Conservation Actions Underway
CMS Appendix I and II. Fourteen sites along the coast of Bohai Gulf and the Yellow Sea in China have been nominated for World Heritage Site status. Protected areas in its breeding, staging and wintering areas include Moroshechnaya and several local wildlife refuges on the Chukotsk peninsula (Russia), Yancheng and Chongming Dongtan (China), Mai Po (Hong Kong), Lanyang estuary (Taiwan), Point Calimere and Chilka lake (India), and Xuan Thuy Nature Reserve (Vietnam). The Bird Conservation Society of Thailand have lobbied the Government of Thailand to request that Khok Kham be designated a Ramsar site (Fowlie 2011). The Gulf of Mottama, Myanmar has also been proposed as a Ramsar site and the area belonging to Mon State is soon to be designated (Clark et al. 2014, Zöckler 2015). Work by the group 'SBS in China' recently lead to the local government designating a 10,000 ha area for Spoon-billed Sandpipers in Rudong (Clark et al. 2014). Shellfish protected areas have also been designated, which will provide suitable feeding habitat for birds and protect local livelihoods. Annual surveys of breeding sites on Chukotka are undertaken and over 450 adults and young have been ringed on the breeding grounds since 2000 (Zöckler et al. 2008). Annual searches of potential new breeding sites have taken place from 2011 to at least 2013 (Zöckler 2013).
A range of awareness and outreach programmes have taken place. Local support groups have been established in some breeding areas and negotiations have taken place to reduce short-term hunting pressure at one of the key wintering sites in Myanmar (Zöckler and Htin Hla 2009, Zöckler et al. 2010b). Researchers and a local environmentalist group convinced two villages on Nan Thar Island, Myanmar, to agree to a hunting ban of the species, with a view to develop an ecologically and economically sound alternative in the future (C. Zöckler in litt. 2007, 2009, 2010, Zöckler et al. 2010b). The development of ecotourism at Nan Thar generated extra income for local people and encouraged them to protect the birds (Clark et al. 2014, Zöckler et al. 2014). In the Bay of Martaban, socio-economic surveys carried out in early 2010 indicated that bird-hunting is undesirable and that most hunters would readily switch to alternative livelihoods if assisted (BANCA 2010). These surveys were swiftly followed by mitigation activities in the same year, in which hunters agreed to stop their activities in exchange for equipment to provide them with an alternative income source, and awareness-raising events and materials were provided for whole communities (BANCA in litt. 2010). On the eastern shore of the Gulf of Martaban, 9 out of 15 hunters targeted by the mitigation activities had increased their livelihood status, the remaining six had neither increased nor decreased their livelihood status (BANCA 2012). Conservationists in Bangladesh successfully raised funds to provide hunters with loans so that they could establish new livelihoods, such as farming (Clark et al. 2014). The Bangladesh Spoon-billed Sandpiper Conservation Project conducted a one year awareness-raising project on Sonadia Island, an important wintering site for the species (Clark et al. 2014). Activities involved former hunters visiting schools to talk about conservation work, film showings, boat races, mural painting and photography exhibitions (S. U. Chowdhury in litt. 2016). In 2011, awareness-raising and advocacy activities including two training workshops took place in schools in China. Schoolchildren living close to the species's breeding grounds in Russia have also been taught about the species and sent letters to other schoolchildren living along the flyway asking them to protect the species (Clark et al. 2014).
A Species Action Plan was produced in 2006 (Zöckler and Bunting 2006), and updated in 2008 (Zöckler et al. 2008) and 2010 (Zöckler et al. 2010c). At the fifth meeting of the East Asian-Australasian Flyway Partnership in Cambodia in December 2010, the partners agreed to establish a Task Force for this species, charged with implementing the action plan (Fowlie 2011). In 2012, the 'Saving Spoony's Chinese Wetlands' project came top in a vote organised by the Disney Foundation, winning $100,000 to support conservation efforts for the species (Clark et al. 2014).
