The physical component of headstarting for me finished on 2 August, but the reality is that work never stops with any aspect of this project. There is always planning and preparation for the next year and, most excitingly for me, there are the reports from further along the flyway. Once the birds have migrated then that is really that and we have no further control over what happens to them and, for all of us, this is a time of anticipation mixed with a little bit of worry. Generally we have a four week lull whilst the birds leapfrog their way south, down through Kamchatka, where M9 was observed on 24 August 2014. Most of our sightings however, come from, South Korea, Japan and of course Rudong in China. This year there were no reports of our birds from Kamchatka and we had to wait until 4 September for our first report of a 2015 headstarted bird, this one coming from Hokkaido in Japan. White V6 feeding in the surf, Hokkaido Japan. 4 September 2015 Shinohara Morio. It’s always a great relief to hear that one of our birds is doing well and to get such fantastic photos is also a real treat. The first 2015 headstarted bird to be resighted was white V6, safely making its way to Japan, being observed on 4 September, 19 days after it had last been observed in Chukotka. V6 had been the last spoon-billed sandpiper observed on the release site in Meinypil’gyno, a full 8 days after the majority of the birds had migrated. V6 had also been the last of our birds to hatch and compared to some of the others a little bit on the small and weak side. It was one of three other birds this year that we needed to keep and extra eye on the make sure it was feeding and growing properly. Nevertheless, after an initially slow start the bird grew well and from the photo it is still doing well. This also goes to show that, so long as the extra time spent with some of the smaller weaker birds doesn’t compromise the wellbeing of the bulk of the healthy individuals, then it’s always worth persevering. We did not have to wait long for our next bit of good news and this for certain was good, being the first confirmation of the F1 generation of wild reared spoon-billed sandpipers from headstarted parents. With this bird in question H3, the offspring of the female; white LA and an unmarked male. This pair had been particularly cunning and had evaded all efforts to find their nest, by both human field team and wild predators such as foxes, ravens and the ever present arctic skuas. This had been a particular achievement, as nest predation was quite high this year, with vole numbers being particularly low. Lime H3 observed on the 13 September, Nakdong River Estuary, Busan. South Korea. Sihwan Kim. H3 was first discovered by Pavel Tomkovich just before it was ready to fledge on 24 July. Along with H3 were two other siblings due to the fact the brood was at the point of fledging, he was only able to capture and mark one individual, so potentially there could be another two of H3’s siblings out there. However, without colour marking, we shall never know. Thus this goes to show the importance of having colour marking which enables us to be able to effectively monitor the success of headstarting. More good news was to come from South Korea regarding resightings of 2015 headstarted birds with two more positive identifications of birds. On 28 September U6 was observed at Yuboo-Island tidal flats in South Korea. Interestingly U6 is the sibling of V6 observed earlier in Hokkaido, although as a larger and stronger chick U6 was one of the earlier birds to migrate, being last observed in Chukotka on 5 August, migrating a whole 11 days before its sibling. White U6 observed at Yuboo-Island tidal flat on 28 September, Seong-Hun Che Within 24 hours of the sighting of white U6 we received news of another sighting of a 2015 bird. This time the individual was; white M7, last observed in Meinypil’gyno on 7 August when it was 30 days old. White M7 observed at Yuboo-Island tidal flat on 29 September, photograph provided by: Yung-Ki Ju As well as the sightings from the 2015 headstarted cohort, on 15 October, the team of South Korean observers also reported a 2014 bird; white U9. White U9, observed 15 October, Yuboo-Island tidal flat, S. Korea now in winter plumage Yung-Ki Ju White U9 was first resighted in Chukotka on 9 June this summer aged around 11 months a year earlier than would be expected for most young birds, who usually return at around 2 years of age. Although in full summer plumage, the female U9 did not breed, spurning the attention of the males that tried to court her attention, being last observed in Chukotka at the end of June. We were therefore particularly happy when the report with attached photograph came in from South Korea, showing that she was alive and well. White U9 observed 9 June, in full summer plumage. Meinypil’gyno, Chukotka. Alexander Nastachenko. These sightings, along with the other sightings of non-headstarted birds go to show the importance of the Yuboo-Island mudflats and the surrounding areas of the Geum estuary, especially as a stop off area for juvenile spoon-billed sandpipers as they attempt their first perilous migrations south. The colour marking of the birds is also helping us to understand the movements of the birds during their first eighteen months or so of life, as this is an area where thus far information has been quite scant. Volunteers with the conservation leadership program being run by SBS in China sent us a number of important reports of 2014 birds observed whilst the autumn migration stop off counts were being carried out. The first to be observed was; white T8, on […]
