The Yellow Sea: The Highest Conservation Priority In East Asia

In the fun company of Paul Holt and Marie Louise, I have just made my 15th visit to Nanpu, a small town situated on the coast of the Bohai Bay in Hebei Province, China.  At this time of year the outskirts of this unassuming settlement play host to one of nature’s most incredible spectacles – the migration of millions of shorebirds from their Arctic breeding grounds to their wintering grounds in the southern hemisphere, many travelling as far as Australia and New Zealand.  It is truly awe-inspiring to see, and hear, flocks of shorebirds excitedly arriving on the newly exposed mud on the falling tide and there’s nowhere better  in the world than China’s east coast to witness this stunning scene…. Just listen to ABC presenter Ann Jones and Chinese birder and good friend, Bai Qingquan, describe this phenomenon in this short clip from the excellent BBC World Service/ABC radio series.

A Google Earth image showing the location of Nanpu, in the Bohai Bay.
A Google Earth image showing the location of Nanpu, in the Bohai Bay.

We enjoyed a brilliant two days with 33 species of shorebird logged, including flocks of long-distance migrants, many of which were still in fine breeding plumage, including GREAT KNOT, BAR-TAILED GODWIT, GREY PLOVER, SHARP-TAILED SANDPIPER, the ‘Near Threatened’ ASIAN DOWITCHER and even a single ‘Endangered’ NORDMANN’S GREENSHANK.  My poor quality video and photos simply don’t do justice to these birds.

2016-07-28 Asian Dowitcher juvenile, Nanpu
Juvenile ASIAN DOWITCHER, Nanpu, 28 July 2016

As we were travelling back to Beijing, I checked the news on my smartphone.  The headline was about the Rio Olympics, a forward look to two weeks of celebrating the astonishing physical feats of the world’s best athletes – from 100m sprinters to marathon runners.  The parallel with the shorebirds was striking.  Take the Bar-tailed Godwit.  One population of this species winters in New Zealand and flies, via the Yellow Sea, to Alaska and then, after raising its young, makes the return journey directly, a gob-smacking non-stop 11,000 km over the Pacific Ocean.  According to scientists, this journey is the equivalent of a human running at 70 kilometres an hour, continuously, for more then seven days!  Along the way, the birds burn up huge stores of fat—more than 50 percent of their body weight—that they gain in Alaska. And before they embark on this epic journey, they even shrink their digestive organs, superfluous weight for a non-stop 7-day flight. Try that, Usain!

Bolt v BT Godwit
The best athlete in the world: Bar-tailed Godwit or Usain Bolt?  Bolt reaches speeds of around 48km/h, with an average of 38km/h, for under 10 seconds in the 100m sprint.  The Godwit’s effort is the equivalent of running at 70km/h non-stop for 7 days!

Sadly, the number of Bar-tailed Godwits successfully reaching New Zealand each autumn has fallen sharply, from around 155,000 in the mid-1990s to just 70,000 today.  And the Bar-tailed Godwit is only one of more than 30 species of shorebird that relies on the tidal mudflats of the so-called Yellow Sea Ecoregion (the east coast of China and the west coasts of North and South Korea).  The populations of most are in sharp decline, none more so than the charismatic but ‘Critically Endangered’ Spoon-billed Sandpiper.

So what is the reason for the decline?  Scientists, including Prof Theunis Piersma and his team have, through years of painstaking studies, proved what many birders have long suspected – that the main cause of the decline is the reclamation of tidal mudflats along the Yellow Sea.  Around 70% of the intertidal mudflats in this region have disappeared and much of the remaining 30% is under threat.  If the current trajectory continues, the Yellow Sea will become a global epicentre for extinction.

The problem, in China at least, is a combination of local economics and national regulations.  The coastal region of China is home to 40% of the country’s population, and produces roughly 60% of national GDP.  Local governments receive much of their revenue through land sales and the land that demands the highest price is agricultural land close to major cities.  However, to ensure China’s food security is preserved, there is a national regulation (the Law of Land Management) stipulating that there must be no net loss of agricultural land.  So any farmland sold for development must be offset by land elsewhere being allocated for agriculture.  The relatively cheap reclamation of mudflats is, therefore, a profitable way for Provinces to be able to sell high-value land for development whilst conforming with the “no net loss” rule by allocating much of the reclaimed land for aquaculture.  In the absence of a law protecting nationally-important ecosystems, local priorities rule.  And, although large-scale land reclamation projects, at least in theory, require national level approval, these rules are easily circumvented by splitting large projects into several, smaller, constituent parts.  With a booming economy over the last few decades, resulting in high demand for land, the tidal mudflats are suffering death by a thousand cuts.

