This year, Rainforest Trust and the Bird Conservation Society of Thailand (BCST) purchased almost 20 acres of shoreline along Thailand’s Inner Gulf. This property, Pak Thale, is an important habitat for many migratory shorebird species, including the Critically Endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper.
The Spoon-billed Sandpiper is an incredible — and incredibly threatened — bird. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimates that only 240-456 mature sandpipers are still alive, anywhere in the world. Yes, you read that right. The entire species population is no more than 500 individual birds. For reference, that’s fewer than the number of Mountain Gorillas, one of the world’s most iconic threatened species, left in the wild.
But the species, like many other shorebirds, is also a prolific migrator. They breed up in the high Arctic, from the Russian Far East down through the Kamchatka Peninsula. From there, each fall, they migrate to their wintering grounds in southeast Asia. Along the way, they stop at shoreline habitat to rest and feed before continuing on their thousands-of-miles-long journey. Each of the sandpipers are essentially on their own for the whole journey. These little birds, just about six inches long, fly out over the ocean, migrating in an all-or-nothing battle for life against the elements.
And in the spring, they do it all in reverse.
Part of the problem for the Spoon-billed Sandpiper is that much of its wintering and stopover habitat doesn’t exist anymore. Shorelines are prime real estate, used for everything from residential developments to ports to fishing and aquaculture. The species is also picky about its habitat. Their IUCN profile describes the sandpiper’s preferences: “During winter, it prefers mixed sandy tidal mudflats with an uneven surface and very shallow water, mainly in the outermost parts of river deltas and outer islands, often with a higher sand content and thin mud layer on top.”
That’s pretty specific. And over the years, the species’ already picky choices for habitat have dwindled. As a result, so has the Spoon-billed Sandpiper’s population.
But with such a large migratory range, conserving land for the species is difficult. Luckily, scientists know of a few spots where Spoon-billed Sandpipers still often show up during the winter and migration. One of those sites is Pak Thale. And recently, the dividends of this new protected area have started to pay off.
Scientists have recorded five — count them, five — Spoon-billed Sandpipers on this small property. Two of those individuals are tagged, one with a radio transmitter. Researchers tagged that sandpiper in China and have been able to follow its flight path through China, across Vietnam and Cambodia and now into Thailand.
This development emphasizes the importance of protecting sites like Pak Thale. By protecting the locations we know Critically Endangered species like Spoon-billed Sandpipers will use, we can reduce the habitat loss decimating their populations. BCST is also managing this site by pumping water and building dykes to maintain the Spoon-billed Sandpiper’s specific habitat requirements.
Through proper management, Pak Thale should remain a viable site for Spoon-billed Sandpipers in their wintering range. With luck, this site will be the first of many throughout their flyway to stabilize and support the species as they recover from near-extinction.
To learn more about this project, visit the project page.
To see Spoonie’s path from China to Pak Thale, check out the researcher’s website.
Header: The Critically Endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper. Photo courtesy of BCST.