Together with ‘SBS in China’ I am leading a group of international wader experts (Guy Anderson from RSPB, Richard Hearn from WWT, Ewan Weston from Highland Ringing Group and David Melvile from New Zealand) who have come to China to help Professor Chang Qin of Nanjing Normal University and Jing Li and co-workers of ‘SBS in China’, the Task Force member for Eastern China to develop a wader ringing program on the Jiangsu coast. There are two main objectives of the visit. First to individually mark some Spoonies at a location away from the breeding grounds and second to set up a wader ringing program to help develop studies of the importance of the Jiangsu coast for a wide range of species. We arrived late on Friday afternoon and immediately went out to look at possible catching sites near to our hotel and to get to know the two bird trappers who use traditional techniques to catch birds – now for ringing but in the past they were for the pot. Tang Yong Fa has been trapping birds for decades and used to catch for the pot before working for the Chongming Dongtan Nature Reserve to help catch birds for banding. Chen Teng Yi is his protégée, who learnt his skill while working at the reserve. He is now working in a hospital but returns to the mudflat whenever he can to help the banding operation and is writing a book about the trapping method and the history of the trappers so that it is not lost as bird trapping for food declines. Back to the hotel to recover from the flight before heading out early next morning with the trappers who were confident that they could catch birds on the rising tide and near the roost at high tide. They only caught three birds on the rising tide – a Redshank and two Dunlins BUT one of the Dunlins had a ring on it! It had been banded in the autumn of 2014 in autumn passage in Kamchatka! As the tide rose they moved to the roost area behind the sea wall and the first pull produced one bird – a juvenile Spoonie! After that the birds came thick and fast with 140 caught in three hours. There were a wide range of species from Long-toed Stint to Redshank and Greenshank. We got back late afternoon ready for a celebration meal but no alcohol as two hours later we had to go to another sight to set mist nets and catch overnight. This has been the pattern for the last four days with two to three hours sleep grabbed here and there between tides. At first the mist netting was not very successful with about 50 birds caught a night but of a very wide range of species 14 on the first night! But then we cracked it and caught 150 on the last two nights and two Spoonies on each night! The trappers have changed tack catching out on the feeding areas targeting just Spoonies and slowly walking them towards the net this way they have caught a further two. So in total we caught 10 Spoonies, which is way more than our wildest dreams two more days to go and we have already exceeded the target that we set ourselves! We have also caught two Nordmann’s Greenshank which are also one of the most Endangered waders in the world. It has not all been good. On the way back from spending an hour resighting flagged Spoonies on the mudflats feeling really good having seen both Lime 08 and one of last year’s juveniles marked in Kamchatka I came across a line of fishing nets in the area where many Spoonies congregate before going to roost. There were no birds in the nets but I felt sure that birds would get caught if it was dark. The following morning I returned after finishing our mist netting overnight and in 300 m of illegal fishing nets I found 70 dead birds and one was a juvenile Spoonie. What a sad end to a bird that had hatched from a chick in the arctic only two months before! On the bright side I did release two Kentish Plovers and a Little Tern that had gone in on the falling tide and so had not been drowned. We decided that we had to go back to this and another line of nets that was found on the rising tide that night to release as many as possible. Mercifully the line had been taken down. The second line only had 10 birds in it and most were later released and although dishevelled had a good chance of survival. ‘SBS in China’ is now preparing a plan to work with the fishermen to try and find ways to reduce the losses in future so maybe some good will come out of this lost Spoonie. Working with the Chinese trappers has been fantastic we have learnt a lot and we have been able to pass on some of our skills as well. I am sure it is a friendship that will go from strength to strength.
