Friday 21 November 2014

Saving the Spoon-billed Sandpiper Part 3

Young Birder Birdgirl Mya-Rose Craig in Sylhet, Bangladesh
Photograph taken by and copyright Helena Craig

A Young Birder's trip to help the Spoon-billed Sandpiper

As a young Bangladesh birder, I am looking forward to going to Bangladesh in February 2015 to take part in Spoon-billed Sandpiper survey work on Sonadia Island.  Also, I will be meeting local villagers and want to be able to understand the issues better.  I hope to talk about what I see on my trip.

Villagers being talked to on Sonadia Island, Bangladesh
Photograph courtesy of Bangladesh Spoon-billed Sandpiper Conservation Project Facebook Page

It is really important to save the Spoon-billed Sandpiper from extinction and so lots of organisations are helping under The Spoon-billed Sandpiper Task Force.  The project is difficult because Spoon-billed Sandpiper breeds in Russia, migrating 8,000 km through China and Thailand before wintering in Bangladesh and Burma.

My love of Waders (Shorebirds)

In my last post Waders and Spoon-billed Sandpiper Part 2 I explained about having a real interest and love of waders (shorebirds), that I get from my Dad.

Spoon-billed Sandpiper, Sonadia Island, Bangladesh
Photograph taken by and copyright Baz Scampion

In March, I wrote a post called Saving the Spoon-billed Sandpiper Part 1, interviewing Sayam U Chowdhury from the Bangladesh Spoon-billed Sandpiper Conservation Project and Nigel Jarrett from the Wildlfowl and Wetland Trust’s (WWT) Spoon-billed Sandpiper Project.

Nigel Jarrett, Young Birder Mya-Rose Craig, Helena Craig
and Sayam U Chowdhury at WWT Slimbridge

Photograph taken by and copyright Chris Craig

World Shorebirds Day

This is an organisation raising money for Spoon-billed Sandpiper through its World Shorebirds Day, each 6th September. They have chosen the Spoon-billed Sandpiper as their Shorebird of the Year 2014. 

“Saving the Spoon-billed Sandpiper: an update on the conservation programme” 

By Dr Nigel Clark (BTO), Dr Deborah Pain (WWT) and Professor Rhys Green (Conservation Science Group), British Birds, August 2014 edition (Vol 107 439-496), sets out the up-to-date positions:

Finding Spoon-billed Sandpipers

In 2011, it was estimated that if nothing was done, within a couple of years, the number of pairs worldwide of Spoon-billed Sandpiper would be down to 50. The most important known breeding site was at Meinypil’gyno on the Chukotka coast in Arctic Russia, where there were 11 pairs in 2013. The remoteness of this place makes it hard to get to but keeps the birds well protected. There have been lots of effort to find other breeding sites, but only one with a few pairs has been found. The fact that no further sites have been found either at old sites or places that look suitable on satellite pictures means that probably the range of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper has got smaller, which is bad news.

Spoon-billed Sandpiper in summer plumage, Russian Tundra
Photograph courtesy of Bangladesh Spoon-billed Sandpiper Conservation Project Facebook Page

Having good and safe places to stop over during their migration is really important. That’s why it was terrible when their main stop over site at Saemangeum, South Korea was destroyed in 2006. Before that, it had been used by 200 birds. After much searching, another site was found in Rudong, China, north of Shanghai where 140 moulting adults birds were seen in 2013. In October 2014 a survey found that the number of birds at 3 sites in China was up to 183. This is now the most important stop over site for both spring and autumn. 

They think that there must be another stop over site further north in Russia, but one has not been found yet. This is a gap, as no one knows if their northern stop over point is impacting on Spoon-billed Sandpiper survival.

The most important wintering sites are Mottoma and Nan Thar in Myanmar and Sonadia Island in Bangladesh which have half of the wintering Spoon-billed Sandpiper. More wintering sites have been found by the Spoon-billed Sandpiper Task Force but only in small groups between China and Bangladesh. It is good because Spoon-billed Sandpiper are spread across lots of places but bad because there are more places to try and save them.

Hopefully in the future, satellite tagging could be used but not until it has been tested on common waders to make sure there is no problem.

Spoon-billed Sandpiper, Sonadia Island, Bangladesh
Photograph taken by and copyright Baz Scampion

Habitat Loss: the critical long-term issue

Habitat loss is the major issue for all waders that depend on inter-tidal areas in Asia. These are being destroyed fast with land reclamation schemes across a wide area including in China and Thailand. Sonadia Island is threatened with a deep sea port which would lose all possible wintering grounds in the area. It is only when the importance of these habitats is appreciated and protected will the SBS be protected. The good news is that 10,000 ha of mudflats in Rudong and Mottama Bay are now protected. 

Spoon-billed Sandpiper, Sonadia Island, Bangladesh
Photograph courtesy of Bangladesh Spoon-billed Sandpiper Conservation Project Facebook Page

Hunting: the short-term issue

In the short-term, hunting has been identified as the biggest threat to the survival of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper. In China fine nets are often strung up clearly to catch birds. Even where nets are removed, they are easily put back up without any problem. These and the birds that are being poisoned are sold as delicacies, without any action being taken by the authorities. The only way to stop this is for the hunters, middle me, shops and restaurants to be fined.

Conservation groups working in Bangladesh and Myanmar successfully found alternative incomes for hunters.

