Rare bird finds sanctuary
Updated: 2013-11-14 08:19
By Chen Liang (China Daily USA)
There are fewer than 100 breeding pairs of the spoon-billed sandpiper left in the world, and a stretch of intertidal mudflats in Jiangsu province is one of the last resting places on their migration route. Chen Liang reports.
Few Chinese know of the spoon-billed sandpiper, a migratory wader about the size of a sparrow known for its flattened bill that flares into a "spoon" at the tip.
But the bird is a species found in China and it is much more endangered than the giant panda. In fact, it was listed as one of the 100 most endangered species on the planet by the International Union for Conservation and Zoological Society of London in 2012, with fewer than 100 breeding pairs left in the wild.
And China boasts of one of the best sites in the world to see this critically endangered bird in the wild - Xiao Yangkou in Rudong, Jiangsu province.
A small port north of the Yangtze River estuary and facing the southernmost part of the Yellow Sea, the site is known for its rich intertidal mudflats stretching for some 250 kilometers.
A recent survey by the conservation network SBS in China, supported by 15 water bird experts from the international SBS Task Force, an international conservation partnership for the bird's conservation, confirms the international importance of Rudong intertidal wetlands.
The survey was conducted from Oct 15 to 19 along the 120 km coastline near Rudong, by three members of SBS in China, a volunteer conservation group, and 15 ornithologists and conservationists from eight countries including the United States, Russia, United Kingdom, South Korea and Myanmar.
Every day they separate into two or four groups and travel in minivans, trying to locate every flock of migratory shorebirds that are stopping over while migrating from their breeding ground, mainly in Siberia, to their wintering ground in South and Southeast Asia.
Besides the sandpiper, they mainly look for another critically endangered wader, Nordmann's Greenshank.
Their five-day survey produced some "amazing records", says Li Jing, coordinator of SBS in China.
At least 140 spoon-billed sandpipers, 1,200 Nordmann's Greenshanks and "internationally important concentrations" of several other species of waterbird as defined by the intergovernmental Ramsar Convention on wetlands, were recorded.
This is the largest number of the fast-declining spoon-billed sandpiper found anywhere in the world since 2008. It is also the largest count of Nordmann's Greenshank.
After molting their breeding plumage (which is colorful) to their wintering plumage (which is gray and dull) in Rudong, the spoon-billed sandpipers become "extremely difficult to find", says Nigel Clark, from the British Trust for Ornithology in the UK. So the actual number of spoon-billed sandpipers in Rudong should be more than the count.
"That means 80-90 percent of the bird's adult population will molt here in Rudong," says the ornithologist.
As for the Nordmann's Greenshank, the estimated world population in 2012 is about 700 to 1,000 birds. "This year's number means the whole population of Nordmann's Greenshank will pass this site in October," he says.
Many of the most important intertidal wetlands along the Jiangsu coast are threatened by continuing reclamation for agricultural and industrial development, Li Jing says.
However, local and provincial authorities now recognize the international importance of the area and announced at a workshop following the survey the creation of a new protected area for spoon-billed sandpiper, together with an additional two shellfish and fishery protected areas.
These sites overlap with most of the wader feeding areas and it is hoped that they will eventually achieve protection at provincial and national level.
"Our surveys confirm the intertidal wetlands of Rudong as the most important remaining stopover site for the spoon-billed sandpiper during its entire 8,000-km long migration route," says Li, who organized the survey and workshop with Christoph Zockler of the SBS Task Force. "Protecting these intertidal wetlands is vital for the sandpiper's survival, and also for the maintenance of the shellfishery and other vital services provided by tidal flats. We urgently need more conservation action in China to prevent SBS and other tidal flat species from going extinct."
The two-day workshop was co-hosted by the Rudong government and the SBS Task Force.
Workshop participants were encouraged by the commitment of local and provincial government to stop illegal hunting along the coast and to designate a protected area for the spoon-billed sandpiper.
Local and national NGOs assisted in the workshop. WWF Hong Kong and the Paulson Institute in particular announced their interest and assistance in collaborating with the local government and SBS in China to conserve the crucial tidal flats.
"This is a historic moment in the conservation of the species," says Christoph Zockler, a German conservationist.
"For the first time since our efforts to conserve the species began in 2000, we can realistically hope that with the continuing commitment of the local and provincial government and leadership from national authorities and NGOs in China that we can indeed turn the tide - and save the species from extinction."
As part of this work, professor Chang Qing with Nanjing Normal University, an advisor of the Forest Department of Jiangsu Province on environmental issues, says that participants of the workshop hope to create a working group of local government and NGOs that involves all stakeholders in the future planning of wetland reserves and their management.
"We hope that these vital sites in Rudong can be protected for the future," says Evgeny Syroechkovskiy, an official from the Russian Ministry for Natural Resources and chair of the SBS Task Force.
"I will encourage my ministry to include both spoon-billed sandpiper and Nordmann's Greenshank, which breed exclusively in Russia, into the recently signed bilateral agreement on migratory bird conservation between China and Russia."
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Intertidal mudflats in Rudong, Jiangsu province are one of the most important sites for migratory shorebirds on the East Asian-Australian Flyway. Dong Wenxiao / for China Daily
Members of the spoon-billed sandpiper survey team look for the bird in Rudong. Chen Liang / China Daily
Two spoon-billed sandpipers found on the mudflat in Rudong. Provided to China Daily
(China Daily USA 11/14/2013 page8)