5 Apr 2017

“Waterbird’s paradise” shortlisted for World Heritage status

14 coastal sites across the Bohai Gulf and Yellow Sea of China have been added to a list of sites to be considered for future World Heritage status – it’s potentially fantastic news for endangered migratory birds such as the Spoon-billed Sandpiper, who depend on these sites’ rich resources to complete their epic journeys

Spoon-billed Sandpiper © Shutterstock
By Alex Dale

It’s the question we’ve all been skirting during our ongoing campaign to #SaveSpoonie – why, exactly, does the Spoon-billed Sandpiper Calidris pygmaea have that distinctive, spatula-shaped beak – the same charismatic appendage that in no small way has helped bring the plight of this Critically Endangered wader to international prominence?

The answer: er, well, no-one really knows for sure (with less than a thousand Spoonies remaining in the world, chances to extensively observe its behaviour in the wild are less than plentiful). You might think that it would use in the same manner as the similar-looking, but unrelated Spoonbill family, who use their flattened bills like a sieve, swaying it from side to side to filter out small invertebrates in the water. However, the Spoon-billed Sandpiper has never been seen to do this.

Most likely, as with many waders, the specialised shape of Spoonie’s bill is so it can use it as a tool to forage for food. The leading theory is that it uses it almost like a shovel, upturning the mud to reveal crabs, worms and other invertebrates hidden within.

Spoon-billed Sandpipers foraging (c) Kajornyot Wildlife Photography

But the downside of having such specialised feeding habits is this: when you need to make a fuelling stop in the middle of a long journey (such as Spoonie’s epic bi-annual migration between Siberia and south Asia), there are only so many ‘restaurants’ along the way that cater to your tastes.

And if you’re an Asian wading bird, there’s no restaurant more extensive or better-stocked than that of the Yellow Sea. This vast sea, surrounded by and shared between China and the Korean Peninsula, is the largest area of intertidal wetlands on the planet, and its extensive mudflats, sandflats and other costal habitats draw in waterbirds from all around the world faster than a five-star review from the LA Times.

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As an example, a sizable population of Bar-tailed Godwit Limosa lapponica (Near Threatened) choose this area as their solitary pit-stop during their lengthy journeys between Australasia and Arctic Russia and Alaska. At the time of writing, over 10,000 individuals have already returned to one of the Yellow Sea’s estuaries, Yalu Jiang on the China/North Korea border.

Elsewhere, it’s estimated that as many as 60% of a sub-species of the world’s Red Knot Calidris canutus (Near Threatened) population stop over in the Luannan wetlands of the Bohai Gulf – an area of the Yellow Sea in close proximity to the Chinese capital, Beijing. We could go on: simply, it’s one of the most important areas in the world for migratory waterbirds by almost any metric you wish to use: be it size, numbers, diversity of species or the proportion of these species that are globally threatened with extinction.

But the future of these crucial habitats is currently anything but secure. Popular with humans as well as waders, the Yellow Sea is the most populated coastal area in the world, with an estimated figure of 200 million people and growing. The development needed to accommodate such a dense population of humans has resulted in the loss of critical habitats and feeding areas, with 27 species of waterbirds that frequent the East Asian-Australasian Flyway now threatened with extinction.

Bar-tailed Godwits probe for food using their long bills © Andreas Trepte

However, in a significant step towards the continued recognition and protection of this incredible natural resource, China has added 14 key coastal sites along their share of the Yellow Sea – including the aforementioned Luannan wetlands – to a tentative list of sites to be considered for World Heritage status. It’s the first step in the process of formally nominating these sites for inscription as a UNESCO site, which brings with it the highest form of global protection possible - greatly aiding the conservation of gravely-threatened birds who are dependent on these wetlands, such as Spoonie.

The Republic of Korea, meanwhile, is also making progress on securing World Heritage status for important wetlands in the region, and is very close to nominating several sites on its share of the coast, including Yubu Island, the world’s single most important site for the Spoon-billed Sandpiper. Together, this network of potential World Heritage sites has the potential to become a “wader’s paradise”.

“On behalf of our partners and collaborators, I would like to congratulate the Government of China on working so hard and so diligently to get these very important sites on to the World Heritage tentative list in such a timely fashion” says Spike Millington, Chief Executive of the East Asian – Australasian Flyway Partnership, an initiative bringing together 35 national governments and non-governmental organizations – including BirdLife International – to work for the conservation of migratory birds.

“The support of EAAFP partners, notably IUCN, BirdLife International, Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna (CAFF) and the work of the Paulson Institute, through the Coastal Wetlands Blueprint project, has been instrumental in promoting Yellow Sea intertidal conservation, culminating in this listing” says Millington.

Them again! Unusually, Spoonie chicks hatch with their trademark bill shape. © Pavel Tomkovitch

It’s a hugely encouraging development which offers hope that the destruction and degradation that has ravaged the Yellow Sea’s wetlands in recent decades can be halted or even reversed. There’s still a long way to go before the future of these sites are secure, however – and there are many vital sites – such as Binhai New Area, in North China, which is visited by nearly the entire world’s population of the Relict Gull Larus relictus (assessed as Vulnerable) – which are not yet on the tentative list. BirdLife will continue its important advocacy work to ensure these vital areas are properly recognised and protected in the future, but until then, visit our campaign page to find out how you can help ensure that will still be plenty of mudflats left for Spoonie to dig into.