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Springtime arrives. In the far eastern tundra of northern Russia, a spoon-billed sandpiper hatches from its egg. Sporting orange brown and mottled plumage and a distinct spoon-shaped bill, it begins foraging for food at only one day old, venturing out of the nest for a few minutes every day to pick out insects, small crustaceans, seeds, and berries.
It knows the way. Using a combination of the Earth’s magnetic field and the position of the sun and stars, the sandpiper will navigate and journey along the most diverse and species-rich flyway on Earth: the East Asian-Australasian Flyway.
A flyway is a generalised area that covers a series of flight paths taken by a great number of birds when they migrate. There are currently nine flyways on Earth, and the East Asian-Australasian Flyway (EAAF) is the most remarkable of the lot. It supports approximately 30 percent of the world’s migratory birds—more than 600 species in total—and encompasses the entirety of East Asia, Southeast Asia, Australia, and some West Pacific islands as well as parts of India and Alaska.
The spoon-billed sandpiper is merely one of the hundreds of species that migrate along this flyway. Upon leaving its breeding grounds in Russia, it soars across an estimated 3,600 km towards Southeast Russia and Japan, then another 1,700 km to the Jiangsu coast of the Yellow Sea in China.
Throughout the journey, it takes short stops at various sites, but only when it reaches Jiangsu does it allow itself to take a longer break.
This location is not random—the Yellow Sea and the adjacent Bohai Sea are distinct among their peers. Located between Mainland China and the Korean Peninsula, and occupying more than 40 million hectares, this area lies directly at the heart of the EAAF.
Across the globe, wetlands are extremely important ecosystems for both wildlife and human beings. Like rainforests, they store vast amounts of carbon and play a role in regulating the Earth’s climate. Like coral reefs, they protect human beings from storms, regulate floods, and prevent overerosion of our shorelines. And like both ecosystems, they are great regulators of pollution, although wetlands can improve both air and water quality.
Among wetlands, mudflats are often overlooked, which translates to a general disregard for their preservation. This oversight is costly for the world’s biodiversity, as mudflats provide abundant food, unique shelters, and plentiful water to microbes, plants, insects, birds, and mammals, making them irreplaceable in millions of natural life cycles.
These mudflats are essential for the spoon-billed sandpiper too, being a location where it rests and refuels to prepare for another long flight. While it rests at the Jiangsu coast, winter begins. By now, the sandpiper’s plumage would have turned into an even grey, after having moulted and shed its feathers during the past few months.
The sandpiper then spends the rest of winter flying another 2,400 km to northern Vietnam. From here, it travels westwards to Sonadia Island, Bangladesh, where it hunkers down for the rest of winter before making its way back home in February, when spring seeps into Russia again.
This trip is undoubtedly arduous, yet the sandpiper and its peers have done it without a problem for millennia. In recent decades, however, the continuous alteration of land along the EAAF has made this journey much more difficult.
Here’s a quick statistic: 65 percent of the wetlands around the Yellow Sea have been degraded or removed within the past 50 years due to reclamation, pollution, and sea-level rise.
This is a huge blow for our avian friends. The loss and clearance of wetlands at places where they used to be forces birds to overfly or make detours, spending more energy than usual. They eventually congregate at the remaining wetlands, where they find themselves in intense competition for territory, resting space, and the remaining food resources.
Exhausted by the long flight and lack of rest, some of them cannot survive the competition. To make things worse, the quality of these shrinking spaces are declining due to increased human disturbance and worsening pollution.
All of these factors severely threaten already endangered bird species—recent studies have shown that 61 percent of waterbird species along this flyway are in decline.
The spoon-billed sandpiper is just one of many that have suffered a population decline. In 2008, it was declared as Critically Endangered, and by 2014, there were an estimated 100–120 breeding pairs left in the wild. If this decrease continues, the spoon-billed sandpiper is predicted to go extinct within a decade.
Thankfully, some of us cannot bear to let that happen.
Swooping in to help
The conservation of migratory birds is no easy task. Tracking these birds is difficult and often requires dedicated international cooperation. Yet, if such efforts are successful, they can be extremely rewarding.
Migratory birds contribute greatly to ecosystems all around the world due to their vast distribution. They also act as indicators of wetland health, as their population numbers often correlate to the quality of their habitats.
By protecting migratory birds, we protect their role in the world’s ecosystems, and keeping them safe means investing more resources into preserving wetlands across the planet.
It’s about saving two birds with one stone, and conservation groups such as Birdlife International and the Spoon-billed Sandpiper Task Force are working together to make it happen. These organisations have committed to a series of measures, from on-the-ground efforts to negotiating conservation policies at the governmental level.
With economic growth and urban development, wetlands and migratory bird populations will continue to decline. Despite these threats, efforts undertaken by conservationists are showing signs of success: the decline of certain migratory bird species, including the spoon-billed sandpiper, seems to have slowed down.
It is therefore critical to ensure that efforts in the preservation of wetlands and conservation of migratory birds are sustained. This way, natural lands that are essential to human and wildlife survival are still protected despite continued development.
For now, the migration route may not be what it had been, but life goes on for the sandpiper. Flying among its peers, it is currently halfway across the world. Come spring next year, it will return to its breeding grounds, where new life will be created, and the cycle will start again.
Datasets by Birdlife International and Spoon-billed Sandpiper Task Force
Story by Gwyneth Cheng
Code by Siti Aishah
Design by Joceline Kuswanto
Illustrations by Griselda Gabriele
Illustrations of Spoon-billed Sandpiper, Great Knot, Far Eastern Curlew, and Black-faced Spoonbill (paragraph 10) by del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., Sargatal, J., Christie, D.A. & Kirwan, G. (eds.) (2018). Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
Cover image by Sayam Chowdhury
- References (click to expand)keyboard_arrow_down
- Birdlife International,
- East Asian-Australasian Flyway,
- migratory birds,
- spoon-billed sandpiper,
- Spoon-billed Sandpiper Task Force,
- yellow sea
Disclaimer: Our stories have been researched and fact-checked to the best of our abilities. Should you spot mistakes, inaccuracies, or have queries about our sources, please drop us an e-mail at email@example.com
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