In our world, this is going to be as big as the Super Bowl! Spoonievision Live is the first ever chance to see behind the scenes of the Saving the Spoon-billed Sandpiper conservation breeding programme. Going out in two days time, Spoonievision Live will be hosted by long time supporter of the project, TV presenter Kate Humble. Kate will introduce us to the stars of the show: the captive spoonies from the Slimbridge breeding programme. As well as bringing us the latest footage from this summer’s expedition to Chukotka. On the sofa she’ll be chatting with the experts who work on the front line of spoon-billed sandpiper conservation. So, it’s the start of an exciting week. Just two days left to prepare and then it’s Lights, Camera, Action! If you haven’t already, please sign up for updates at www.wwt.org.uk/spoonievision and that address is the one you need to return to at 8pm (UTC +1:00) on Wednesday to catch the broadcast. You can also follow #spoonievision on Twitter to join in the conversation. See you there!
Today is one of the most important days in the calendar of the 2015 Headstarting expedition and a very important one in the recovery of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper. Today is the day the WWT and Birds Russia team release the birds they have known from the newly-laid egg stage…. today is the day the team release bright-eyed, feather-perfect, just-fledged Spoon-billed sandpiper chicks. All chicks hatched, raised and released inside the month of July 2015!! I can only imagine how very stirring it must be for the team to see so many young sandpipers with the knowledge its population numbers only a few hundred individuals. I certainly felt stirred when I phoned Roland yesterday evening between his regular forays for chick food – shrimps and mosquitoes netted from icy pools near Meinypil’gyno. Roland described how incredible it was for all team members when the first brood of four hatched on the 7th July, followed by one chick every 90 minutes throughout the 8th! Although this then meant exhausting round-the clock nursery duty for many team members, they were all delighted with the synchrony of hatching. The ‘synchrony of hatch’ meant the chicks would reach flying stages at around the same time which in turn meant a single large release of birds was a possibility. The team have always felt that by releasing the group as one flock, they would provide the youngsters with the best chance of joining flocks of other small waders just before the exodus south. I hope to speak to Roland again before the weekend, to find out how the young birds have taken to the pools and wet areas, post-release. He told me, before our telephone call ended, that over the next few days, the team plan to observe the birds as closely as possible, without disturbing them. The team will respond to any of the birds’ needs if they can – for example they will move extra food to ‘here and there’ positions to keep the birds well-fed and safe in the days they take to acclimatise to the Chukotkan wilderness, ahead of their southward migration in a fortnight or so. When my phone conversation with Roland ended I was left imagining, once again, how emotionally stirring this time must be for the team. We don’t have a collective noun for a flock of spoonies but I’m beginning to think a stirring may be appropriate – “a stirring of spoonies”, perhaps? If you want to find out more about our work tune into Spoonievision, a live online broadcast with Kate Humble on Wednesday 19th August! Spoonievision will bring you the latest news and behind the scenes information from our WWT Slimbridge spoonies’ enclosure and the latest information about headstarting in the wild from Roland. Make sure you don’t miss it by signing up to Spoonievision alerts at www.wwt.org.uk/Spoonievision
