In 2013, Leica Camera teamed up with Wildfowl & Wetland Trust (WWT) to support their ‘Saving the Spoon-billed Sandpiper’ project. As well as financial help, Leica provides optical equipment to help field workers locate the breeding spoon-billed sandpipers and record their behaviour.
WWT’s Head of Conservation Action, Dr Baz Hughes, updates us on the project:
It’s been an extraordinary winter of discoveries for those of us lucky enough to be part of the groundbreaking spoon-billed sandpiper tracking project.
The story starts on the Tiaozini mudflats in Jiangsu province in China. Back in October three wild adult Spoonies were each fitted with the world’s smallest satellite tags. They were also given engraved yellow leg flags from which they take their names, ET, HU and CT. This critically endangered species has seen a dramatic drop in numbers in recent decades, with the latest estimate putting the population at between 210 and 228 pairs.
We know the birds are threatened by destruction of intertidal mudflats along the Yellow Sea through land claim and illegal hunting along the flyway. But with only sketchy information about where these tiny waders go, it’s been a challenge to know where to focus our conservation efforts.
We simply don’t know where 50% of these birds winter. And we’ve only identified breeding sites for 25% of them. Where is the other 75% breeding? Information is also sketchy on staging sites, with many still unknown. It’s this incomplete knowledge of key staging, wintering and breeding sites, that’s hampering conservation efforts.
But by tracking the birds on their southward migration we’re hoping to shed new light on where they go. If we can identify the key wetlands they use, then we’ll know where to focus our conservation efforts and what action is needed to protect them.
So it was with bated breath this autumn, that we awaited the first southward migration of our three tagged birds, ET, HU and CT. All three flew southwest and migrated along the southern coast of China.
But ET flew on, to the Bay of Mottama in Myanmar – the world’s most important wintering site for the species. But as his journey unfolded in real time on our screens, thanks to the satellite data sent from his tag, something extraordinary happened. Instead of following the coast, ET flew overland over Indochina. This was a route long suspected by experts, but this was the first time we had real proof to back up our theories.
And this was only one of many discoveries we made this winter. Thanks to the tracking data collected from all three birds, we’ve now been able to identify two new spoon-billed sandpiper sites.
The presence of the tagged birds at all these sites has resulted in increased ground survey efforts and has led to more spoonies being found. This increased focus on key sites has also meant we’ve been able to identify new threats and work to remove them. In Fujian, recent ground surveys revealed extensive illegal mist netting in areas used by ET and CT. Conservationists are already working with local authorities to remove the acute threat this poses to any shorebirds and prospects of success look good.
Because the tag attachment is only temporary, and falls off after about three months, in order to build up a complete picture of the birds’ movements on their northward and southward migrations, we need to tag the birds at different stages of the annual migratory cycle. So this spring, we’ve tagged two more birds order to track them as they head north via the Yellow Sea to their breeding grounds in Far East Russia. We’ll be hoping to identify unknown staging grounds and find out where the other 75% of spoonies breed each year.
Looking further ahead we also plan to track the birds on their southward migration from their Russian breeding grounds to the key staging and moulting areas in the Yellow Sea We currently don’t know where the birds stop off to refuel in between.
You can find out more information on the spoonies satellite tracking project here
None of this would have been possible without the valuable support of Leica. Their funding has also helped WWT develop our headstarting programme in Far East Russia. Leica also contributes to the costs of maintaining our “ark” population of spoonies at WWT. Last year we hatched two chicks. Unfortunately they both died but subsequent post mortems identified calcium deficiency as the root cause of the problem. We’ve now made changes to their diet and lighting, which will hopefully address this problem. With the breeding season at WWT Slimbridge about to get under way, watch this space as we await more eggs and chicks with bated breath.
Donate now to save spoonies here.