Notes from the leading edge of the sixth mass extinction
If you were to liken the more than 500 bird species recorded in Hong Kong to a movie cast, you could say many are akin to extras – commonplace and paid little attention, some others have only fleeting roles, and two are standout, star species: Black-faced Spoonbill and Spoon-billed Sandpiper. Both are wetland birds, seen at Deep Bay including Mai Po Marshes; and as their names suggest they both have flattened tips to their bills, which somewhat resemble spoons.
Black-faced Spoonbill is the better known of the two, and in recent years has become something of a celebrity, appearing in newspaper articles and tv reports. Size is part of the appeal – at over 70cm tall it’s one of the larger birds in Hong Kong, easily spotted as it stands or wades in shallow waters. During winter, the spoonbills are white, apart from black skin from bill to eye. But in spring, adults sprout sulphur-yellow punk rock style head plumes, and matching sulphur breast patches.
Spoon-billed Sandpiper is far less showy. Indeed, at no more than 16cm from bill tip to tail tip, it’s only a shade larger than a sparrow, and not even as long as a spoonbill’s bill. So it’s little surprise that most people have never heard of Spoon-billed Sandpiper. Yet among birdwatchers, it has a special, almost mythical status – partly as a rare denizen of south and east Asian coasts; also, while there are six broadly lookalike spoonbill species worldwide, Spoon-billed Sandpiper is unique, the only one of the world’s 213 shorebird (or wader) species to have a spoon-like bill.
For all their differences, the two star birds have one thing in common. Both are teetering on the brink of extinction, leading to conservationists striving to save them, even as threats to their wetland homes keep rising.
Edging Toward Oblivion Unnoticed
Black-faced Spoonbill seemed far from stardom when I moved to Hong Kong in early 1987. During a visit to Mai Po, I saw a variety of birds including pelicans, herons, shorebirds and ducks. There were also four resting black-faced spoonbills, which I paid little attention as the local field guide said the spoonbill was regular at Mai Po, and there was no suggestion it was a world rarity.
In April that year, I saw my first Spoon-billed Sandpiper. It was one of several that were sighted along with tens of thousands of migratory shorebirds stopping at Mai Po that spring and though only around 2500 were known worldwide, there was no great excitement as records showed the sandpiper was an uncommon but regular visitor.
The situations for both species have since changed, initially and most abruptly for the spoonbill.
Avid British birdwatcher Peter Kennerley, who arrived here in the mid-1980s, had become fascinated by the spoonbill. “Out of curiosity, I started to gather information on the spoonbill’s status throughout northern Asia,” he recalled in an email. “Basically there wasn’t any information, so I dug deeper.”
Birdwatchers assumed most of the spoonbills were in southeast China, where they had been reported early last century. Yet Kennerley turned this notion on its head. By gathering all the data he could, he found that the Black-faced Spoonbill was close to extinction, estimating there were no more than 288 left in the world, 90 percent of which wintered at only three sites: Vietnam’s Red River Delta, the Chiku wetland in Taiwan, and Deep Bay. He wrote of his findings in the Hong Kong Bird Report 1989, published by the Hong Kong Bird Watching Society in 1990. “This sounded the warning bells and prompted others to search,” he noted. “Black-faced spoonbill had been edging toward oblivion unnoticed.”
Almost overnight, the spoonbill became a flagship species for conservation – highlighting the need to protecting wetlands, and so benefitting other wildlife. Its presence helped persuade the governments of Britain and China to list Inner Deep Bay – including Mai Po – under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, an intergovernmental treaty focusing on wise use of wetlands. The spoonbill was also prominent in conservationists’ arguments against plans for new houses and a golf course beside Mai Po, which were eventually halted, protecting an area of fish ponds.
Kennerley’s findings likewise spurred a quick response in Taiwan. Here, in 1984,birdwatchers Philip Kuo Tung-hui and Kuo Chung-chen had counted 121 at Chiku lagoon. Kuo now realised the Chiku flock was of global significance.