In South Korea, it’s a similar story.  Perhaps surprisingly, it’s North Korea’s relatively undeveloped coastline that could provide the last refuge for the dwindling populations of these birds.

So, what can be done?  Ultimately, what’s needed is greater protection for, and more effective management of, nationally important ecosystems, including coastal wetlands, not only for migratory birds but also to avoid undermining China’s basic ecological security, such as providing fishery products, fresh water and flood control.  That will require a combination of new laws, amendments to existing laws, regulations and greater public awareness.  There is some great work on this, initiated by the Paulson Institute in partnership with China’s State Forestry Administration and the Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, that makes some compelling recommendations.

In parallel to these recommendations, one idea is to secure nomination of the Yellow Sea Ecoregion as a shared World Heritage Site between China and North and South Korea.  The concept is based on the Wadden Sea World Heritage Site, a so-called ‘serial’ nomination of linked sites across three countries.  Initiated by The Netherlands and Germany in 2009, with Denmark joining in 2014, this World Heritage Site is based in large part on its unique importance for migratory waterbirds.  Whilst World Heritage Site status wouldn’t mean automatic protection for the Yellow Sea Ecoregion, it would give it greater national and international recognition based on its significance for migratory shorebirds along the world’s largest and most important flyway.  That must be a good thing.

More immediately there is much that must be done to raise awareness about the importance of these areas for migratory shorebirds, as well as local livelihoods – vital work if the conservation community is to have a chance of influencing local governments.   Whenever I speak about migratory shorebirds in China, without exception, people are amazed by the journeys these birds undertake and they are enthused to do something to help.  Most are simply unaware that the Yellow Sea coast lies at the heart of the flyway.  The good news is that there is now an increasing number of local birdwatching and conservation groups in many of China’s coastal provinces engaging local governments and doing what they can to save their local sites. There are grassroots organisations in China working hard to promote environmental education, not only with schools but also the general public.  And there is a growing band of young Chinese scientists studying shorebird migration along the Yellow Sea.  These groups fill me with great optimism about China’s future conservation community.

Internationally, organisations such as BirdLife, including their superb China Programme team – Simba Chan and Vivian Fu – are working with groups such as the Global Flyway Network, the East Asian Australasian Flyway Partnership, as well as Professor Theunis Piersma and his dedicated team.  Together, they are advancing the concept of the World Heritage Site with the UN, governments and local groups.  At the same time, I believe it is incumbent on us all to be Ambassadors for these birds, to celebrate their lives and to do what we can to promote awareness about their incredible journeys.

The tidal mudflats of the Yellow Sea are one of China’s treasures, alongside the Great Wall, but they are in peril.  Affording them robust protection and effective management is the highest conservation priority in east Asia and it’s a race against time.

Wouldn’t it be something if, alongside the rolling coverage of the Olympics, state TV and radio profiled the most impressive athletes of all – the shorebirds of the East Asian Australasian Flyway?

 

References and resources:

BIRDS OF THE YELLOW SEA – datavisualization of migration routes by 422 South on Vimeo.  See URL: https://vimeo.com/150776396

BBC World Service/ABC Radio series on the East Asian Flyway, 2016.  See URL: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p03wpkd8

Saemangeum on Birds Korea.  See URL: http://www.birdskorea.org/Habitats/Wetlands/Saemangeum/BK-HA-Saemangeum-Mainpage.shtml

Why North Korea Is A Safe Haven For Birds, BBC, 2016.  See URL: http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-36533469

The Paulson Institute Blueprint of Coastal Wetland Conservation and Management in China, 2015.  See URL: http://www.paulsoninstitute.org/news/2015/10/19/paulson-institute-and-chinese-partners-publish-blueprint-of-coastal-wetland-conservation-and-management-in-china/

Global Flyway Network: see URL: http://globalflywaynetwork.com.au/

East Asian Australasian Flyway Partnership (EAAFP): See URL: http://www.eaaflyway.net/

Photo of Usain Bolt “Bolt celebrating at the 2013 London Anniversary Games” by J Brichto used under license from Creative Commons.

