Guy Anderson reports from SE China, on searching for spoon-billed sandpipers on their migration north.

I’m standing on top of a dead-straight, brand new concrete sea-wall, 10 miles long. Behind me is what used to be sea and mudflat a few years ago, now dry, and in the process of being converted to industrial land or farmland. In front of me though, is the Yellow Sea. Or more precisely one of the mudflats over which the Yellow Sea creeps twice a day. There’s a LOT of mud out there. The flats here stretch all the way to the horizon.

My soundtrack is the gentle swoosh of wind turbines, which dot this coastline, and a strange dawn chorus. The chittering, peeping, whistling and trilling of waders.  A living carpet of birds scuttling, plodding or sprinting across the flats. If you couldn’t hear them, and only gave it a cursory glance, you might miss them. Most waders come in shades of browns and greys (and reds at this time of year), and can be pretty well hidden against the shiny silty mud. 

But look for a moment, open your ears and you’ll realise the mud is alive.  Why? Because, of course, the feathery things running around on top of the mud need the wriggly, crunchy or squidgy things that live within it – the worms, crabs and shellfish. The Yellow Sea –bordered by China and the Korea - is the most important refuelling station for these birds along their flyway – stretching from Australasia all the way through South-East Asia, and up to North-East Siberia.  And the bit of the Yellow Sea that I’m looking at – Rudong county in Eastern China, a few hours drive north of Shanghai, is one of the most important bits within the whole Sea.

The Yellow Sea coastline at Rudong (photo: Guy Anderson)

So what can I see out there?  Well, some pretty familiar birds to Western European eyes; dunlin, curlew, grey plover, sanderling, bar-tailed godwit, turnstone.  But some birds less familiar to me as well; confiding red-necked stints in profusion, terek sandpipers with their upturned beaks, grey-tailed tattlers (yes, really, look them up...), great knot , lesser sand plovers. 

And in the masses,  somewhere out there, I’m hoping to find the real prize, spoon-billed sandpiper.  I’m working with a small international team of observers, helping Chinese ornithologist-conservationists (the ‘Spoon-billed Sandpipers in China’ team) learn how ‘Spoonies’ use this coast. How many use this area? Do they always use the same patches of mudflat? How long do they stay here before heading north towards their breeding grounds in Chukotka, NE Russia (just across the Bering Strait from Alaska)? The problem is that spoonies are rather small, and there are not very many of them. The mudflats are very big and there are a lot of waders out there to search through. Maybe 100,000 in the whole area?  Maybe 200,000? So its a real needle in a haystack job.

Better get on with it then. Half an hour, and about a thousand waders later, I get lucky. A bird that otherwise looks remarkably like a red-necked stint, turns its head and reveals that bizarre, and frankly rather comical, spatulate bill. It has a more heavy-necked appearance than its neighbouring stints, as if lugging that beak around requires a bit more muscle power.  It is coming into its breeding plumage – a rich dark red head and chest and beautifully patterned chestnut and black back feathers. It feeds a little more sedately than the frenetic stints, picking small tasty morsels from the mud surface and occasionally using that bill to sweep form side to side across small pools in the mud – maybe filtering out food too small to see?

Where there’s one, there could be others. Sure enough, a few meters away, I find another. This bird looks pretty similar, maybe even further into its breeding finery. But wait, what’s that on its leg? A flash of colour sets my pulse racing. It’s a colour-flag, a small plastic marker used to help indentify individual birds in the field.

I know only 34 birds have been marked with these on the breeding grounds in the last few years.  And here’s one in front of me now!  So, who is it? I’m out on the mud now, creeping  towards the flock, hoping above all else that they stay put.  They do, and remarkably, they start walking towards me, clearly intent on a particular bit of their mud-larder, which I just happen to be standing on. The bird wanders its way closer, and reveals the digits inscribed on the light green flag: 05. Fantastic! One of only 8 adults marked on the breeding grounds in 2013, and this one has already been seen spending its winter in Thailand.  We’ll be revisiting this site several times over the coming weeks to see how long ‘Green 05’ stays there.  If we can find it again...

‘Green 05’ at Rudong (photo: Guy Anderson)

The efforts to save the spoon-billed sandpiper underway are a truly international collaboration. Find out more about this amazing, strange, charming little wader, and about the huge bird migration flyway of which it is but a small part, here and here.

The team I’m lucky enough to be working with is likewise from far and wide: myself, James Phillips and Adam Gretton from the UK, Andrew Baksh (USA), Robert Bush (Australia) and Jing Li and Zhang Lin (China).  More from us to come....

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