Chiku is within Tainan, on the island’s west coast, and in 1992 Kuo became a founding member and first chairman of the local wild bird society. “At the time, there was hunting at Chiku, mostly of ducks but sometimes of Black-faced Spoonbills,” he told me when I visited in November 2000. “We petitioned the Council of Agriculture, and said there are rare Black-faced Spoonbills which shouldn’t be disturbed.” Hunting was already illegal, and the government clamped down on it. There were also plans to build a steel refinery at the mud flat site, but the government rejected them after groups including the bird society said it would involve destroying an area of critical importance for the Black-faced Spoonbill.
Media coverage of these issues – and even students introducing Black-faced Spoonbill as a “candidate” for Taiwan’s presidential election in 2000 – helped propel the spoonbill to prominence, and during my outing with Kuo I saw evidence of local pride in the superstar bird. A restaurant exterior was decorated with metre high photos of Black-faced Spoonbills. There were a Black-faced Spoonbill Education Centre and a custom-built spoonbill viewing platform. “The county government spent NT$1 million ($28,600 at the time = HK$223,000) on the facilities here,” said Kuo.
Refuges on Rocky Islands
Budding birdwatcher Yu-yat Tung was an undergraduate at Hong Kong University when Kennerley’s paper appeared. “I dreamed of being a zoologist, doing cool things – David Attenborough was so cool,” he says. Mai Po Marshes’ then director David Melville found he wanted to work with birds, and asked if he might be interested in a project on Black-faced Spoonbill.
“To me, it was just a bird, though I knew it was very rare,” Tung recalls. “They seemingly slept all the time, and stayed in Mai Po. I told him, ‘Yes, I want to do it.’ But in the beginning I thought it was a bit boring.”
Tung combined the job with research for master’s degree, and his supervisor Cornelius (Kees) Swennen changed his mind about the spoonbill. “I could follow the daily cycle,” he says. “The spoonbills may look lazy, but I realised they’re not. They perhaps look stupid, but they know how to find fish in muddy water. I learned a lot.”
It was believed the spoonbills mainly passed through Hong Kong on migration, with smaller numbers staying throughout winter, and they fed mainly at night. But encouraged by Swennen, Tung visited Mai Po during winter nights and found large gatherings of spoonbills – most of which spent the day in Deep Bay, far from regular vantages. Also, when conditions were suitable, the spoonbills fed at any time of day or night.
After his master’s degree, Tung remained closely involved with the spoonbill, including as coordinator of the International Black-faced Spoonbill Census that had started in 2002, and of the Black-faced Spoonbill Working Group, which has representatives from all the countries frequented by the spoonbill. Looking back at the bird’s history, he says, “I believe it was really rare after World War 2. Along the China coast there were people who could disturb and hunt birds, collect eggs, and drain wetlands. I think this is why numbers of spoonbills went down, along with other species.”
This pressure evidently led to Black-faced Spoonbill becoming the only member of its family to nest in colonies on rocky islands – chiefly in Korea’s Demilitarized Zone, which has become an accidental sanctuary for wildlife.
Kennerley’s paper surely proved a turning point for the spoonbill, as numbers subsequently began rising, benefiting from protection measures at Chiku and Mai P. By early 2000, the total population had doubled, and though still pitiful at around 600 birds it was enough for Birdlife International to change its status from Critically Endangered to Endangered. In January this year, the annual census logged a record 3356 Black-faced Spoonbills [by January 2022: over 6000].
The population mainly surged in Taiwan, where spoonbills have begun spreading from Chiku to other sites. Numbers have also risen in Japan and mainland China, and even Macau now has a wintering flock of Black-faced Spoonbills – at Cotai Ecological Zone, where the government established a reserve in 2003. “We recorded 61 spoonbills during the census held in January,” survey team member Sylvia Choi told me by email. “I hope more people will show concern for these lovely birds.”
That figure is just one less than the 62 birds seen in Vietnam during winter 1998-1999. But numbers there have plummeted, to just nine in January this year. Even Hong Kong’s Deep Bay is less attractive than before, with a slight dip in the winter flock this year.
