either buried in the middle of the vast flocks of other waders on the shore or flew before we could get close enough to read them. Then there were the juveniles, we saw one that had been headstarted this summer, one wild chick and one of five that were marked at a banding station in Kamchatka, en route from Chukotka. We know much less about the movements of Spoonies in their first autumn, so these records are particularly valuable. It was clearly a good breeding year for Spoonies as there were quite a few around. This is good news but it brought home the uncertain future that they have. When they return to this small piece of coast as adults it may not be there.

The rate of land claim in the Yellow Sea is horrifying. Our three survey sites were the last remaining areas of high intertidal flats left on that 150 km of coastline. The most important of these is earmarked for reclamation very soon. As you arrive on the site you pass a massive billboard with a map of the coast showing the plans to build new seawalls about 15 km out to sea, removing virtually all the high mudflats to create another city and port.

Map showing completed (black lines) and proposed (red lines) land claim @ Nigel Clark

Map showing completed (black lines) and proposed (red lines) land claim @ Nigel Clark

The other sites may also have similar plans but it is not so obvious. What is clear is the loss of the upper mudflats to the invasive cord grass (Spartina) that was introduced from America in the 1970s to trap sediment and make it easier to build new seawalls. It is now out of control and will have removed all the upper flats in less than ten years unless it is controlled very soon.

Finally there are the hunters and fishermen who put out nets to catch fish in places where they also catch birds. From the fishermen’s perspective, the birds tangle their nets so they would like to find a way to catch fish and not birds. There must be a way to come up with bird friendly fishing nets but we need the help of fisheries experts to find a solution, and then a massive campaign to bring about the change. It will take time and money.

Hunting using poison baits is a different issue as a small number of illegal hunters can have a massive effect. We found the aftermath of one such incident this year, and collected 330 dead waders – over 1% of the population in the area at the moment. These were only the ones that had been killed by the remaining bait long after the hunters had left. The number killed from that one incident must run into the thousands as we were finding dying birds out on the mudflats every day. So, hunting is an urgent threat that needs to be dealt with in the short term. But, if we don’t ensure that there are intertidal flats suitable for them to visit in future years, it could all be in vain.

When I started my career working on waders I hoped I could contribute to a better understanding of the needs of common waders in Western Europe. Little did I think that I would ever see a Spoonie, let alone be involved in their conservation.

In the first couple of years working on them I thought that all we could do was document the extinction of yet another species, but the fantastic work of so many people does give hope that together we have a chance of turning the fortunes round for this most charismatic of waders. The remarkable story of Lime 01, the monument male, who has fathered so many offspring, has been awe inspiring. Having the privilege to see this bird in the field was one of those moments that I will cherish, but the situation in China emphasises the significance of its two female offspring that are part of the captive breeding programme. This trip has brought home to me just how important they are to ensuring the survival of the species for future generations to enjoy.

It is now time to get on with analysing all the data we have collected so that SBS and all the other shorebirds on the flyway can benefit.

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