Rich heads up WWT’s species monitoring team and chairs the Wetlands International/IUCN-SSC Duck Specialist Group. He joined WWT in 1995 after taking part in an expedition to Argentina to look for Brazilian mergansers. He has since taken part in waterbird surveys and research and helped set up monitoring programmes all around the world. He’s an experienced bird ringer and provides technical advice on cannon-netting to the BTO in the UK.
Within the grey haze in front of me are tens of thousands of wading birds. They appear as dark bands, but through my scope I can pick out individual birds from many different species: dunlin, Kentish and lesser sand plovers, great knot, far eastern curlew, and even Nordmann’s greenshank, one of the world’s most threatened shorebirds.
These are all important records. I make a record of everything I see, as do the rest of the team next to me, but what we’re really here to find is the Critically Endangered spoon-billed sandpiper with its unique spatulate bill.
I’ve joined a Chinese and international team of ornithologists on the coast just three hours north of Shanghai for the autumn migration. We’re about a kilometre out on the mudflats, the mud and creek water drying on our clothes, waiting for the incoming tide to push the vast flocks of shorebirds closer.
Just seven years ago, few people involved in birding or conservation would have heard of Rudong or Dong Tai County. Then reports started coming through from Chinese birders who’d started exploring the Jiangsu coast of the vast numbers of birds in these two counties, particularly of waders and, most excitingly, of good numbers of spoon-billed sandpiper. We now suspect that the entire global population of spoon-billed sandpipers passes through Rudong or Dong Tai County each autumn, along with at least one hundred thousand other waders of about 30 species. Some of them, like the Nordmann’s greenshank I saw, also perilously close to extinction.
Such discoveries are less unusual than you’d expect in China. Birdwatching as a hobby is booming and there’s a vast country full of bird life that’s yet to be documented. Where we stand is just north of where the Yangtze River empties into the East China Sea. Upstream is an area of China where I’ve spent a lot of time in the last six years: the Yangtze floodplain. It’s the single most important winter destination for waterbirds in the whole of Asia. In winter it becomes home to most of the world’s Siberian cranes, Baer’s pochards and oriental storks amongst many others. Until just ten years ago, when the first census was done, no one knew this, which is why it’s so exciting to be a birder and conservationist and to work in China today.
Back in the UK, the team I work in run WWT’s goose and swan monitoring networks, which rely on the skill and dedication of a network of volunteers who help us survey our wetlands for those species. I’ve been helping conservationists in the Yangtze basin harness the booming interest in birdwatching so that they can set up something similar. Even now that the Yangtze wetlands are being surveyed more methodically, we’re only just starting to find out whether populations of all these waterbirds are on the up or in trouble. The truth is, if we don’t know what’s there, we won’t know if it needs help.
In the case of the spoon-billed sandpipers that we’re counting, we definitely know they need help. It’s down to just a few hundred individuals and a huge international conservation effort is trying to save it. Colleagues of mine are working with Russian scientists to boost numbers fledging on its Chukotkan breeding grounds. At the other end of its migration, in coastal Myanmar and Bangladesh, grassroots projects have spent the last few years finding new livelihoods for bird trappers, even helping some to become bird guides to ease the pressure on the dwindling population.
The sandpiper’s migration route between these two points takes it along the west Pacific coast, where historically the shallow mudflats and coastal marshes, like those at Rudong and Dong Tai, would have helped them on their passage with safe places to roost and plenty of food. But it’s also one of the most populous regions in the world and has a booming economy. As land runs out, attention has turned to stabilising the shifting mudflats in order to build factories, ports and other tools of industry. Already, areas that were once known for their bird life, such as Saemangeum in South Korea, have changed completely and possibly that’s contributed to the concentration here. With fewer places to go, the birds are forced into a tighter and tighter bottleneck.
Even here it’s easy to see which way things are going in the future. Cordgrass has deliberately been introduced to the area to stabilise the sand and mud and it’s apparently spread hugely in the last few years. There are already industrial units all along the coast and we pass maps of the coastline on signboards with big red lines showing the areas off the coast that are earmarked to be bunded, dried out and built upon.
It’s potentially a huge threat to the spoon-billed sandpiper’s future. The birds once relied on the coastal marshes to be able to roost safely. There is little marsh left now, so they roost on the claimed and stabilised areas. But once these are covered with industrial units, where will they roost? A few hundred journey-weary spoon-billed sandpipers may not last long under these conditions.
It’s not dissimilar to the situation that we’ve created for ourselves in parts of the UK and are now trying to unpick. For instance, Slimbridge on the Severn Estuary, where my office is, is on an area called the Newgrounds because it was literally new ground that was claimed from the tidal river by building an earth wall. That wall is just part of 200 kilometres of defences that keep the high tides off our property and businesses. But with sea levels rising, hundreds of hectares are already becoming permanently submerged and less and less land is exposed at high tide. There are more than 100,000 homes and businesses along the estuary, so there’s little room to make more space for wildlife. Recently we’ve managed to secure a few hundred hectares at the Steart peninsula, further down the Severn from Slimbridge, where we’ve been able to break down the old sea defences to allow intertidal habitat to move inland with the rising seas. It should provide for the thousands of dunlin and other shorebirds that are common in the area and hopefully show that we can protect wildlife without hampering our own aims by making space for it.
It’s a principle that we hope will play out here on the Jiangsu coast. The survey team I’ve joined have been building up data each year and it’s an invaluable picture of the natural importance of this stretch of coastline. It’s a story that, without the burgeoning sense of adventure and exploration among the Chinese birding community, would probably still be unknown. Everyone involved has been quick to bring it to the attention of the authorities who, by all accounts, have been very willing to listen.
If nothing is known about the wildlife of an area it’s impossible to plan around it. Fortunately the importance of the Jiangsu coast has come to light, giving us just enough time to gather some evidence. We hope there’s still time to build in space for the birds within the development plans.