Conservation scientist Guy Anderson's second blog post from his trip to China to find the spoon billed sandpiper
By mid May in south-east China, wader numbers are peaking on the coast. Huge swirls of Dunlin, Red-necked Stint, Bar-tailed Godwit and Great Knot decorate the sky, here for just a few weeks before making their way north to their arctic breeding grounds. We got used to the daily routine of following the tide in and out across the mud, searching the flocks for spoonies. Andrew, the New Yorker on the team, provided the perfect onomatopoeic description for such surveying – schlepping. Nothing ever stays still here, everything is moving all the time – birds, water, and people. These mudflats are busy places: Fishermen tend nets strung between long lines of tall bamboo poles to catch on the rising tide. Shell fishers rent areas of mudflat from the government to raise clams and razor shells. This is one huge free-range seafood farm. Every day they cart back-breaking loads of clams in bamboo baskets for miles across the flats to waiting trucks on the seawall. Construction workers starting the next land claim or planting new wind turbines chug across the mud on tractor-pulled trailers. And the odd schlepping ornithologist.
Billboard showing plans for land claims. I’m pointing to where we found Spoonies 04 and 05 in early May. This will be dry land in a few years time.
At one site, a huge billboard on the current seawall proudly announces a 10 year plan to claim what looks like 200km2 of intertidal mud and sand in a series of linked islands. For the moment, there are still big expanses of mud and big flocks of birds. But there are also big plans for the future.
Spoonie numbers appear to have peaked here in early May. We found two birds colour-flagged on the breeding grounds last year; 05 – a male - and 04 – a female. We only saw them on single dates each. So either individual spoonies don’t hang around here very long in spring, or we’re just not very good at finding them in the mass of other waders. We hope that 04 and 05, and others will be seen back on their nesting grounds in Chukotka over the next two months. Searching the mass of other waders has revealed a good number of colour-flagged birds marked in different countries along the migration flyway: Russia, Thailand, Singapore, Australia. We have given several talks on our work to local bird clubs, media, tourism and business interests. The intercontinental origins of these birds raise real fascination and pride in the local area. We visit Juegang School in Rudong city - the staff and pupils here have taken the spoonie to its heart. They have already taken part in an international project creating a cartoon telling the story of the spoonie. (http://www.rspb.org.uk/community/ourwork/b/biodiversity/archive/2013/06/27/spoon-billed-sandpiper-a-cartoon-collaboration.aspx). Since then, they’ve created huge spoonie sculptures made of clam shells, numerous spoonie-related artworks and generated lots of media interest in the process. They now have an entire room in their school devoted to Spoon-billed Sandpiper information, art and conservation. Now that’s inspiring.
Buoyed by this beacon of hope in what appears a landscape of huge environmental pressures, we return to our schlepping duties. There’s more spoonies out there to find....
Giant Spoony made of clam shells, by pupils from Juegang School, displayed at the Links Hotel, Yankou.
Guest blog post from Jane Sears, biodiversity projects manager in the RSPB's Reserves Ecology team
There was a real buzz around Dungeness Visitors’ Centre as we arrived last Monday. Birders hoping for a rarity were surprised to learn that the buzz wasn’t around a bird but a bee. We were there for the release of short-haired bumblebee queens, recently arrived from Sweden, the third batch to be reintroduced.
The short-haired bumblebee was last seen near Dungeness in 1988 and, after years of fruitless searching, was officially declared extinct in 2000. Several other species have also been declining rapidly, mainly due to loss of flower-rich grassland. Determined to do something about it, RSPB worked with bee specialists and Natural England to help improve the habitat around Dungeness and have converted several fields back to grassland. Where cereals were growing 15 years ago we now have a colourful sward of vetches, clover and birds-foot trefoil. We aren’t alone in doing this thanks to the government’s Stewardship Schemes which have paid farmers to sow pollen and nectar-rich margins along their fields. This has been so successful that there are now about 800 hectares of bee-friendly habitat in the Dungeness and Romney Marsh area. A welcome sight for a home-coming queen!
After setting up the Centre ready for around 80 guests we had a few minutes to get some fresh-air. The day was perfect; sun, a slight breeze and a good settled forecast for the next few days. Quite a contrast to the first release 2 years ago when it was a scorching hot but followed by 3 weeks of torrential downpour. Those poor queen bees probably never had a chance. But this year was different - the feeling of optimism was palpable after our first signs of success last year, with 7 workers having been seen during the summer. Would the new queens from Sweden be joining others that had hatched, mated and hibernated here in England? Nobody knows.
