Status: Critically endangered
Known as: Spoon-Billed Sandpiper.
Estimated numbers left in the wild: 360 to 600 (possibly less).
Spoon-billed sandpipers are small birds, 14 to 16 centimetres long, with the usual sandpiper “look” – plump body, long legs, and a rounded, alert-looking head. Their feathers are ginger-coloured on the head with darker brown streaks, while the back is darker. Their most distinctive feature is their beak. The tip is flared out into a “spatula” shape, so that it is much wider at the end than at the base.
Diet: Spoon-billed sandpipers are wading birds who feed on insects and other small invertebrates such as worms. They walk through the shallows, wet meadows, and similar areas, moving their head left and right to forage. Mudflats and saltpans are the areas favoured by these birds in the winter, where invertebrate prey is plentiful.
Breeding: Spoon-billed sandpipers are extremely territorial birds and almost always return to precisely the same spot to breed each year. These sites are defended vigorously by the males, who are the first to migrate north in the spring. These sandpipers are monogamous, with both parents tending the nest during the two to three weeks it takes the eggs to hatch.
The species is very particular about the areas where it will nest, which of course makes it especially vulnerable to habitat destruction. They will not nest further than 5 kilometres from the shore, prefer lagoon spits, and typically only nest where crowberry lichen, dwarf birch, and willow sedge are present, as well as freshwater pools.
The chicks follow their parents and forage alongside them for two weeks until they fledge and are able to join the southward migration at summer’s end.
Location: The spoon-billed sandpiper nests in north-eastern Russia, mostly on the Kamchatka and Chukotsk peninsulas. It winters in Myanmar and Bangladesh. A few individuals winter in Vietnam, India, China, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia. The summer range is tundra with freshwater pools, while winter habitat is mostly tidal flats.
Threats: The single biggest threat to the spoon-billed sandpiper are bird trappers in Myanmar, where these waterfowl overwinter. Mist nets are often used to capture the birds alive to keep them fresh longer without refrigeration. Poisoned fish are also used to kill waterfowl for human consumption. At least half of the spoon-billed sandpipers winter in the Bay of Martaban, where the most intensive and successful hunting takes place. Habitat loss in the birds’ summer range is also contributing to the species’ sharp and accelerating decline. Unfortunately, it appears that these unusual sandpipers may soon be extinct, perhaps as early as 2020.
Conservation efforts: Conservation efforts are underway to try to save the spoon-billed sandpiper, though these may be too little, too late. Some areas in the summer range are now protected, but it is urgently necessary for more to be done and for protection to be given and enforced in Myanmar, too. One initiative supplies Myanmar bird trappers with the equipment needed for a different occupation, since bird trapping is a highly undesirable way to make money and most of the hunters would prefer to do something else.
>Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust
The Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust works to protect wetlands in the UK and around the world as well as the wildlife found at these habitats like the Spoon-billed Sandpiper.