Fighting to Save the Spoon-billed Sandpiper From Extinction In Five Years

Photograph by Gerrit Vyn
Photograph by Gerrit Vyn
Photograph by Gerrit Vyn

Fighting to Save the Spoon-billed Sandpiper From Extinction In Five Years

So rare and cute. The spoon-billed sandpiper blends fantasy with tragedy. In a scramble to get the word out, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology captured the first-ever high-definition video of the bird, which numbers barely 300. Audubon has the story.

By Scott Weidensaul/Photography by Gerrit Vyn
Published: November-December 2012

Few birds have fallen so far and so fast toward extinction as the spoon-billed sandpiper. You would think it would be a poster child among endangered species--this photogenic, peep-sized ball of feathers with its bizarre, almost comically spatulate beak. Until now it has remained largely unknown even among birders, more a creature of myth than reality--as it was for Gerrit Vyn.

"I had this spoon-billed sandpiper thing in my head since I was a kid," says Vyn, a 42-year-old Seattle-based photographer and cinematographer for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. "It was in the field guide, down there on the bottom of the page--this inaccessible fantasy thing."

Spoonbills breed in one of the most remote places on earth, in the Russian Far East along a narrow strip of coastal tundra hugging the frigid ocean. Each year they make a nearly 5,000-mile migration to steamy tropical mudflats in Myanmar (also known as Burma), Bangladesh, and a few other sites in Southeast Asia.

So for Vyn--who has spent much of his career documenting the lives of Arctic-nesting shorebirds--the chance last year to spend three months on the Russian breeding grounds, observing spoon-billed sandpipers at seemingly the most intimate level anyone has ever achieved, and finding them again in Myanmar, wasn't just a professional coup. Getting the first high-definition video, photos, and audio recordings of this rarest of sandpipers was a childhood dream come true--like finally catching a unicorn.

This strange bird was never common, but as recently as the 1970s researchers estimated that there were between 2,000 and 2,800 wild pairs. By 2005, though, that figure had plummeted more than 87 percent, to between 350 and 380 pairs, and surveyors on the wintering grounds in 2009-2010 "optimistically estimated" that only 120 to 200 adult pairs hung on, along with perhaps 100 juveniles. By then it had already vanished from former sites like Vietnam.

Last year there were only 100 pairs left, and maybe 100 juveniles. The annual drop of breeding-age adults has been a heart-stopping 26 percent, with extinction looming in as little as five years--a result, experts believe, of hunting and trapping on the wintering grounds and the loss (to "reclamation") of vast areas of tidal mudflats along the migration route, especially the 20-mile-long Saemangeum seawall in South Korea, which choked off more than 170 square miles of once-fertile estuary where hundreds of thousands of migratory shorebirds fed.

"There are major gaps in our knowledge of the lifecycle of the spoon-billed sandpiper, but the most likely cause of their decline has been the loss of staging habitat along the flyway, specifically in the Yellow Sea, made worse by ongoing hunting in certain countries," says Nils Warnock, executive director of Audubon Alaska and an internationally respected shorebird expert.

"Saemangeum was the biggest known staging site for spoon-billed sandpipers," Warnock says. "Declines were probably happening before that site was reclaimed, but the destruction of tidal flats has been going on for a long time in Asia." 

Vyn echoes how little is still known about this mysterious sandpiper. "There's just too much speculation at this point, and a lack of knowledge. It's a bird that touches so many places during its life--how do we know, without regular monitoring, exactly what it is that we need to be focused on the most?"

But with the tiny population now in freefall, a major concern is trapping on the wintering grounds by hungry people desperate for food.

 

Last year Vyn learned the hurdles firsthand. First he spent three months in Chukotka, the broad thumb of Siberia that stretches toward Alaska, filming spoonbills in their last stronghold--a coastal landscape alive with huge brown bears, whales, and seabirds and whose beautiful Arctic scenery belies its danger and hardship.

Then last winter he followed the spoonbills to Myanmar, where half the surviving birds congregate--and where they face trappers with nets and hungry people scrubbing the tidal areas for every last scrap of edible protein, including the mouthful a six-inch sandpiper represents. "Just seeing the amount of subsistence pressure on every living creature in the ocean and the mudflats [in Myanmar] is astounding. You have fishermen coming back with an incredible diversity of sea life," he says, but much of what they catch is tiny. "You have guys marching back and forth for hours every day with two-pole shrimp nets, basically vacuuming every bit of open water. Then, at low tide, 50 or 100 villagers would come out on the mudflats where the shorebirds feed." In such wretchedly poor communities, where fish become scarce during some seasons and every bird is a prize, the temptation to hunt remains great.

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What a wonderful SBS article +

Dear Scott & Gerrit
Thank you so much for writing this wonderful article and for shooting the film in Chukotka. As someone who has done 2 trips to the Russian Far East in order to search for new nesting sites for these adorable birds (and finding one), I want to tell you how very powerful your video and article are. I am trying to raise funds for BirdLife Internation and WWT (the captive breeding environmental organisation) as well as Bird Russia by undertaking talks to raise awareness of the wonderful work being undertaken on the East Asian/Australasian Flyway as well as in Russia, Mayanmar & Bangladesh.
Many thanks from Helena

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