At 11am our first television team arrived and, right on cue, so did project officer Dr Nikki Gammans and her partner, Rob, driving the camper van. No, they weren’t going on holiday – this has become the official project transport. Let me explain- Nikki had led a team of dedicated volunteers to Sweden where, with the approval of the authorities, they had caught 100 queen short-haired bumblebees. After a ferry journey home, kept nicely chilled in Nikki’s van’s refrigerator, the bees were taken to Royal Holloway, University of London where they’d been kept in quarantine for the last two weeks and checked for diseases and parasites. Now we had 55 of the healthiest bees to release and beauties they were too.
After giving a short interview for ITV, I rushed back to the Visitors Centre to introduce the project, on behalf of the project partnership of Natural England, RSPB, Bumblebee Conservation Trust and Hymettus. The guests were a mixture of supporters and interested locals, many of whom have been planting bee-friendly plants in their gardens and showed a keen interest in how the project was going. Had we checked the difference in parasite load between bees caught along two transects in Sweden? This flummoxed me as I hadn’t seen the results, but luckily just at that point Nikki turned up and was able to answer the question – yes we have and no there isn’t a difference.
Then it was time to split into four groups and with a cooler bag of bees, go out to a designated area to let them go, one at a time. The bees are in small plastic vials with mesh sides so they can breathe. Although they’d recently been fed with sugar-water, they were still hungry and tended to head to the nearest suitable flower, to stock up on their energy drink of choice – nectar. It was important to make sure each bee could fly, so those bees that were more sluggish had a band of watchers keeping an eye on them. We also needed to make sure no-one inadvertently trod on them!
Just half-an-hour and the releases were done and it was back to the Visitors’ Centre for tea and cake. Not just any cake…this was a special one to mark the occasion with bee-friendly flowers and, of course, bumblebees. Let’s hope the queens appreciate their new homes as much as the guests appreciated the cake!
[An important update from Toby Galligan]
This week, Bird Conservation International, the journal of BirdLife International, published a scientific paper written by SAVE (Saving Asia’s Vultures from Extinction) partners showing, for the first time, evidence that diclofenac can kill a species outside the Gyps genus. That species was the steppe eagle Aquila nipalensis.
The RSPB, BNHS (Bombay Natural History Society, India) and IVRI (Indian Veterinary Research Institute, India) are expanding our knowledge of the species intolerant to diclofenac by monitoring Indian livestock carcass dumps for the carcasses of birds of prey. This is how we came across the two steppe eagles described in the present study. Both birds had signs of renal failure – that is, visceral gout (a coating of white uric acid crystals on the organs) and uric acid deposits and lesions in the kidney, liver and spleen – and one bird had diclofenac residue in its tissues. All the wild Gyps vultures that we have recovered over the past decade with signs of renal failure have had diclofenac in their tissues; and all those without signs of renal failure have had no diclofenac in their tissues. Further, the captive Gyps vultures that we experimentally gave diclofenac to confirm its lethality in earlier studies showed the same signs of renal failure. Therefore, we have little doubt that diclofenac killed the two steppe eagles.
So what are the implications of this finding?
The steppe eagle is a winter migrant to South Asia, where it almost exclusively scavenges on livestock carcasses. Therefore, veterinary diclofenac use in the past would have caused declines in steppe eagle populations.
Veterinary diclofenac is banned in all South Asian countries where vultures range; however, diclofenac manufactured for human use is being misused in livestock. Therefore, diclofenac poisoning remains a threat for birds of prey in South Asia.
We know that diclofenac is toxic to five species of Gyps vulture. Therefore, diclofenac is likely to be toxic to other species of Aquila eagle.
At least three other species of Aquila – i.e., tawny eagle (Aquila rapax), eastern imperial eagle (Aquila heliaca) and Indian spotted eagle (Aquila hastata) – scavenge on livestock carcasses in South Asia. Therefore, these species may have declined and continue to decline as a result of diclofenac use in livestock.
Eight species of Gyps vultures inhabit Europe, Asia and Africa. Fourteen species of Aquila eagle inhabit Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia and North America. Therefore, the potential number of species at risk and the potential number of countries where the diclofenac-problem could arise is greater than previously thought.
Bearing on this last point, we are particularly concerned about Europe, where diclofenac is being used in Spain, Italy and other countries to treat livestock. Spain is home to the largest population of Eurasian griffon Gyps fulvus and Spanish imperial eagle Aquila adalberti in Europe. These are vulnerable populations, recovering from historic persecution and food shortages, but now at risk of a renewed decline.
Cambridge University Press have kindly set up 3 weeks temporary free access to the article on the BCI journal homepage (Short Communications under the FirstView tab) where you can download the whole article.