In 2011 the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust launched an ex-situ conservation breeding program – the ultimate safety net. The captive population peaked at 25 birds (although unfortunately only seven remain), with successful breeding in 2019. Along with this, since 2012, Birds Russia has thwarted nest failure by “starting” about 200 Young Spoonies. This involves moving eggs from nests into incubators, rearing chicks in aviaries and, upon fledging, releasing them to migrate south. This approach is calculated to quintuple productivity and should deliver longer term benefits: the first leading pair were successfully bred in 2017.
Conservationists have also marked the birds with numbered leg flags to track individuals throughout their lives. As of 2019, these birds had been sighted 800 times in seven countries, providing insight into migration routes and wintering grounds. This understanding was deepened by fitting 15 Spoonies with tiny satellite beacons, which revealed “an astonishing amount of critically important data on migration routes and timing, previously unknown stopover sites, precise details on habitat selection and even responses to changing environmental conditions,” explains Guy Anderson.
Gathering intelligence through technology and fieldwork is essential because “great gaps remain in our knowledge of the sandpiper’s distribution along the flyway,” says Graeme Buchanan of the RSPB. Indeed, the Working Group estimates that we still do not know where three-quarters of Spoon-billed Sandpipers breed or where half of the birds winter. In Vietnam, for example, “they have received very little attention in recent years,” says Ding Li Yong. Fortunately, BirdLife, Viet Nature, Wild Tour and others are redressing the balance by “expanding survey efforts to determine the most important sites in the country” for the species, as well as other migratory waterbirds. , including the black-faced spoonbill (endangered).
Once important locations are known, protection becomes possible. In 2019, the Bird Conservation Society of Thailand (BirdLife Partner) purchased Pak Thale, the country’s most important shorebird site, to help Spoon-billed Sandpipers. In eastern Mottama Gulf, Myanmar, Ding Li Yong says, “BANCA builds surveillance capacity through participatory approaches in local communities. Assuming additional funding, “BANCA will expand its work in the Western Gulf”.
Additionally, in Vietnam, BirdLife and its counterparts will “work with local authorities to protect three wetlands where Spoon-billed Sandpipers have been found since 2019.”
Advocacy, meanwhile, raises the profile of critically important wetlands in the Yellow Sea. Among major successes, land reclamation and habitat destruction have been halted in China, and the BirdLife partnership has helped authorities in the Republic of Korea achieve World Heritage Site status for vital mudflats , including the Geum Estuary, now Korea’s most important staging site for Spoon-billed. Efforts to save the species, judge Christoph Zöckler, “present best practices in sustainable coastal zone management”.
“All of this work along the flyway,” he explains, “has reduced the rate of population decline of Spoon-billed Sandpipers from 26% per year to 7-10%.” He praises this as a phenomenal achievement, but then warns that it’s not enough. Indeed, the latest exhaustive winter surveys bring deeply disturbing news.
Spoon-billed Sandpiper numbers are declining at many transient and wintering sites – in some places by more than 40% over the past year. And after increasing at the end of the last decade, the core Meinypil’gyno breeding population in Russia has dropped to 2014 levels. “Overall, the news is not good,” says Zöckler. The population continues to decline and he fears that “no more than 330 to 340 birds remain”. “We will lose Spoonie if we don’t redouble our efforts to find the causes of the continuing decline and act immediately. We need a new action plan.
Whether it’s getting ahead of the Russian tundra, better protecting Vietnamese wetlands, fighting illegal trapping in China, or building local partnerships in the Gulf of Mottama, one thing is clear. : “Spoonie” needs our help more than ever.