Sorry for the silence everyone. It’s been all hands to the pumps, both here at Slimbridge and in Meina. What’s more the team in Meina are struggling with one of the dodgiest internet connections they’ve had in recent years, but we can now reveal the one photo and only photo they’ve managed to get through to us. More on that and what it shows below. That’s not the only problem they’ve had to deal with. Flooding and difficult weather conditions have made fieldwork challenging, but despite all this the Birds Russia and WWT field team have had an excellent year so far. The first spoony was seen on 3 June and the first nest found twelve days later. At least 11 pairs as well as a number of single birds have now been seen at the breeding grounds, and among them are 18 marked individuals. Of the 18 marked birds, four are headstarted birds! This is truly fantastic news. We don’t yet have enough data to calculate return rates for the headstarted birds, but what we’re seeing so far suggests they are surviving well and therefore their period in captivity isn’t affecting their fitness. The photo shows the headstarted spoony marked with a white leg flag engraved MA. He was hatched on 5 July 2013 and released at 20 days old. He hung around on the breeding grounds with the other juvenile spoonies till 6 August before migrating. He then disappeared off the radar until he was seen and photographed by Zhang Wei in Fucheng in southern China on 18 January 2015. He hadn’t been seen again until he turned up at the breeding grounds this summer. The great news is that he’s paired up with an unmarked female (she hasn’t been ringed by the field team). They’ve laid a clutch of four eggs, which have all been collected for headstarting. It looks like Roland is going to become a grandfather again! Excitements aside, the team still have plenty to keep them busy. This week they’re building the release pen so they can then focus on the early stage rearing – which is going to be very hectic this year. Hope you manage to get some sleep guys! Back home in Slimbridge, despite the considerable efforts of our conservation breeding team, none of the spoonie flock have bred this year. We still have 24 birds (8 females and 16 males) and initially signs were positive. Females appeared to develop better breeding plumage than in 2014 and showed a greater interest in the males, including joining in displays and lifting their tails to the males. In recent weeks, however, this behaviour hasn’t developed as we would have expected were the birds to breed. Nest scraping and calling is continuing but we now do not expect the birds to produce eggs. The team put a lot of effort into getting conditions right for the birds. It is a real challenge. There’s no manual for breeding spoon-billed sandpipers. This has never been tried before. Even though we’re in touch with wader breeders around the world, there’s little in the way of documented research, so part of what we’re doing is documenting the different tactics we’re trying and gradually getting closer to our goal. Fingers crossed for next year.
Final preparations are underway to head from the UK to Russia for the 2015 spoon-billed sandpiper breeding season. But before I go, it’s time to check in for a little help from the UK’s largest amphibian collection at WWT Slimbridge Wetland Centre. Including this lovely female natterjack toad. So what’s the connection between a spoonie and a natterjack toad? Well both of them eat insects, which means Slimbridge’s amphibian keeper Jay Redbond is just as keen as I am on finding ways to have enough insect larvae to hand at just the right time for our little friends’ development. So it’s a good chance to compare notes. We both use wax moth eggs. It’s a common moth in the UK. Ask a beekeeper and watch him/her grimace, because wax moths love to infest neglected bee hives. They can badly damage stored combs and equipment that isn’t carefully cleaned. Both Jay and I grow cultures of wax moth eggs. The rate of development depends on the temperature. So if you keep them in a fridge they won’t develop. But put them next to a radiator and, the next thing you know, you’ve got tiny caterpillars starting to form at just the right time you need them. For me, the wax moth eggs are just a back up food for the chicks we plan to headstart this year. We also harvest plenty of insects locally at Chukotka – and the water and air are usually buzzing with them – but if the weather conditions dive or something else unexpected happens, I know I can supply food to order for the chicks to have a good chance of fledging. For Jay meanwhile, his natterjack toad friend relies on the food Jay provides day in day out. If you’re in the area of Gloucestershire, England, do stop by at Slimbridge and meet all the amphibians he cares for. Natterjack toads have a special place in WWT’s heart. It only lives in a handful of sandy places in Britain, one of which is our Caerlaverock Wetland Centre, Scotland, where this British rarity is thriving thanks to our wardens’ hard work to manage the right habitat for them.