Reclamation and Hunting
There are other indications that Deep Bay is declining from its heyday as a haven for wetland birds, perhaps as the inter-tidal mudflats dwindle as a result of surrounding developments. Yet far more severe issues afflict other wetlands along the flyways travelled by east Asia’s migratory waterbirds. Some have been not just damaged, but destroyed – like Saemangeum in South Korea.
Saemangeum was perhaps the most important of a suite of wetlands around the Yellow Sea, an inlet where two river estuaries had formed immense mudflats. At least 330,000 shorebirds stopped to feed and rest during their spring and autumn migrations. Significant fisheries further reflected the nutrient rich mud teeming with life. Even so, the Korean government pushed ahead with a grandiose plan to build the world’s longest dyke across the mouth of the inlet, and create some 400 square km of land – five times the size of Hong Kong Island – that was initially earmarked for agriculture, later retargeted to become an industrial city.
Conservationists protested, and campaigned to protect Saemangeum. Yet work on the plans was unrelenting, proceeding with assurances the scheme would be “environmentally friendly” and the shorebirds would move to other places. Work on the 33-km dyke was completed in 2006, and birdwatchers including Nial Moores, a Briton who is co-founder of Birds Korea, returned for further surveys. With the tides blocked, much land drying and a lagoon forming, they found shorebird numbers tumbled, to just 5000 in spring 2014.
And the other birds did not move elsewhere; instead, it seemed they simply died, leading to lower counts as far afield as Australia. Great Knot – a plump sandpiper – was among the main casualties: the seemingly healthy world population of at least 380,000 was so hard hit that Birdlife International promptly classed it as Endangered. Nor has a thriving new city materialised. Empty environmental boasts, remain, however, like the claim that, “The city will also be a mega-resort where people can fully enjoy nature.”
Sadly, there’s no such enjoyment for Moores, who notes in an email, “i believe that Saemangeum reclamation was a major factor in the decline of Spoon-billed Sandpiper. I think reclamation has been the major driver, with declines then exacerbated by trapping etc.” At least 200 Spoon-billed sandpipers had occurred on migration prior to the dyke, but nowadays there are none.
The rapid decline in the Spoon-billed Sandpiper was highlighted in 2010, when a paper concluded, “The current estimate of 120–200 pairs may be optimistic [and] unless immediate conservation action is taken… this species will probably become extinct, most likely in little more than a decade.” Lead author Christoph Zöckler differs with Moores in rating hunting and trapping the chief culprits, telling me via email that, “Hunting still occurs in most of China coast and almost all other important sites through the flyway including Russia.”
Over half the sandpiper’s world population spends winter on the coast of Myanmar, where conservationists include Pyae Phyo Aung, Program Manager with Biodiversity And Nature Conservation Association (BANCA) Myanmar. “I am very interested to care for and study Spoon-billed Sandpiper because it’s one of the flagship species of the world and I am very proud to conserve this species,” she tells me via email.
While the huge deltas and estuaries fringing the Bay of Bengal remain largely intact, some hunters focus on winter shorebirds, catching them in nylon filament nets that may be strung together for up to a mile in length, or by setting out poisoned fish and shrimps. “The bird hunters are very poor and have no other opportunities,” notes Aung. “No one really likes this job, due to strong traditional Buddhist and animist beliefs. One former hunter reported that he ceased hunting because his own wife died after vomiting blood, which he saw as karmic retribution for to the way that he poisoned birds and cut off their necks.”
To help the hunters – and birds – Aung is now working on a programme to help them switch to other livelihoods such as fishing. She’s hopeful the government will conserve Spoon-billed Sandpiper wintering areas.
Vivian Fu, China Programme Officer of the Hong Kong Bird Watching Society, is among other people striving to protect the Spoon-billed Sandpiper. “I thought, ‘Cute’! The spoon-shaped bill was really striking,” she recalls of the first time she saw one, at Mai Po in 2007. “It stayed in my mind for a long time, especially after I learned it was critically endangered.”
