World's Wading Birds Are Vanishing Fast, Experts Warn

James Owen in England
for National Geographic News
October 20, 2003
Waders are getting into deep water, in some cases to the point where
there's no turning back. That's the conclusion of bird experts meeting
recently in Cadiz, Spain, to assess the current status of waders around
the world.

Having reviewed the latest available data, ornithologists from 20 countries who attended last month's International Wader Study Group conference suggested half of all waders are in decline, with just 16 percent bucking the downward trend. They said well over 100 species were now at risk, with 23 of them classed as "globally threatened."

Made up of some 600 wader experts worldwide, the Wader Study Group (WSG), a non-governmental research organization, stated: "The majority of populations of waders of known population trend are in decline all around the world—a matter of international conservation concern."

The group said environmental damage to the birds' habitat was a major factor behind falling populations.

In particular, it highlighted threats to coastal wetlands used as stepping stones by these largely migratory shorebirds (such as sandpipers and plovers) while traveling to more northerly breeding grounds.

"These staging sites are critical to the birds," said WSG member, Jacquie Clark.

Clark, head of ringing at the British Trust for Ornithology, said Delaware Bay, on the eastern U.S. coast, was a prime example. An important food stop for Arctic-bound waders in spring, research links drastic declines in red knot numbers to commercial fishing in the bay.

"There's a big horseshoe crab fishery in Delaware Bay and there's concern this is causing birds which feed on the crab's eggs to fail in their migrations," said Clark. "Red knots pass through in May. They're only in the bay for three or four weeks but it's a crucial time because the birds winter in southern South America and this is their last feeding point before the Arctic. They have to put on a lot of fat to give them the fuel to make it there."

The Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control says studies indicate the red knot could become extinct by 2010, with the birds now facing a 44 percent mortality rate during migration.

Land Reclamation

Another internationally important stopover at risk from human activities is Saemangeum in South Korea, where the world's largest land reclamation project will turn 30,000 hectares (74,000 acres) of tidal mudflats into rice fields.

With 90 percent of the new seawall already built, ornithologists say many endangered waders face eviction. These include the spoon-billed sandpiper which breeds in northeast Russia. Famous for its bizarrely shaped bill, the species is down to less than 500 breeding pairs.

"The tidal mudflats in Korea, particularly Saemangeum, are vital for the survival not only of migratory birds in eastern Asia, but also for the marine ecosystem of the Yellow Sea," said Simba Chan, a Korean bird expert from the Wild Bird Society of Japan.

The WSG argues that waders are sensitive indicators of environmental change and that closer monitoring of these birds would help detect problems in the wider environment.

For instance, Clark says odd behavior by oystercatchers in Britain in the late 1990s indicated the collapse of shellfish beds in the Wash, off England's east coast. An important fishery for cockles and mussels, large numbers of oystercatchers feed in the Wash, where they winkle out the shellfish with their orange bills at low tide.

Clark said: "People were reporting oystercatchers hunting for earthworms in the middle of busy roundabouts. They were also seen in suburban back gardens. We discovered this was because there was no food left for them along the shore."

A similar problem has been identified in Holland's Wadden Sea, a staging site for many long-distance migratory waders. The WSG says scientific evidence suggests unsustainably high levels of shellfish harvesting have caused serious declines in several species.

Clark added: "Instead of taking shellfish in traditional ways, fishermen are using large boats which scoop everything off the bottom. Birds are being forced to move elsewhere to look for food."

The WSG conference also highlighted concerns that many waders, including the globally threatened slender-billed curlew and sociable lapwing, are highly susceptible to population crashes because breeding success is dependent on the birds gathering in large flocks.

Curlew Collapse

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Europe's largest conservation charity, says the sudden collapse in slender-billed curlew numbers in the 1960s has left the bird on the brink of extinction.

"This species is in very serious trouble, with no more than a few hundred left," said John O'Sullivan, from the RSPB's Global Programmes Department. "We don't know where they breed and the only evidence they still exist comes from rare sightings of migrating birds in southeastern Europe—maybe one or two a year."

The birds, which once wintered in huge flocks around the Mediterranean, have probably fallen victim to agricultural disturbance at former breeding sites somewhere in the Russian or central Asian steppes, said O'Sullivan.

He added: "This species is believed to be numbers-dependent, having adapted to breed in colonies. The downside is they don't feel comfortable breeding alone, or in small numbers. So when they should be nesting they are wandering about looking for each other."

Dwindling populations have also left many waders vulnerable to the accumulated effects of harmful genetic mutations, so accelerating the plunge towards extinction.

The WSG says 140 wader populations have now fallen below 15,000 individuals, 28 percent of the global total.

The Cadiz conference noted that in 2002 the World Summit on Sustainable Development called for "a significant reduction in the current rate of loss of biological diversity" by 2010.

But the Wader Study Group now concludes: "The declines reported from all over the world suggest that, for waders at least, it will be extremely challenging to achieve these targets."

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