Headstarting, or artificial incubation and captive rearing on the breeding grounds, avoids the high levels of natural predation that occur at egg and chick stage. This significantly increased breeding success, with the number of wild birds fledged increasing by approximately five times per pair (D. Pain in litt. 2016). In addition, by taking eggs within days of them being laid early in the season, some birds lay a second clutch that they incubate and raise themselves. Headstarting expeditions in 2012 and 2013 have resulted in the release of a total of 25 juveniles from 35 eggs collected (Zöckler 2013). In 2015, 37 eggs were collected for headstarting in Chukotka, of which 35 were fertile (B. Hughes in litt. 2015). In July 2016, the headstarting programme successfully released 30 fledglings, the most birds released in a single year. This brings the total number of birds released to 111 (Lee 2016).
A captive-rearing and breeding programme started in 2011, when eggs were collected in Chukotka, and the young birds reared in captivity in Russia were subsequently transported to purpose-built conservation breeding facilities at the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust headquarters at Slimbridge, UK (Pain 2010). In 2012, eggs were transported from Chukotka direct to Slimbridge (Pain et al. 2011, Donald et al. 2013). In May 2014 the captive population numbered 25 birds (Clark et al. 2014). Two pairs of captive birds at Slimbridge started to breed in 2016 (D. Pain in litt. 2016) and a total of seven eggs were laid, of which two were fertile (Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust 2016). Both eggs hatched in early July 2016 but unfortunately neither chick survived more than 60 hours (Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust 2016).
Conservation Actions Proposed
Develop captive breeding programmes and continue to monitor numbers at known breeding sites and carry out searches of suitable habitat in North Kamchatka. Continue to search for stopover sites in the Russian Far East (Clark et al. 2014). Actively prevent collection of eggs and birds for scientific purposes, museums and private collections. Take measures to ensure that researcher activity does not increase mortality. Ensure effective legal protection of all known breeding sites. Survey existing and potential wintering sites in Myanmar and Bangladesh. Stop hunting and trapping at key sites in Myanmar, Bangladesh and Russia. Ensure awareness-raising activities are maintained in the long-term. Ensure protection of newly discovered sites and existing sites, especially in South Korea. Campaign against the continued reclamation of intertidal mudflats along the entire migration route. Restore reclaimed wetland sites. Legally protect it in all range states. Identify and mitigate pressures at breeding grounds. Lobby against plans for a deep-water port at Sonadia, Bangladesh (Bird et al. 2010, Chowdhury 2012) and protect important sites along the Meghna Estuary, Bangladesh (Chowdhury et al. 2018). Pursue protected area status for the Bay of Martaban and other coastal sites in Myanmar (BANCA in litt. 2010, Zöckler et al. 2014).
This species has a naturally limited breeding range on the Chukotsk peninsula and southwards to the isthmus of the Kamchatka peninsula, in north-eastern Russia (BirdLife International 2001). It migrates down the western Pacific coast through Russia, Japan, North Korea, South Korea, mainland China, Hong Kong (China), Taiwan (China) and Viet Nam, to its main wintering grounds in southern China, Viet Nam, Thailand, Bangladesh and Myanmar (Zöckler et al. 2016). Wintering birds have also been recorded from India (with a recent sighting in 2018 possibly the first for 70 years [Roy 2018]), Sri Lanka, the Fujian province in China (the Min Jiang estuary in Fujian has recently been identified as an important wintering site for the species [F. Cheung in litt. 2010, Bai et al. 2015, Zöckler et al. 2016]), Guangdong and Guangxi provinces of China (Fu 2015), and peninsular Malaysia. It occurs regularly at only a few sites within this wintering range, with important sites in Bangladesh, Thailand, Myanmar and China. Sonadia Island and Meghna Estuary (Bangladesh), the Gulf of Martaban and Nan Thar (Myanmar) are believed to support over half of the wintering population (Clark et al. 2014, Zöckler et al. 2016, Chowdhury et al. 2018); over 80% of the entire population are considered to winter in Myanmar and Bangladesh (Zöckler et al. 2016).