We are just back in Yangon having spent the last 8 days on an expedition to resurvey the waders that winter on the upper Bay of Martaban. The team consisted of Nigel Clark from the BTO, Guy Anderson, Graeme Buchanan and Rhys Green from the RSPB, Geoff Hilton from WWT and five ornithologists from BANCA (the organisation in Myanmar that has taken on the task of saving spoonies in the country). To get the 10 of us out into the middle of the estuary for a week required a fleet of 7 boats, each about 6 foot wide and 25 foot long and 14 experienced local boat handlers. Living in these conditions for a week is a strange experience. The boats settle down on the flats on every falling tide in places where the boatmen know are away from the tidal bore that comes in on every tide. This means that they are also areas where a lot of soft mud settles. As a result mud gets everywhere if you are not careful to clean off the clingy mud every time you get into the boat. Remarkably the cooks managed to produce fantastic local food on tiny simple charcoal stoves in the bottom of the boat. Our days were governed by the tides and as soon as the tide went out we would fan out from the boats to survey the mudflats looking for flocks of small waders when we found one we would count the number of each species and hope to find a spoonie before moving on to the next flock. We did this for up to 7 hours a day traveling a total of 6 to 15 km a day but making sure that we were back close to the boats before the bore arrived! Luckily that boatman could predict it well and gave us a time that we must be back so we were close to the boats long before the bore arrived. This also meant that we could observe bird movements on the rising tide and assess the total number of birds in the area. So how did we do? The results were simply staggering! When we added up the totals of each species each day we counted a total of 145 thousand bird days. Taking into account the days when we might of counted birds seen on other days we believe that the minimum number of birds in upper Martaban is 90 thousand which is a substantial increase on previous counts. We also had a total of 184 sightings of spoonies most of which were in scan samples where we counted all the waders in each flock. A rapid analysis by Rhys suggested that there may be about 155 in the upper bay now which is a similar number to previous surveys. This is very encouraging as we had predicted that the population was declining by 26% per year. If that was still happening then we would have only found 40 or less. The big surprise was that we only found one colour marked bird which on first sight seems different to the proportion marked in the surveys we did in China in the autumn. This could be just chance or could suggest that there is some population segregation going on. We need to do a full analysis before we can decide which is the case, but it does show how difficult it is to understand the movement patterns of this charismatic species. It is now time to catch up on sleep and prepare for the long flight home, but it is less than that flown by a spoonie each year!
An international team has just arrived in Myanmar to survey Spoon-billed Sandpipers in the Gulf of Mottama. While we wait for their news, here is an account of a recent holiday visit to the country from Sash Tusa. The tide was still rising, and we had agreed to postpone lunch for the second day running, Breakfast felt an increasingly long time away as, for the umpteenth time, I scanned the large flock of waders on a beach in southern Myanmar. Literally thousands of Kentish Plovers (!), a few dozen Sand Plovers (for the life of me, I cannot separate Greaters from Lessers, certainly in winter) and ones and twos of a wide range of other species. The birds were forming a roost on a sandbank near the top of the beach, but they were agile, with small groups constantly moving around, and occasionally taking flight for a few seconds in the stiff breeze. They were around 150 metres away, and we had taken turns using my scope; I was trying methodically to work my way from one side of the flock to the other, identifying each bird in turn. Suddenly, I saw it: a tiny, black and white wader, small even by the standards of the Little Stints elsewhere in the flock. It was a bright bird, too, almost like a miniscule Sanderling. I tried to keep the scope on it, wound up the magnification, and fiddled with the focus. Just like you do with every wader that you cannot immediately identify amongst the Kentish masses. It was side on, not feeding, and had a black bill. But not an unusual shape from that angle. Then it turned head on, for just a few seconds, and I saw it: that astonishing