Guest blog from James Phillips on a very successful Spoon-billed Sandpiper Survey in May 2015 on the Yellow Sea coast, China

Rudong County is just 2 hours’ drive north of Shanghai. The mud flats along this part of the Yellow Sea coast, in China’s Jiangsu Province, are a critically important staging post in the spring and autumn for migrating spoon-billed sandpipers (‘Spoonies’) and for the tens of thousands of migrating shorebirds that move along the East Asian-Australasian flyway between their breeding grounds in the arctic and their wintering grounds far to the south.

In recent years, important numbers of spoon-billed sandpipers have been recorded in this area during spring and autumn, and international teams have carried out coordinated surveys here each migration season since autumn 2013.

We continued this approach and surveyed in the first half of May 2015 using a now established and agreed survey methodology.

The Team

It was a truly international team again this year with a fantastic group of observers all passionate about their waders and Spoonie conservation!

A group of field ornithologists at the top of their game! The team from left to right were Zhang Jun (China), Richard Gregory (RSPB UK), Andrew Baksh (USA), John Mallord (RSPB UK), James Phillips (Natural England UK), Adam Gretton (Natural England UK), Xiaohui Ge (Student at Nanjing Normal University, China), Professor Qing Chang (School of Life Sciences, Nanjing Normal University, China) and Wei Liu (Student at Nanjing Normal University, China) not in shot but who is taking the actual team photograph!

Key aims of the Survey

This year we wanted to continue to build our knowledge and understanding on the number of Spoonies passing the Jiangsu Coast and gauge how long individual Spoonies actually stay here. We also wanted to see what areas were used by Spoonies on the different states of the tide. Gathering this information would help identify those areas that might be afforded further protection in the future to provide suitable stopover sites. Finally we wanted to find as many individually marked Spoonies as possible, particularly head started birds. You can read more about our Spoonies project on our Saving the Spoon-billed sandpiper website

Which parts of the Jiangsu coast to survey?

The team surveyed three areas of mud flats along the southern Jiangsu coast. We focused on those areas that past surveys have shown to be of particular importance for spoon-billed sandpipers.  As well as Spoonies we also wanted to get a handle on the number of migrating shorebirds using the different sites. As well as being important for spoon-billed Sandpipers these mudflats are critically important staging posts for many species of shorebird……….Including bar-tailed godwit, for which the Yellow Sea is their only refuelling station on their mammoth migration between Australasia and their Siberian or Alaskan breeding areas.

Image - James Phillips. Bar-tailed godwit.

When was the best time to survey?

We chose the dates 3rd of May to the 12th May  as these coincided with a very good high tide sequence and crucially this is the time when (we think) the majority of spoon-billed sandpipers pass through the Jiangsu coast on their way north to their breeding grounds on the Chukotka peninsular in the far north of Siberia.

What was our field work strategy?

For each site we surveyed, it was all about team work with each team member working in close proximity. We split the survey area into sections, with no more than 300m between each observer. This allowed us to get good coverage of a stretch of mud flat. On both the rising and falling tides it was all about finding Spoonies and recording everything we could for each bird we found. On the different tides we would also note the directions that waders were moving in and where they were going to. On the high tide the focus was slightly different, trying to find roosting flocks and get counts of each species present and if possible locate and count any Spoonies present within these flocks.

The timings of our surveys were based completely around the tide times. We would always be on site, ready and in position 2 hours before the high tide point resulting in some extremely early starts!

Image - James Phillips. Surveying.

What information did we record for every Spoon-billed Sandpiper we saw?

We wanted to gather as much information as possible on all the birds we saw. This included:

  • The date, time and GPS location for each bird
  • The Plumage score 1-7 (A seven being a full adult bird in breeding plumage)
  • Whether and how the bird was marked (Which leg it was marked on, the colour of flag or rings and whether the flag was inscribed)
  • And if possible we would try and get a photo of every marked bird

What did we see and how many birds did we see!

Well we did very well. We recorded a minimum of 62 individual spoon-billed sandpipers during the survey period with a total of over 250 different sightings, including flocks of 33 and 13 birds! We recorded some 12 flagged birds including a number of head started birds which was very exciting. These birds are so important to the future recovery of the species and the fact we were seeing a number of these birds returning back north means that the strategy of head-starting chicks on their Siberian breeding grounds is truly working!

Heading back north!

Image - James Phillips. “Lime Green 16”, in nearly full breeding plumage, Jiangsu, 10th May 2015 on the falling tide. This is a male bird rung as an adult on the Siberian breeding grounds on the 26th June 2014!

Image - Dani Lopez Velasco. A spoonie marked with a plain lime green flag – Jiangsu 9th May 2015 at a high tide roost This bird was rung as a chick on the Siberian breeding grounds before 2010.

Image - James Phillips. It wasn’t just spoon-billed sandpipers! We also recorded some 40 species of wader during the survey period with the team regularly recording between 40,000 and 70,000 waders at the different sites we surveyed! 

The coastal mudflats and areas of coastal reclamation are also important for Black-faced spoonbill currently IUCN Red listed ENDANGERED (EN) and Saunders’s Gull and Chinese Egret which are both currently IUCN Red listed VULNERABLE (VU). Whenever we saw these species we recorded them. 

Image – James Phillips. Saunders’s Gull

Image – James Phillips. Chinese Egret

Image – James Phillips. Black-faced spoonbill.

We had a great trip and the whole team would like to thank Zhang Jun and Jing Li for their help in making the arrangements and helping it all run so smoothly. We also like to thank the Links Hotel www.linkshotel.cn where the team were based throughout the survey period and to all the staff there for looking after us so well during our stay. The hotel is in a superb central location for all our survey work at the various sites along the southern Jiangsu coast.

Image - James Phillips. We didn’t have to venture too far from the Links Hotel to see a Spoonie…. This one showed very well just outside the front entrance to the Hotel every morning.  

 

Image – James Phillips. Puddled mud on a falling tide – got to be perfect Spoonie feeding habitat!  

Read more about our Spoonie research in a series of blogs 'Spoonies in a haystack 2', 'Spoon-billed sandpiper update from Rudong China' and 'Spoon-billed sandpiper more from the survey team in China'.

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