The Min Jiang estuary is located on the outskirts of Fuzhou, a large coastal city in Fujian Province, south-east China. On the southern side of the estuary is a 5 km long shoal of sand- and mudflats, which is an extremely rich feeding ground for migratory shorebirds, egrets and other waterbirds. This intertidal wetland supports important non-breeding populations of two Critically Endangered species, Spoon-billed Sandpiper and Chinese Crested Tern.
Spoon-billed Sandpiper was first recorded near Fuzhou in the 1880s, when it appeared to be a regular migrant along the coast and was described by one observer as “far from uncommon”. Fujian Birdwatching Society began monthly monitoring of the Min Jiang estuary in 2005, as part of the China Coastal Waterbird Census, and found that the species still occurs regularly at the site.
The historical records were mostly in the spring and autumn months, but the on-going monitoring has found that the Min Jiang supports a wintering population, the most northerly in the world. Birds are present throughout the winter months, but most leave the site in February and only very small numbers are recorded from March-May.
The Spoon-billed Sandpipers are easy to locate because they congregate together in a particular part of the estuary about one hour after high tide, before dispersing more widely to feed. The highest count by the Fujian Birdwatching Society team was 29 birds in November 2007, but the number of wintering birds has subsequently declined and during winter 2011-2012 the maximum count was only 11.
The Min Jiang estuary is in a rapidly-developing region of China and faces a wide range of threats, despite part of the site being protected as a nature reserve. Some of the wetlands have been affected by the expansion of industry and aquaculture, and the introduced cordgrass Spartina alterniflora is spreading over large areas of mudflats and reducing the feeding habitat of many waterbirds. Projects to control the cordgrass and develop facilities for visitors are causing disturbance to birds, and other issues include pollution by industrial and domestic waste and hunting.
The members of Fujian Birdwatching Society are increasingly becoming involved in the conservation of the Min Jiang estuary. They provide the results of the long-term waterbird monitoring project to the local authorities and report any illegal development activities and hunting that they become aware of. Every autumn they organise an event to clear rubbish off the mudflats before the arrival of the migratory birds.
They have participated in BirdLife’s “Saving Spoony’s Chinese wetlands” project – supported by Disney Friends for Change – which has enabled them to organise a conservation education programme in local schools which is focused on Spoon-billed Sandpiper and the value of intertidal wetlands to birds and people. Fujian Birdwatching Society now cooperates with the Department of Education and Forestry Bureau to organize education and awareness events and uses to media to tell people about the conservation issues affecting the local wetlands.
Gao Chuan, Chair of Fujian Birdwatching Society, said “we are very concerned about the threats to the wintering Spoon-billed Sandpipers, but it is encouraging that many more local people are becoming aware of the importance of the Min Jiang estuary and are interested in the conservation of the site”.