Fighting to Save the Spoon-billed Sandpiper From Extinction In Five Years
At last, from under the feathers of the brooding male, the tiny chicks emerged—all mottled brown fluff and gangly legs, and already bearing their slightly ridiculous, astoundingly cute spoon-shaped bills. “At first the chicks are just completely stumbling and falling and can’t stand up on their legs. But they’re pecking at every little thing that they see,” Vyn says. “When that first chick popped out, my adrenaline [surged] and my hands were shaking—partly because I’ve got to nail this and get this filmed well, and partly out of just sheer ‘I’m the luckiest person to get to see this.’”
Yet it was never far from Vyn’s mind that these first extraordinary images just might well be the last. “So there was definitely that feeling of reverence for the moment,” he says. “It’s special—this isn’t just any other bird. This is potentially the last time this bird will ever be filmed.”
Despite the enormous challenges facing the spoon-billed sandpiper, there are a few slim rays of hope. A handful have again been sighted in Vietnam. In Myanmar, trappers have begun to turn in their nets in return for small grants to buy fishing gear, while in Bangladesh, villagers have agreed to stop netting shorebirds in exchange for small payments and help finding new sources of income and food. The captive-breeding program—a joint venture of eight organizations, including Birds Russia, the Moscow Zoo, and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds—removed another 20 eggs from wild nests this summer. Additionally, nine hatchlings were “head-started” in Meinypilgyno—raised, banded, and tagged with radio transmitters before being released in time to migrate with the wild flock.
Clearly, however, conservationists and the international community must pressure governments along the Yellow Sea to preserve and restore that critical migratory stopover site. No captive-breeding program can change that fact.
In the end, Gerrit Vyn believes, there are no quick and easy solutions. A new IUCN list of the 100 most endangered species includes the spoon-billed sandpiper. And Vyn’s images—especially those of the small, vulnerable chicks facing their Arctic home for the first time—are winning hearts, perhaps even those to whom the sandpiper is simply a welcome meal.
One evening in Myanmar, Vyn fell to talking with fishermen who were occasional shorebird trappers and—in an effort to make them understand what was so special about this small bird he had come so far to see—he played some video from Chukotka.
“The images of the small bird feeding in a tundra pond—the same bird that spent the winter on their island—had them wide-eyed with excitement,” he recalls. “In hushed tones they excitedly exchanged comments and pointed out details to each other.
“I got chills and had a lump in my throat just watching them,” Vyn says. “If ever I questioned the power of video to really reach people, I was convinced.” It’s his hope that those same images will move more people with the power to save the spoonbill—from humble hunters to South Korean politicians hell-bent on coastal reclamation and American policy makers who might be able to convince them to take a more environmentally sensitive course—to act before this strange, feathered unicorn fades completely into myth.
This story originally ran in the November-December 2012 issue as "Catching the Unicorn."