Records of wintering birds in Myanmar are of 84 individuals in 2007-2008, 73 in January 2009 (Clark 2009), and 89 in 2010 (Zöckler et al. 2010b); 150-220 in the Bay of Martaban in 2010-2012 (Zöckler et al. 2010a, b, 2014) and approximately 155 in the upper bay of Martaban in January 2015 (Clark 2015). In February 2016, an estimated 100 individuals were present in the upper Gulf of Mottama, Myanmar (Anderson et al. 2016). In March-April 2010, a minimum total of 49 individuals were recorded during targeted surveys along the coast of Bangladesh (Bird et al. 2010, Chowdhury et al. 2011). Surveys along the Bangladesh coast from December 2015 to February 2016 found a record number of a minimum of 76 individuals from different sites along the coast, the highest numbers recorded since 1989 in Bangladesh (Chowdhury 2016). During the winter of 2015-2016, it was estimated that 10 adults used the Gulf of Thailand (K. Sutasha in litt. 2016). Recent findings on the Leizhou Peninsula suggest a large wintering population of about 50 birds there (Martinez and Allcock 2016, C. Zöckler in litt. 2016). A new site along the Meghna Estuary was discovered in 2015, which supported a minimum of 48 individuals in February 2016 (Chowdhury et al. 2018). It is likely that a large proportion of the adult population of the species spends time at Rudong, China, in both autumn and spring (Menxiu et al. 2012, Clark et al. 2014). It is currently the only known moulting site for the species (Bai et al. 2015). Counts of up to 103 individuals at Rudong in October 2011, 106 in October 2012, 140 in October 2013 (Zöckler and Li 2013), a minimum of 226 in September 2014 and 177-190 in October 2014 (Zöckler et al. 2015) are likely to have accounted for a substantial proportion of the global population (M. Tong in litt. 2011). A maximum of 100 birds were recorded on the Tiaozini mudflats (part of the Rudong mudflats), Dongtai County, in October 2014 (Zöckler et al. 2015), with more than 100 birds recorded at Tiaozini in October 2015 (Li and Chowdhury 2016). A survey in May 2015 on the Rudong mudflats recorded at least 62 individuals, including a number of head-started birds (Phillips 2015). Modelling work has shown Rudong to be too far for the species to reach in a single flight from its breeding grounds and work is underway to identify another stopover site in the Russian Far East (Clark et al. 2014). China Coastal Waterbird Surveys conducted between 2005 and 2013 (Bai et al. 2015) identified the following sites as of international importance for the species: Yalu Jliang estuarine wetland (Liaoning), Rudong coast (Jiangsu), Dongtai coast (Jiangsu), Dongling coast (Jiangsu), Minjiang Estuary National Nature Reserve (Fujian), Dadeng Island and Weitou Bay (Fujian) and Xitou coast (Guangdong).
Due to its specialised breeding habitat requirements, it was probably always a scarce species, but numbers dropped rapidly, at least between 2000 and 2010 (D. Pain in litt. 2016). Surveys on the breeding grounds revealed a dramatic decline from 2,000-2,800 pairs in the 1970s to fewer than 1,000 pairs in 2000, 402-572 pairs in 2003, 350-380 pairs in 2005 (Zöckler and Bunting 2006) and not more than 150-320 pairs in 2008. The breeding population in 2009-2010 was optimistically estimated at 120-200 pairs (Bird et al. 2010, Zöckler et al. 2010a) in an estimated total population of 500-800 individuals, perhaps indicating an 88% decline since 2002, equating to an annual rate of decline of 26% (Zöckler et al. 2010a). These declines have taken place across all known breeding sites, and it is unlikely that significant colonies remain undiscovered (Zöckler 2005, Zöckler and Bunting 2006). Declines were also observed at wintering grounds. For example, no birds were sighted wintering in Viet Nam in 2009 at a site that supported at least 27 birds in the mid 1990s (E. Syroechkovskiy et al. in litt. 2009). However, over the last few years (2013-2015), there are signs that active conservation interventions may have stemmed this rapid population decline and the small remaining population appears to have stabilised, at least temporarily (D. Pain in litt. 2016).
