Spooners – the full story

After making contact with local birder Zhang Lin, I arranged for him to guide me for two days with the primary objective to see the ‘Critically Endangered’ Spoon-billed Sandpiper.  This charismatic wader has declined dramatically in the last few years and the total population is now probably in the 100s.  It breeds in Siberia, around the Chukotka peninsula and winters in SE Asia (especially Thailand, Bangladesh and Burma), although the wintering area of much of the population remains unknown.  China is on the migration path and ‘Spooners’, as they are often called, can be seen during the spring and autumn with Rudong (only discovered in 2008 as a site for this species) one of the most reliable and accessible sites.

The adventure began on Sunday evening when I caught an overnight train from Beijing to Shanghai.  The trains are very modern, fast, reliable and clean, with very comfortable bunks (4 to a cabin).  And the current journey time of 9 hours will soon be cut to around 5 hours when the new high-speed rail link comes online in 2011.  The demand for tickets is high, though, so advance purchase is recommended.  Frustatingly, tickets cannot be bought more than a week or so ahead of travel due to “the rules” and this year, due to the Expo being held in Shanghai, demand is higher than usual.  All this combined to mean that there were no bunks left for my outward journey, so I had to make do with a ‘soft seat’ instead.  These were airline style with partially reclining chairs in rows of 3.  I had a window seat which at least meant I had the window to lean on and, incredibly with the help of an eye-mask and ear plugs, I managed about 4 hours sleep.

On arrival at the spanking new and impressive Shanghai railway station, I was met by Zhang Lin and we began the 2-3 hour drive north to Rudong.  Driving on rural Chinese roads is not for the faint-hearted with a combination of trucks, cars, rickshaws, motorcycles, suicidal pedestrians and all sorts of weird motor vehicles providing constant entertainment.  Fortunately our driver was very skilled in navigating these obstacles and it wasn’t long before we were doing our first birding, at a wetland site just before the estuary.  Here we were greeted by Long-tailed Shrike, lots of ‘eastern’ Yellow Wagtails, Hobby, Red-rumped Swallow, Hoopoe, Oriental Reed Warbler, Richard’s Pipit, Chinese Pond Heron, Little Egret, Yellow Bittern, Little Grebe, Arctic Warbler, Oriental Pratincole, Black Drongo and White-winged Black Tern.  Soon, Lin picked up the distinctive calls of the Reed Parrotbill, a very charismatic endemic.  Small flocks of these weird-looking birds were calling from the reeds and, with a bit of patience, we were able to secure excellent views as a pair came to investigate our presence.

Reed Parrotbill

Soon after this encounter, we added Plain Prinia, Common Kingfisher, Cattle Egret and Chinese Bulbul to the list.  Our return walk back to the car unexpectedly produced 3 Pechora Pipits that perched on wires for a few minutes before heading off south-west.  Nice!

We then drove on to the estuary but, with high-tide several hours away, Lin took me to the woods, a relatively young stand of trees planted along part of the seawall (the land here was reclaimed to build wind turbines and several massive Vestas turbines towered over us as we birded the track (a reminder of Denmark!)).  Here was full of migrants with Eastern Crowned Warbler, Pale-legged Leaf Warbler, Asian Brown Flycatcher, Dark-sided Flycatcher, White’s Thrush, a cracking male Siberian Thrush, Black-naped Oriole, Striated Heron, Blue Rock Thrush, Forest Wagtail, Dollarbird, Grey-headed Lapwing, Red Collared Dove and Oriental Turtle Dove.  After a thoroughly enjoyable couple of hours we headed for lunch at a local seafood restaurant (lots of squid, shellfish, fish and lovely Chinese dumplings).  Yum.

Asian Brown Flycatcher, Rudong, 14 September 2010

We were then well-fuelled for the Spooner hunt.  Slightly disconcertingly, Lin told me that they had bought some special cheap ‘shoes’ for me as we would be walking out on the mud flats and would need to cross several creeks, potentially waist-deep in water and mud.  My walking boots were not appropriate and I would need shorts and tight-fitting plimsoles to avoid getting stuck in the mud.  Thankfully, they didn’t tell me that two people had died recently after getting stuck in the mud until I was already about 1km out onto the mud!  Gulp…

Anyway, we met up with Tong Menxiu (who is temporarily based in Rudong to make daily counts of Spooners until the end of October), and set off for the mud flats.  The plan was to walk a short distance (around 200-300 metres) onto the flats to await the small high tide roost at this site.  Often Spooners come into this roost site and, with patience, they will gradually come close, sometimes as little as 10 metres away.  Today, we were not so lucky – no Spooners in this roost – but there were 6 Nordmann’s Greenshanks, Common Greenshank, Redshank, a Long-toed Stint, Greater and Lesser Sandplover, a Great Knot, Far Eastern and Eurasian Curlews, Red-necked Stint, Grey Plover, Broad-billed Sandpiper and a Sharp-tailed Sandpiper.  Suddenly the whole group took to the wing and it meant only one thing – a raptor.  A quick scan produced a male Pied Harrier quartering the area..  simply stunning.

