Fighting to Save the Spoon-billed Sandpiper From Extinction In Five Years
The most direct threats on the wintering grounds are dozens of bird trappers—a few professionals who sell their catch at market but mostly just famished locals in this, the poorest country in Southeast Asia. They are trying to scrape out a few more calories by stringing hundreds of yards of nearly invisible monofilament nets across the tidal flats at dusk. Although hunters largely target bigger birds like egrets and ducks and bigger waders like golden-plovers and curlews, their nets are indiscriminate and easily snag flocks of smaller sandpipers.
Vyn—who found up to 22 spoon-billed sandpipers feeding on an ephemeral island along the coast—blanched when he learned that trappers had recently netted more than 400 shorebirds in a single night on that same tiny oasis. “So in one night you could wipe out 10 percent of the population,” he says. Conservationists have found that while typical catches range from 30 to 150 birds a night, on the best nights—moonless and a little misty—the slaughter can be staggering. In the unlikely event that a shorebird survived the night in a net, it might have been sold alive to Buddhists who would release it—however injured and weakened—in a ritual intended to demonstrate piety. (Conservationists have convinced some religious leaders to curtail this activity.)
By one estimate, 30,000 waders—between a third and a fifth of the total number of birds wintering on the Bay of Martaban (the key spoonbill site in Myanmar)—are killed each year. Add to that the loss of critical wetlands, and it’s easy to understand why so many shorebirds—not just spoonbills—that depend on this flyway are in trouble.“The spoon-billed sandpiper is just the first of a long line of birds, like the great knot, that are being drastically impacted by what’s going on [in the Yellow Sea],” Vyn says. Many of them, like the wandering tattler and the Pacific golden-plover, breed in Alaska and are part of the great, globe-girdling Australasian migration. One, the bar-tailed godwit, is arguably the world’s most accomplished migrant—a bird that flies nearly 7,000 miles nonstop from Alaska to New Zealand in the fall but that depends on the Yellow Sea mudflats in spring during its return flight to Alaska.
Audubon’s Warnock agrees. “The loss of Yellow Sea intertidal areas is perhaps the biggest waterbird conservation crisis in the world,” he says. Besides the Alaskan birds, godwits that travel from Siberia to Australia depend upon the estuaries. “Many of the arcticola race of dunlin—those that breed on the North Slope of Alaska—use the Yellow Sea, as do a significant proportion of the yellow-billed loons that breed on the North Slope,” he says. “All three species appear to be in decline.”
But none are so imperiled as the spoon-billed sandpiper—which is why Gerrit Vyn went to such extremes to get his stunning images, including the first video footage of newly hatched chicks. He and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology gave Audubon an early look, hoping to make the world aware of the spoonbill’s plight.
In early May 2011 Vyn found himself in a smoke-belching, Soviet-era helicopter, flying across the rugged, snow-covered mountain ranges of Chukotka. His destination was Meinypilgyno, a village that sits along a six-mile gravel spit between the Bering Sea and huge freshwater lagoons filled with sockeye salmon and patrolled by bears.
Although the sandpiper once nested in a narrow band along thousands of miles of coastline in Chukotka and Kamchatka, Meinypilgyno is now one of the few remaining key breeding locations. With time, seven pairs were found near the village, and through further weeks of painstaking searches, another two nests were located farther afield. Vyn was able to get the kind of stunning, high-definition video and photographs he had been dreaming of—male spoonbills, their heads and chests glowing rusty red in the Arctic sunlight, trilling out their territorial calls and settling into nests cupped deep in the crowberry tundra.
But his biggest goal was to film a nesting pair and its newly hatched chicks—which proved more challenging than he ever imagined. A consortium of Russian and European bird groups, in a first attempt to establish a captive-breeding flock in England, had permission to collect up to 20 precious spoonbill eggs from Chukotka that season.
Unfortunately, all of the eggs in all of the nests they located amounted to exactly 20; if the team collected everything it found, Vyn’s hopes of documenting the first hatchling sandpipers in the wild were dashed. But on a hunch that there might be an unaccounted-for pair, Vyn and some of the Russians scoured an area thoroughly searched in the past—and turned up one last spoonbill nest.
Vyn camped near the nest site in subarctic cold, his tent rattled by the ceaseless wind, for several days, slowly moving a blind closer and closer, ready to run off predators and occasionally checking the eggs. Once they had “starred”—the shells cracked by the soon-to-emerge chicks—he grabbed his sleeping bag and spent the final 36 hours in the blind, cameras ready, holding vigil.
“I was out there completely alone; the egg people had left the day before. There’s no way to capture the emotion and experience, and the feeling of being there; you’ll never describe it properly to somebody. All you have is your memory.”