Few birds have fallen so far and so fast toward extinction as the spoon-billed sandpiper. You would think it would be a poster child among endangered species—this photogenic, peep-sized ball of feathers with its bizarre, almost comically spatulate beak. Until now it has remained largely unknown even among birders, more a creature of myth than reality—as it was for Gerrit Vyn.
“I had this spoon-billed sandpiper thing in my head since I was a kid,” says Vyn, a 42-year-old Seattle-based photographer and cinematographer for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “It was in the field guide, down there on the bottom of the page—this inaccessible fantasy thing.”
[video:70726|caption:] Spoonbills breed in one of the most remote places on earth, in the Russian Far East along a narrow strip of coastal tundra hugging the frigid ocean. Each year they make a nearly 5,000-mile migration to steamy tropical mudflats in Myanmar (also known as Burma), Bangladesh, and a few other sites in Southeast Asia.
So for Vyn—who has spent much of his career documenting the lives of Arctic-nesting shorebirds—the chance last year to spend three months on the Russian breeding grounds, observing spoon-billed sandpipers at seemingly the most intimate level anyone has ever achieved, and finding them again in Myanmar, wasn’t just a professional coup. Getting the first high-definition video, photos, and audio recordings of this rarest of sandpipers was a childhood dream come true—like finally catching a unicorn.
This strange bird was never common, but as recently as the 1970s researchers estimated that there were between 2,000 and 2,800 wild pairs. By 2005, though, that figure had plummeted more than 87 percent, to between 350 and 380 pairs, and surveyors on the wintering grounds in 2009–2010 “optimistically estimated” that only 120 to 200 adult pairs hung on, along with perhaps 100 juveniles. By then it had already vanished from former sites like Vietnam.
Last year there were only 100 pairs left, and maybe 100 juveniles. The annual drop of breeding-age adults has been a heart-stopping 26 percent, with extinction looming in as little as five years—a result, experts believe, of hunting and trapping on the wintering grounds and the loss (to “reclamation”) of vast areas of tidal mudflats along the migration route, especially the 20-mile-long Saemangeum seawall in South Korea, which choked off more than 170 square miles of once-fertile estuary where hundreds of thousands of migratory shorebirds fed.
“There are major gaps in our knowledge of the lifecycle of the spoon-billed sandpiper, but the most likely cause of their decline has been the loss of staging habitat along the flyway, specifically in the Yellow Sea, made worse by ongoing hunting in certain countries,” says Nils Warnock, executive director of Audubon Alaska and an internationally respected shorebird expert.
“Saemangeum was the biggest known staging site for spoon-billed sandpipers,” Warnock says. “Declines were probably happening before that site was reclaimed, but the destruction of tidal flats has been going on for a long time in Asia.”
Vyn echoes how little is still known about this mysterious sandpiper. “There’s just too much speculation at this point, and a lack of knowledge. It’s a bird that touches so many places during its life—how do we know, without regular monitoring, exactly what it is that we need to be focused on the most?”
But with the tiny population now in freefall, a major concern is trapping on the wintering grounds by hungry people desperate for food.
Last year Vyn learned the hurdles firsthand. First he spent three months in Chukotka, the broad thumb of Siberia that stretches toward Alaska, filming spoonbills in their last stronghold—a coastal landscape alive with huge brown bears, whales, and seabirds and whose beautiful Arctic scenery belies its danger and hardship.
Then last winter he followed the spoonbills to Myanmar, where half the surviving birds congregate—and where they face trappers with nets and hungry people scrubbing the tidal areas for every last scrap of edible protein, including the mouthful a six-inch sandpiper represents. “Just seeing the amount of subsistence pressure on every living creature in the ocean and the mudflats [in Myanmar] is astounding. You have fishermen coming back with an incredible diversity of sea life,” he says, but much of what they catch is tiny. “You have guys marching back and forth for hours every day with two-pole shrimp nets, basically vacuuming every bit of open water. Then, at low tide, 50 or 100 villagers would come out on the mudflats where the shorebirds feed.” In such wretchedly poor communities, where fish become scarce during some seasons and every bird is a prize, the temptation to hunt remains great.
The most direct threats on the wintering grounds are dozens of bird trappers—a few professionals who sell their catch at market but mostly just famished locals in this, the poorest country in Southeast Asia. They are trying to scrape out a few more calories by stringing hundreds of yards of nearly invisible monofilament nets across the tidal flats at dusk. Although hunters largely target bigger birds like egrets and ducks and bigger waders like golden-plovers and curlews, their nets are indiscriminate and easily snag flocks of smaller sandpipers.
Vyn—who found up to 22 spoon-billed sandpipers feeding on an ephemeral island along the coast—blanched when he learned that trappers had recently netted more than 400 shorebirds in a single night on that same tiny oasis. “So in one night you could wipe out 10 percent of the population,” he says. Conservationists have found that while typical catches range from 30 to 150 birds a night, on the best nights—moonless and a little misty—the slaughter can be staggering. In the unlikely event that a shorebird survived the night in a net, it might have been sold alive to Buddhists who would release it—however injured and weakened—in a ritual intended to demonstrate piety. (Conservationists have convinced some religious leaders to curtail this activity.)
By one estimate, 30,000 waders—between a third and a fifth of the total number of birds wintering on the Bay of Martaban (the key spoonbill site in Myanmar)—are killed each year. Add to that the loss of critical wetlands, and it’s easy to understand why so many shorebirds—not just spoonbills—that depend on this flyway are in trouble.“The spoon-billed sandpiper is just the first of a long line of birds, like the great knot, that are being drastically impacted by what’s going on [in the Yellow Sea],” Vyn says. Many of them, like the wandering tattler and the Pacific golden-plover, breed in Alaska and are part of the great, globe-girdling Australasian migration. One, the bar-tailed godwit, is arguably the world’s most accomplished migrant—a bird that flies nearly 7,000 miles nonstop from Alaska to New Zealand in the fall but that depends on the Yellow Sea mudflats in spring during its return flight to Alaska.