The society began focusing on the Spoon-billed Sandpiper soon after Zöckler and colleagues showed it faced imminent extinction. There were reports from China of migrant Spoon-billed Sandpipers at Rudong, a coastal site north of Shanghai – and Cheung Ho-fai, the society chairman, promptly decided there should be surveys. Disney Green Fund supported these along with educational work.
“More and more were found, especially in autumn,” says Fu.”I went there mostly for training and educational activities, especially in schools. People were amazed by this funny looking bird.”
Yet Fu found her experience at Rudong could be frustrating, as local government officials refused to meet her and other team members. There was already a national policy for development in the area, which would involve substantial funding as well as coastal reclamations. Although there was some talk of conservation, there was no real step forward. “A sign was erected, designating a small protected area, but it had no legal status,” says Fu.
Realising there was a gap in records between Rudong and Myanmar, the society then began supporting a quest to find wintering Spoon-billed Sandpipers in southern China. This produced scattered sightings of up to four birds during 2012-2013 “There were also thousands of nets catching birds,” says Fu. Surveyors, especially China-based British birdwatcher Jonathan Martinez, began raising awareness of the issue.
“The timing was really good,” says Fu, as an incident with rare storks poisoned in north China spurred a campaign against illegal hunting. “There’s a Let Birds Fly group formed by local birdwatchers, and they brought China Central Television to Leizhou [west Guangdong], and filmed mist nets.” To Fu’s amazement, the forestry department there began cooperating in efforts to combat the trapping.
While Martinez had tried tackling the issue by himself, pulling nets down and angering people, now he and others could call forest police who would remove them. Not only were nets removed, but in January this year Martinez and other survey members really hit pay dirt – counting 43 Spoon-billed Sandpipers in the Zhanjiang Nature Reserve: the most seen anywhere outside the Bay of Bengal in winter.
Conservation, or Still Hellbent on Economic Progress?
Reports of the sightings reverberated through bird watching and conservation grapevines, with headlines like “Exciting news!”. Yet consider for a moment, the number: 43. That’s less then the capacity of a single-decker bus; you’d find more kids in many a Hong Kong school classroom. And Spoon-billed Sandpiper is just one of the regional waterbirds in trouble, albeit closer to oblivion than most.
Biologists consider earth is entering a sixth mass extinction event, and while natural catastrophes like widespread volcanic activity and an asteroid previously caused such extinctions, humanity is the current driving force. This may seem a nebulous idea, perhaps affecting creatures in places only experts venture. Yet visit a wetland like Mai Po, and it’s like having a front row seat to watch the mass extinction unfold, with some recently rare species becoming ultra-rare, even common birds suddenly entering free fall.
Nial Moores believes the situation is even worse than some academics and government bodies acknowledge. “If reclamation continues, the Black-faced Spoonbill will also decline, though its extinction will likely take longer than several of the shorebird species that now seem to be on the very edge,” he predicts. “Wish I could write more positively.”
Should reclamation destroy Rudong, Zöckler predicts it would be so devastating for Spoon-billed Sandpiper that it might “kick the species in to extinction”.
Vivian Fu takes a rosier view. “In the past two years, it’s been kind of stable; there are still 200 pairs,” she says. “I’m optimistic. More and more people and organisations are aware of the threats, and all along the flyway people are helping the survival of Spoon-billed Sandpiper.”
One project Fu especially enjoyed was making an animation to raise awareness of the sandpiper. While this involved children from eight countries, Fu drew the pictures for individual frames. One of these shows a pair of hands, raised as if to support an ultra cute Spoon-billed Sandpiper, and is a clear reminder that the fate of this bird and the other species sharing the flyway depends on us humans.
Maybe, as Fu hopes, we will work together, protecting wetlands and waterbirds, and allowing a resurgence in Spoon-billed Sandpiper to rival or outshine the increase in Black-faced Spoonbills. More likely, perhaps, we’ll remain hellbent on economic “progress”, clumsily extinguishing waterbirds and trashing the wetlands which, ultimately, are also integral to our own life support system.