Breeding success is quite low: average productivity was 0.66 young fledged per nest in 2005, and much lower in 2007, and this is compounded by a very low rate of juveniles and adults returning to the breeding grounds. Until recently, the species has had an ageing and rapidly declining population with little recruitment (D. Pain in litt. 2016). For example, data collected on birds at one breeding area from 2003 to 2009 suggest that recruitment into the adult breeding population was effectively zero in all years apart from 2005 and 2007 (Zöckler et al. 2010a). In 2013, for the first time there was no decline detected at the core breeding area of Meinypylgino, where the population was stable at c.10 pairs (Zöckler 2013). In June 2014, an expedition to Russkaya Koshka recorded an increase in the number of breeding territories from a low of 1-2 pairs to five (Nitschke et al. 2015), but numbers are still not near levels known from the early 2000s (Tomkovich et al. 2002, C. Zöckler in litt. 2016). In July 2016, an expedition in Kamchatka located a previously unknown breeding area for the species (Heritage Expeditions 2016).
Bangladesh, Canada, China, Hong Kong, India, Japan, Korea, Democratic People's Republic of, Korea, Republic of, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Russian Federation, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Province of China, Thailand, United States, Viet Nam
The breeding population in 2009/2010 was estimated at 120-200 pairs, roughly equivalent to 240-400 mature individuals and 360-600 individuals in total, although this is thought to be an optimistic estimate. Recent estimates put the population at no more than 120 pairs (or 242-378 individuals) based on wintering numbers (Zöckler et al. 2016) and breeding surveys (Syroechkovskiy et al. in litt. to Zöckler et al. 2016), or at 210-228 pairs (Clark et al. 2018). Therefore, the population size is placed here in the range of 240-456 mature individuals (120-228 pairs), roughly equivalent to 360-684 individuals.
Throughout its migratory and wintering ranges, tidal flats are being reclaimed for coastal development (industry, leisure, infrastructure, aquaculture and agriculture) and are becoming increasingly polluted. The important staging area at Saemangeum and Geum estuary, South Korea, including the Mangyeung and Tongjin estuaries, has already been reclaimed, and remaining wetlands are under serious threat of reclamation in the near future (Zöckler et al. 2008). Since the reclamation at Saemangeum in 2007, only an average of a single individual has been recorded, in contrast to 'hundreds' prior to the development (Lee et al. 2018). Plans for a large-scale reclamation project on the Tiaozini Sandbanks, (part of the Rudong mudflats) could lead to the loss of 26,680 ha of tidal flat, whilst two connected projects could lead to additional losses of 40,000 ha by 2020 (Moores 2015, J. Li and M. Tong to C. Zöckler in litt. 2016, Peng et al. 2017), although the project is currently on hold (J. Li to C. Zöckler in litt. 2016). Additional reclamation is happening elsewhere at Rudong, with new seawalls present in 2015 (Zöckler 2015, Peng et al. 2017). However, the national announcement of an end to the reclamation of intertidal land in January 2018 (Anon. 2018, Lei 2018) appears to be a dramatic shift towards alleviating new impacts from this threat.