Audubon’s Warnock agrees. “The loss of Yellow Sea intertidal areas is perhaps the biggest waterbird conservation crisis in the world,” he says. Besides the Alaskan birds, godwits that travel from Siberia to Australia depend upon the estuaries. “Many of the arcticola race of dunlin—those that breed on the North Slope of Alaska—use the Yellow Sea, as do a significant proportion of the yellow-billed loons that breed on the North Slope,” he says. “All three species appear to be in decline.”
But none are so imperiled as the spoon-billed sandpiper—which is why Gerrit Vyn went to such extremes to get his stunning images, including the first video footage of newly hatched chicks. He and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology gave Audubon an early look, hoping to make the world aware of the spoonbill’s plight.
In early May 2011 Vyn found himself in a smoke-belching, Soviet-era helicopter, flying across the rugged, snow-covered mountain ranges of Chukotka. His destination was Meinypilgyno, a village that sits along a six-mile gravel spit between the Bering Sea and huge freshwater lagoons filled with sockeye salmon and patrolled by bears.
Although the sandpiper once nested in a narrow band along thousands of miles of coastline in Chukotka and Kamchatka, Meinypilgyno is now one of the few remaining key breeding locations. With time, seven pairs were found near the village, and through further weeks of painstaking searches, another two nests were located farther afield. Vyn was able to get the kind of stunning, high-definition video and photographs he had been dreaming of—male spoonbills, their heads and chests glowing rusty red in the Arctic sunlight, trilling out their territorial calls and settling into nests cupped deep in the crowberry tundra.
But his biggest goal was to film a nesting pair and its newly hatched chicks—which proved more challenging than he ever imagined. A consortium of Russian and European bird groups, in a first attempt to establish a captive-breeding flock in England, had permission to collect up to 20 precious spoonbill eggs from Chukotka that season.
Unfortunately, all of the eggs in all of the nests they located amounted to exactly 20; if the team collected everything it found, Vyn’s hopes of documenting the first hatchling sandpipers in the wild were dashed. But on a hunch that there might be an unaccounted-for pair, Vyn and some of the Russians scoured an area thoroughly searched in the past—and turned up one last spoonbill nest.
Vyn camped near the nest site in subarctic cold, his tent rattled by the ceaseless wind, for several days, slowly moving a blind closer and closer, ready to run off predators and occasionally checking the eggs. Once they had “starred”—the shells cracked by the soon-to-emerge chicks—he grabbed his sleeping bag and spent the final 36 hours in the blind, cameras ready, holding vigil.
“I was out there completely alone; the egg people had left the day before. There’s no way to capture the emotion and experience, and the feeling of being there; you’ll never describe it properly to somebody. All you have is your memory.”
At last, from under the feathers of the brooding male, the tiny chicks emerged—all mottled brown fluff and gangly legs, and already bearing their slightly ridiculous, astoundingly cute spoon-shaped bills. “At first the chicks are just completely stumbling and falling and can’t stand up on their legs. But they’re pecking at every little thing that they see,” Vyn says. “When that first chick popped out, my adrenaline [surged] and my hands were shaking—partly because I’ve got to nail this and get this filmed well, and partly out of just sheer ‘I’m the luckiest person to get to see this.’”
Yet it was never far from Vyn’s mind that these first extraordinary images just might well be the last. “So there was definitely that feeling of reverence for the moment,” he says. “It’s special—this isn’t just any other bird. This is potentially the last time this bird will ever be filmed.”
Despite the enormous challenges facing the spoon-billed sandpiper, there are a few slim rays of hope. A handful have again been sighted in Vietnam. In Myanmar, trappers have begun to turn in their nets in return for small grants to buy fishing gear, while in Bangladesh, villagers have agreed to stop netting shorebirds in exchange for small payments and help finding new sources of income and food. The captive-breeding program—a joint venture of eight organizations, including Birds Russia, the Moscow Zoo, and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds—removed another 20 eggs from wild nests this summer. Additionally, nine hatchlings were “head-started” in Meinypilgyno—raised, banded, and tagged with radio transmitters before being released in time to migrate with the wild flock.
Clearly, however, conservationists and the international community must pressure governments along the Yellow Sea to preserve and restore that critical migratory stopover site. No captive-breeding program can change that fact.
In the end, Gerrit Vyn believes, there are no quick and easy solutions. A new IUCN list of the 100 most endangered species includes the spoon-billed sandpiper. And Vyn’s images—especially those of the small, vulnerable chicks facing their Arctic home for the first time—are winning hearts, perhaps even those to whom the sandpiper is simply a welcome meal.
One evening in Myanmar, Vyn fell to talking with fishermen who were occasional shorebird trappers and—in an effort to make them understand what was so special about this small bird he had come so far to see—he played some video from Chukotka.
“The images of the small bird feeding in a tundra pond—the same bird that spent the winter on their island—had them wide-eyed with excitement,” he recalls. “In hushed tones they excitedly exchanged comments and pointed out details to each other.
“I got chills and had a lump in my throat just watching them,” Vyn says. “If ever I questioned the power of video to really reach people, I was convinced.” It’s his hope that those same images will move more people with the power to save the spoonbill—from humble hunters to South Korean politicians hell-bent on coastal reclamation and American policy makers who might be able to convince them to take a more environmentally sensitive course—to act before this strange, feathered unicorn fades completely into myth.
This story originally ran in the November-December 2012 issue as "Catching the Unicorn."