Pied Harrier, Rudong, 13 September 2010

High tide came and went without me getting my feet wet but, given that there were no Spooners in the roost, Lin suggested we walk further out towards the slowly expanding feeding grounds to try to see them there…   this involved wading through several muddy creeks, some of which were waist deep and with patches of very sticky mud, whilst trying to keep my rucksack and optics free of water and mud – not easy!  My tripod came in very handy as a third leg…  The walk was around 1.5-2km through this terrain before we eventually reached the open flats with literally thousands of feeding birds.  The timing of the tides meant that we probably only had about an hour left of daylight, so we began to scan in earnest, Lin from the left and me from the right.  After only a couple of minutes, Lin said he could see a Spooner.  My heart raced – would I really connect with this sought-after wader?  He offered me his scope and seconds later I was watching my first ever Spoon-billed Sandpiper!  Wow..  I soon found it in my own scope and I watched it avidly for several minutes – a non-breeding plumaged adult – as Lin scanned for others.  The Spooner seemed to have three feeding actions, two of which were very different to the confusion species – Red-necked Stint.  The first was a sort of Snipe-like digging, with three to four vertical ‘drills’, all of the bill going deep into the mud.  The second was a sort of a Spoonbill-like ‘sweep’ from side to side or a ‘shovel’ straight ahead.  And the third was a more Red-necked Stint-like poking at the surface.  After a few minutes the bird flew and I lost it, so I began to scan and, amazingly, I found my own Spooner!  This one was an adult moulting out of summer plumage with some rufous colour still on the throat – a stunner.  I watched this bird for about ten minutes as Lin scanned the rest of the flock, picking up one more adult in non-breeding plumage.  The feeding technique of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper is a very good initial identification feature, especially at distance.  They tend to run around with their head down and the distinctive ‘shovelling’ or ‘drilling’ means that you can often tell them apart from Red-necked Stints at quite a distance.

With the light fading, we had to head back..  I knew the walk out had taken us about an hour and I knew it would be dark well before that so I was relieved when Lin said we would be taking a short cut back across a relatively deep creek (waist high again) that is not passable at anything other than low tide.  Thirty minutes later we were on a track and were met by our driver, who took us to a local restaurant for a celebratory seafood meal, accompanied by the local beer..  I was very happy!

We then retired to the small local hotel where the rooms were comfortable, if a little basic, with a shower and air conditioning.  For about GBP 12 per night, it was pretty good.

Day two began wet and windy (the remnants of a typhoon) so we visited the wood again, as it would provide at least a little shelter.  We got a drenching but with the temperature around 30 degrees C, it was not unpleasant and we soon dried out when the rain stopped.  The morning produced Red-billed Starling, Chinese Grosbeak, Siberian Blue Robin, Northern Hawk Cuckoo (easily mistaken for a hawk!), Japanese Sparrowhawk, Pale-legged Leaf Warbler, Dark-streaked Flycatcher, Asian Paradise Flycatcher, Black-naped Oriole and another two Siberian Thrushes.  An adult male Blue and White Flycatcher added a splash of colour and a juvenile Tiger Shrike was a nice addition to the list.

And so, after another seafood based lunch, we set out to look for more Spooners.  This time we sat on the sea wall a few kilometres away from yesterday’s site and watched the birds as they gradually moved closer with the incoming tide.  Again, lots of waders were present of many different species.  New additions here included a Grey-tailed Tattler and several Marsh Sandpipers.  But no Spooners.  So with the tide reaching its peak we headed to the area behind the sea wall, the favoured high tide roost here.  We walked out towards the largest of three flocks of roosting birds.  A painstaking scan failed to show any Spooners but there was a nice roosting flock of Saunders’ Gulls with a few Black-tailed Gulls mixed in.

With the tide now receding, we went back to the sea wall to watch the waders as they began to leave the roost to feed..  Here, the birds were pretty close, feeding avidly and, again, Lin soon found an adult in non-breeding plumage, closely followed by a second.  I watched one of the birds for about 10 minutes, knowing that it would be my last sighting before the journey back to Beijing.  I felt very privileged to be watching this small wader, especially in the knowledge that the species may already be beyond the point of no return.  With threats on its wintering ground from hunters and coastal development, many of its migration stopover sites already lost, and almost all of the remaining sites under threat from development, the future is not bright.  But where there is life there is hope and I will be keeping my fingers crossed that the international effort to save the species from the brink of extinction is successful.  The world will be a poorer place without this charismatic bird.

Zhang Lin and me watching Spoon-billed Sandpipers from the sea wall on day two at Rudong (photo: Tong Menxiu)

Reluctantly, we tore ourselves away to begin the drive back to Shanghai.  I was tired but elated.  Thankfully, I had a sleeper berth on the journey back to Beijing and I managed to sleep for around 6 hours before arriving back at Beijing South Station at 0730.

To see a stunning displaying adult male Spoon-billed Sandpiper on its breeding grounds, click here. And for David Sibley’s Spoon-billed Sandpiper resource, including investigation of why the species is disappearing so fast, click here.

I also recommend the series of 6 posts about the SBS on the top birding blog, “10,000 Birds“.  The interview with SBS expert, Christoph Zöckler, is particularly revealing.

To contact Zhang Lin about tours in the Shanghai area or to see Spoon-billed Sandpipers at Rudong, click here…

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