Smooth Cord-grass Spartina alterniflora is an invasive plant used to stabilise mudflats to assist in reclamation along the Chinese coast and rapidly leaves intertidal areas unsuitable for Spoon-billed Sandpipers, dramatically reducing habitat availability (Menxiu et al. 2012, Peng et al. 2017). At both Rudong and Dongling, Spartina alterniflora has formed dense stands with considerable spread noted between spring 2014 and autumn 2015 (Peng et al. 2017), and it has also been found on Leizhou mudflat (V. Fu in litt. 2017). The Rudong mudflats are also the site for development of the largest wind farm in Asia, which could prove to be another threat to this species (C. Zöckler in litt. 2007, 2009, 2010, Li et al. undated). Plans for a deep-water port at Sonadia and cross-dams along the coast of Bangladesh continue to pose threats (Bird et al. 2010, Chowdhury et al. 2011, Zöckler 2015); however, this plan is currently on hold and plans to protect the area have been developed (Zöckler 2015).
Although not specifically targeted, the species is regularly caught in nets set to catch large waders for food in the key wintering areas of Bangladesh and Myanmar (C. Zöckler in litt. 2007, 2009, Zöckler and Htin Hla 2009, Bird et al. 2010, Chowdhury 2010, C. Zöckler in litt. 2010, Zöckler et al. 2010b), and this may be a particularly serious threat to birds wintering on Nan Thar Island and in the Gulf of Martaban, Myanmar (C. Zöckler in litt. 2007, 2009, 2010, Zöckler et al. 2010b). A survey of hunting activities in five villages around Sonadia Island, Bangladesh, in September 2010 found that of the 53 hunters interviewed, eight of them claimed to have caught a total of 22 Spoon-billed Sandpipers between October 2009 and April 2010 (Chowdhury 2010). Hunting in the species's non-breeding range could be a crucial factor in the poor rate of recruitment into the breeding population, as immature birds do not return to the breeding areas until they are two years old and thus are more exposed to capture (Zöckler et al. 2010b). However, recent conservation action aimed at reducing trapping on the wintering grounds appears to have been successful (Clark et al. 2014) and may have reduced this significant source of mortality (D. Pain in litt. 2016). Large-scale wader trapping was observed at Fucheng, south-west Guangdong province, China, where four Spoon-billed Sandpiper were observed in December 2012 (BirdLife Asia 2013), but surveys for the species in south China in January 2017 did not find any illegal mist nets (V. Fu in litt. 2017). Monofilament fishing nets set over high tides were found to be a serious problem on the central Chinese coast, with multiple parallel lines of nets set at Tiaozini in autumn 2015 were found to have captured scores of birds after just one nocturnal high tide, including one juvenile Spoon-billed Sandpiper (Peng et al. 2017). Hunting with nets has also been reported from Viet Nam (Long 2015).
Between August and October 2014, more than a thousand dead wading birds, including two Spoon-billed Sandpipers, were found on the Tiaozini Sandbanks (Zöckler et al. 2015, Peng et al. 2017). Tests are ongoing to understand the cause of mortality; however, poisoned bait was discovered in the area.
There are no immediate threats to the breeding grounds, but nests in the vicinity of villages are sometimes destroyed by dogs (E. Syroechkovskiy in litt. 2007). Poor breeding productivity in recent years has been attributed to heavy nest predation and bad weather (Syroechkovskiy et al. 2009). Significant habitat degradation has been observed in 5 of 30 visited breeding locations (C. Zöckler in litt. 2007, 2009, 2010). Human disturbance, both by residents and researchers, may cause increased levels of nest desertion and predation by foxes and skuas (Zöckler and Bunting 2006). Shorebirds, including this species, are also occasionally killed by children with slingshots (Zöckler and Bunting 2006); one male was also shot by a Russian hunter near the Chinese border in 2008 (Zöckler and Syroechkovskiy 2008). Small but significant numbers of birds and their eggs have been collected for scientific purposes in the last 20 years, with one small colony completely wiped out due to this activity (Zöckler and Bunting 2006). Climate change and associated habitat shifts are expected to impact negatively on this species and other species dependent on tundra habitat for breeding. Modelling indicates that 57% of the breeding habitat for this species could be lost by 2070 (Zöckler and Lysenko 2000).
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Martin J McGill (category and featured image)