Populations of one of the world’s strangest birds have crashed over the last decade, and surveys this summer of its breeding grounds in the remote Russian province of Chukotka suggest that the situation is now critical. The charismatic, and rather aptly named, Spoon-billed Sandpiper Eurynorhynchus pygmeus, is now worryingly close to becoming extinct. With only 200-300 pairs left, conservationists are calling for urgent help to tackle the decline.
“We’ve seen a 70% drop in the number of breeding pairs at some sites over the last couple of years. If this decline continues, these amazing birds won’t be around for much longer,” says Evgeny Syroechkovskiy, Vice President of the Russian Bird Conservation Union (BirdLife in Russia).
The reasons for these losses are complex, involving changes to habitat during migration and loss of breeding areas. What is clear is that nest predation by foxes and disturbance by people and dogs could prove to be the final nail in the coffin for the few birds left.
“Action to safeguard the remaining breeding pairs needs to be taken now for there to be any chance of saving them. We are planning to put wardens in place at these critical sites. Once they are protected and the birds are successfully fledging young, we can get on with the task of trying to save areas that they use whilst on migration,” Evgeny adds.
Spoon-billed Sandpipers’ spoon-shaped bill is still something of a mystery, the exact use for which is still unknown. They breed during June–July in a small strip of coastal Arctic tundra in Chukotka, NE Russia. They then migrate thousands of kilometres to winter along coasts in South and South-East Asia. Spoon-billed Sandpipers are one of several species to depend on the rich tidal coasts of the Yellow Sea in east Asia, where they stop to refuel on their way to and from their breeding grounds.
“Coastal reclamation in South Korea is currently destroying over 40,000 ha of habitat; coastal habitats are being converted into saltpans and shrimp farms in Bangladesh and Chinese coasts have been rapidly developed in recent years,” says Christoph Zöckler, international coordinator of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper Action Plan, “They are just running out of places to stop and feed on migration.”
What seems certain is that if these changes continue there will soon be no place left for Spoon-billed Sandpipers.
“The recent declines have shocked those concerned about the species, but with investment and the dedication of those involved we can still save the Spoon-billed Sandpiper.” says Richard Grimmett, BirdLife’s Global Conservation Manager.
BirdLife International has launched the Preventing Extinctions initiative to try and turn the tide for Spoon-billed Sandpiper and species like it, and is looking for companies, institutions and individuals to step up and provide funding by becoming BirdLife Species Champions.
With the right conservation action plan in place it is possible to save a species. It has been done before, but it takes hard work and hard cash but aren’t we all the better for knowing that a bird with a spoon for a bill exists out there, somewhere?