Things are looking up for the world’s rarest wading-bird species

A spoon-billed sandpiper  in the Pak Thale salt pan in Thailand. (Photo credit: <a href="https://www.jjharrison.com.au/" target="_BLANK" rel="noopener noreferrer">JJ Harrison</a>/Wikimedia Commons)
A spoon-billed sandpiper in the Pak Thale salt pan in Thailand. (Photo credit: JJ Harrison/Wikimedia Commons)

And now for some good news about the spoon-billed sandpiper, which has the dubious distinction of being the world’s rarest wading-bird species. 

Conservationists netted several big wins in preserving habitat along the spoon-billed sandpiper’s migration route. 

And scientists in the United Kingdom announced that they successfully bred the bird in captivity for the first time.  

Mimicking conditions

It took eight years for WWT, a British wetland-conservation group, to hatch chicks of the diminutive “spoonie” — so named for its uniquely shaped bill, which is perfectly adapted for probing for prey in Asian mudflats.

The determined bird breeders realized that their captive flock needed to be convinced they were actually outdoors, somewhere along an annual migration route that ranged from their winter grounds in Bangladesh, north and east through Thailand and China, and finally to spoon-bills’ breeding ranges in far-eastern Russia.

Artificial lighting did the trick, mimicking the conditions found along their migration route, and stimulating reproductive hormones. 

And the successes come just in time for a species with only 200 breeding pairs left in the world, and declines of up to 25 percent per year in its total population of less than 500 birds. 

Since 1982, the number of spoon-billed sandpipers in the world has declined some 88 percent.

Stopover sites

Like many shorebirds, the spoon-bill breeds in the Arctic, but migrates thousands of miles south in the winter along what’s known as the East Asian Flyway. 

It is dependent on a range of stopover sites that provide food and shelter en route. 

There are myriad threats along the way, and habitat loss from coastal development is at the top of the list. 

Aquaculture and fishing are additional threats. 

But conservationists are creating new refuges and biological reserves along the flyway, upping the spoon-bill’s odds for surviving its epic annual migration. 

In China’s coastal Jiangsu province, the Tiaozini wetlands are now part of a United Nations World Heritage site. 

Over 20 percent of the world’s population of spoon-billed sandpipers overwinter here, and many of the rest pass through the region. 

Preserving habitat

But like many Chinese wetland sites, it remains under threat from land development. 

Conservationists hope that the World Heritage declaration will help keep the wetlands and their millions of birds, including the spoon-billed sandpipers, safe.

Meanwhile, in Pak Thale, Thailand, environmental groups have purchased an eight-hectare salt pan for the sandpipers. 

A handful of the endangered avians spend the winter in the Gulf of Thailand, and a few pass right through the area of Pak Thale, where they have extremely specific habitat requirements. 

Salt pans are perfect, as the spoon-bills use the flats to forage by the day, and for roosting by night.

Conservationists must also cooperate with local salt farmers who depend on the flats for their livelihood. 

Advocates say that a compromise is in the works that will benefit both the farmers and the birds.

Sources: Mongabay, Countryfile (United Kingdom), China Dialogue Ocean (China)

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