diamond-shaped bill tip, and a white forehead! I tried to keep my voice calm: “Lay Win! Come and have a look at this?” Lay Win was, understandably, a little sceptical, and asked what I had found: all the previous day I had mistakenly “called” a variety of plovers and stints. But he humoured me, and gazed through the scope for what seemed an hour (actually only a few minutes). Then his body visibly relaxed, and he beamed: we had found a Spoon-billed Sandpiper! This happened on 22 December 2014, and the bird (alas, an un-tagged one) was possibly the first to be seen on the Gulf of Martaban in southern Myanmar since the previous winter. I was on a holiday with my wife and 3 adult children, and had negotiated with them, as part of a package otherwise dominated by temples and tourist spots, a couple of days down in the South of the country looking for wildlife. I had asked our travel agent if it would be possible to look for Spoonies, and was incredibly fortunate that the guide that they arranged for this stage of the trip was Lay Win. He is one of the more experienced birding guides in Myanmar, a really dedicated conservationist, and excellent company for a family of non-birders as well as a birder (i.e. myself)! We stayed in Mawlamyine, a city that is about a day’s drive from Yangon. For our two full days there Lay Win and I left at around dawn (0600) for the 90-120 minute drive up the coast to the fishing village of Ah Lert. This is on the north bank of the Salween River estuary, and effectively marks the southern edge of the Gulf of Martaban. Once at the village, we worked different areas of mud flats and sandy shore in the general area, waiting for the rising tide to cover the several miles of astonishingly flat, shallow sand, and drive the waders to a number of high tide roosts. The birding was great fun: as well as waders, there were Bee Eaters feeding above the village, Siberian Stonechats and Brown Shrikes in the paddy fields, and a range of egrets and herons. Waders that even I see frequently in the UK (we really don’t get many species in Pembrokeshire!), such as Curlew, Whimbrel, Sanderling, Red Knot and Dunlin, all seemed scarcities in Myanmar. But the Kentish Plover abounded, and amongst the Stints and Curlew Sandpiper were Broad-billed Sandpipers and Sand Plovers. And I would have been very content indeed, had we not found the Spoonie, with the Terek Sandpiper that was feeding on the beach on our second morning! If looking for a Spoon-billed Sandpiper in Myanmar is “eco-tourism”, then I recommend it highly. In the broader scheme of a family holiday, it took us all to part of the country that is undeservedly off the “tourist trial”. Mawlamyine and the surrounding Mon State is a fantastic area to visit, especially for anyone that wishes to track down where George Orwell lived and wrote about, and which inspired Rudyard Kipling to write “The Road to Mandalay”. The people are incredibly friendly, and the Gulf of Martaban area is a fascinating area to watch, with its Ramsar designation but also vibrant fishing communities. We hope that we helped, if only in a tiny way, the conservation of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper, by demonstrating to the communities that we interacted with the potential benefits for them, in terms of tourism and associated spending. As for seeing the Spoonie, if only for seconds: I never thought it would be such an emotional event! When to go, and what to take Spoon-billed Sandpipers seem to winter in the Gulf of Martaban area from late December to early March; January and February are probably the best bets (and this coincides with the peak of the tourism season in the rest of Myanmar). Lay Win knows as much as anyone about where to find them: he spends much of his time surveying the birds, using boats to get to sandbanks and other inaccessible areas. Binoculars are clearly useful, but a good telescope is utterly essential, along with a very stable tripod. Neither of these is available in Myanmar. The distances to the […]
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. 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 […]