Sayam u Chowdhury and Chris Craig with local villagers on Sonadia Island, Bangladesh
Photograph copyright Chris Craig

Interview with Dr Nigel Clarke, Head of Projects, British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and Chair of the UK Spoon-billed Sandpiper Support Group

Dr Nigel Clarke, BTO
Photograph courtesy of BTO website

Can you explain about the BTO’s involvement in the Spoon-billed Sandpiper project and also your own?

I was approached by Birdlife in 2008 to provide an assessment of whether Spoon-billed Sandpiper numbers were rapidly declining or whether it was an artifact of poor knowledge of an always rare species. I have been involved in many studies of calidrid waders since doing my PhD on wintering Dunlin on the River Severn and so I have a lot of experience of interpreting disparate data sets to obtain a signal. I thought it would be an easy analysis - but nothing could be analysed as there were no standard repeated counts. There were lots of single or multiple observations from sites throughout the flyway. The inescapable conclusion was the population was in free fall and did not have long! As a result of this I was given a sabbatical from BTO to go to the Bay of Martaban in Myanmar to search for Spoon-billed Sandpiper - after that visit I was hooked! The conservation community moved with remarkable speed to try and ensure that Spoon-billed Sandpiper did not end up in the same state as the Slender-billed Curlew (almost certainly) extinct. There was a considerable effort from within the UK so I was asked to Chair the UK Spoon-billed Sandpiper Support Group to ensure that we all worked in a coordinated way and maximised the value of our time, and money. I do this work under the auspices of the BTO (though I do a lot in my own time as well!) as it is important that we use the knowledge and expertise we have in surveying birds in Britain to help species all round the world by developing the science of conservation. 

What is the estimated number of wild Spoon-billed Sandpiper after the 2014 breeding season? Please can you explain the results, taking into account the figure of 100 pairs in 2011?

This is really difficult to answer as the species breeds in some of the most remote places on earth so you can not just count them. We have started individually marking birds on the breeding grounds so we can see what proportion of the wintering population is marked. The 2011 figure was our best estimate and not a survey result and we always knew that it will change. We hope that we will be able to provide a better estimate after this winters survey. My personal view is that the population is not less than 100 pairs and could be higher but there are not lots!! 

In terms of finding further breeding grounds, stop over points in China and further south and wintering sites, are there any further projects planned?

We hope to undertake regular surveys of all known site and try and fill in the gaps. Much of this is done by teams of local ornithologists who all work with the Spoon-billed Sandpiper Task Force to ensure that we get a coordinated picture. I hope to be returning to the Bay of Martaban in January to help with surveys there. It will be interesting to see if the number of waterbirds has increased now that grants have been given to hunters to change their livelihoods. We know that there is one stopover between the Rudong/Dongtai coast in China and the breeding grounds in both spring and autumn from the time it takes them to travel between the two but have no idea where it is. I hope that we will manage to survey likely places soon as we can not do anything to address any threats if we do not know where they are!

Sayam U Chowdhury from the Bangladesh SBS Conservation Project
Photograph taken by and copyright Chris Craig

Would you say that there is still a significant problem with the destruction of inter-tidal areas in Asia by land reclamation schemes as well as hunting for the delicacy food market, both most significant in China? 

Land claim is certainly the biggest long term threat but hunting across its range is an immediate threat. Both must be addressed urgently.

If so, can you explain your views on this and how you think the issues can be successfully tackled in the future?

Hunting is in many ways the easiest one to address. In China it is for the delicacy market but is illegal so there is scope to encourage the authorities to enforce the law. This must be done from inside the country to be successful and needs to go hand in hand with education projects of young and old. In other countries it is the poorest people who hunt birds for protein for their families. In these situations we need to find ways to give them alternatives which will hopefully give them a better standard of living. Land claim is much more difficult to tackle. For centuries it has been happening on a small scale as the shore has accreted from sediment flowing down the rivers. The sediment has now been greatly reduced due to dams up stream and at the same time modern technology means that new seawalls can be put up extremely rapidly and much further out on the intertidal flats than ever before. This leaves no place for the birds, the shellfishery and impacts on the fish nursery grounds. For the developer there is considerable money to be made so it is very attractive for them. There are an increasing number of local people who realise that the environment can not be treated this way if there is going to be somewhere that their children will want to live. Again education is the key in the long term but we have to do all we can to encourage a change in thinking now.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

The speed of action by the conservation movement has been remarkable but we can not let up now. We have a lot of work still to do to ensure that our children have the opportunity to see Spoon-billed Sandpiper and the many other waders that migrate through the East Asian-Australasian flyway.

Children as part of education programme on Sonadia Island, Bangladesh
Photograph courtesy of Bangladesh Spoon-billed Sandpiper Conservation Project Facebook Page

Thank you to Dr Clarke for making time to be interviewed and sharing your incredible knowledge about the Spoon-billed Sandpiper Project.

Next: Saving the Spoon-billed Sandpiper Part 4

About the writer

Young Birder Birdgirl Mya-Rose Craig on Scilly
Photograph taken by and copyright Chris Craig

Mya-Rose Craig is a 12 year old young birder, conservationist, writer and speaker.    She is based near Bristol and writes the successful Birdgirl Blog, with posts about birding and conservation from around the world.  She was the youngest person to see 3,000 birds in 2013 and she hopes to see her 4,000th bird in Antarctica, her 7th continent, in 2015.  Please like her Birdgirl Facebook Page and follow her on Birdgirl Twitter

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