Nigel Clark wrote on the start of autumn surveys for Spoon-billed Sandpipers along the Jiangsu Province coastline, in China. Guy Anderson takes up the story… The tide is falling. The huge mudflats on the Chinese east coast are revealing themselves again, a twice daily disappearing and reappearing act. The thousands of waders that rely on this coast to fuel their epic annual travels up and down this flyway know this. The big snoozing flocks on dry land behind the sea wall wake up, the noise level of chittering and whistling increases and they flow back over and on to their glistening dining table once more. Our line of observers ready themselves, point their scopes at the weaving, scuttling hoards and start looking for ‘spoonies’. We know this coast is important for Spoon-billed Sandpipers in both their spring and autumn migration, but not exactly how many are here, nor which individuals are in town. So we aim to find out. ‘We’ are a team lead by SBS in China with five experienced wader observers from the UK; Nigel Clark from BTO, James Phillips from Natural England, Guy Anderson and Andy Schofield from RSPB and Rich Hearn from WWT. Supported by the RSPB, WWT, MBZ Species Conservation Fund, and the participants, the team has come together to survey the autumn concentration of spoonies on the Jiangsu Province coastline, 3 hours drive north of Shanghai. Back in the spring, I wrote from the same place on the northward spring migration. Then the spoonies were in full breeding plumage finery – and quickly moving on, the urge to breed pushing them on to their breeding areas in the far north east of Russia. Now they are on their way back south, stopping for longer in China – at least a month – to feed and restore their energy levels. This allows them to moult all their feathers here to get them through another year. Nigel has already described our first few days surveying this autumn, and how we’ve found ‘Lime 04’, one of the two individually marked adult spoonies we saw heading north in spring. He also reported that we’d seen ‘Lime 01’, known as the ‘Monument Male’ – the star of the spoony world, and we’ve seen him again too – still on his favourite patch of mud. As well as there being more marked adults to search for now, thanks to the Birds Russia/WWT team studying spoonies on the breeding grounds, there are also a few flagged wild-bred juveniles and at least 24 ‘head-started’ juveniles. We scan through thousands of Dunlin, Kentish and Lesser Sand Plovers, fresh from their high tide snooze. We soon find a spoony – smaller, paler and greyer – a monochrome ghostly pale version of the brick red fronted summer plumage birds we saw in spring. Hyperactive – constantly ‘stitching’ its (still frankly ridiculous) spoon-shaped beak into shallow pools, like an avian sewing machine, searching for tasty morsels. Then we find another, and another, and another, and they just keep on coming. On one incredible day, we find at least 142 birds just at one site. Even better, we find several flagged birds, mostly adults caught and marked on the breeding grounds, but also two headstarted birds: ‘Lime 8’, from 2012, which bred successfully this year, and ‘White M8’ from 2014. White M8 is an obvious juvenile bird, with browner, more mottled plumage than the adults. This, and another sighting of a wild-hatched 2014 juvenile in Japan (Lime J1) is great news – it gives us more confidence that head-started birds can survive and migrate successfully like their wild reared cousins . This is obviously a vital place for spoonies – a significant proportion of the world population is here in autumn. That’s not to mention the huge numbers of other waders doing the same – including the globally threatened Nordmann’s Greenshank, and Great Knot and Eastern Curlew. But it is no safe paradise. We find dead and dying waders at one site – deliberately poisoned for human consumption? We also find dead and dying waders in a long line of fishing nets set over the mudflats. Not intended for birds, but deadly to any that blunder into it. And we find a few both dead and alive accidentally caught in long lines of crab traps. We release those we find alive before the rising tide drowns them. Thankfully this time we find no dead spoonies but surely it’s only a matter of time before some run out of luck. Our friends at SBS in China contact the local authorities and warn them of these acute dangers faced by the birds. They are also well aware of the longer term threat posed by huge planned land claim projects which will turn mudflat into dry land and concrete. The birds have other local friends too. The China Coastal Waterbird Census Team has surveyed this coast regularly since 2010 and their data have helped focus attention on the numbers of spoonies and other wader found here. SBS in China have teamed up with local schools and the Links Hotel in Yangkou town to raise awareness of the global importance of this coastline, the fabulous bird migration spectacle it has to offer and the threats the birds face. So will our spoonies survive the autumn? Will they make it back to Russia next summer? Will the survey team find any more flagged birds? There’s more to come from survey work here this year, so tune in next time folks, for more tales from the mudflats.