Bolt’s speed: see URL: http://running.competitor.com/2014/02/junk-miles/6-animals-faster-than-usain-bolt_95078

The Wonderful World of Waders

During my trip to Liaoning Province in May, primarily for visible migration at Laotieshan, I spent a day with Tom Beeke and Spike Millington north of Dalian towards the North Korean border, to look for waders.  The whole area is brilliant with good numbers of mudflats holding birds such as Terek Sandpiper, Red-necked Stint, Lesser Sand Plover, Bar-tailed and Black-tailed Godwits, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, Great Knot, etc etc.  It was along this stretch of coast that we enjoyed fantastic views of hundreds of waders gradually walking towards us on the incoming tide, most of which were in stunning summer plumage and on their way to their arctic breeding grounds.  It was awesome to see so many Great Knots, Terek Sandpipers, Greater Sand Plovers and the ‘sakhalina‘ subspecies of Dunlin – simply stunning birds.

Dunlin (ssp sakhalina), near Pikou, Liaoning Province, 14 May 2011

Among the flocks, we saw several colour-flagged birds and, having noted down the details and reported them to the Global Flyway Network, I received some fascinating data about the individual birds.  One Bar-tailed Godwit, originally flagged in Australia, was at least 19 years old (!) and another was flagged near Auckland, New Zealand, over 10,000 kilometres away from where we saw it… amazing! It was this experience that prompted me to find out more about the East Asian Flyway, the studies taking place and the information these studies were revealing and it was through these inquiries that I made contact with Chris Hassall.

Bar-tailed Godwits near Pikou, Liaoning Province, China

For the last few years Chris has been visiting the Bohai Bay in Spring and, with local PhD student Yang Hong-Yan, he has been studying migrant waders using this area, with an emphasis on the Red Knot.  Their work has contributed a huge amount to our knowledge of the movements of waders and how long they spend at these stopover locations, revealing the importance of the Chinese coast.  The numbers of birds passing through is incredible – Chris counted an astonishing 64,000 Red Knot in the Bohai Bay near Tangshan on one day in early May 2010!

One of the key methods for obtaining information about the movements of these birds has been colour-flagging or banding.  Colour-flagging schemes are now being operated in several countries along the flyway including Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia, China and north-eastern Russia. Birds caught are marked with either plain coloured flags, engraved leg flags (ELF) or 4 colour-bands and one flag. Each capture location has its own colour flag and/or position of the flag on its leg to allow easy identification of the origin of each bird. The birds with plain flags cannot be identified to individual level but simply reveal the place where that individual was banded. The colour-bands and the engraved leg flags can be attributed to individuals, allowing fascinating life-histories to be discovered.

The flagged Terek Sandpiper we found at Pikou. This individual was colour-flagged at Chongming Island (southern China).

These schemes have allowed Hong-Yan, Chris and his team to identify Red Knot from as far afield as Chukotka, Kamchatka, Sumatra, Chongming Dongtan (China), 5 sites in Australia and both north and south islands of New Zealand. The study has also revealed the differing migratory patterns of the two subspecies of Red Knot – rogersi and piersmai – with rogersi (from SE Australia and New Zealand) arriving earlier and leaving their eastern Siberian breeding grounds earlier than the piersmai birds, predominantly from NW Australia and breeding on the New Siberian Islands.

One of the major threats to these birds is land reclamation which is happening all along the Bohai Bay coastline at a frightening pace. The China Marine Environment Monitoring Centre estimates that between 2006 and 2010, 1000km2 of land were reclaimed EACH YEAR in China. Added to this, the Bohai Sea is the most polluted in the world; it absorbs nearly 5.7 billion tonnes of sewage each year and 43 of the 52 rivers that flow into it are heavily polluted.

Traditional 'harvesting of the mudflats' for crabs and shellfish.. a way of life that is also threatened by the huge reclamation projects on the Chinese coast.

It is perhaps surprising that the number of birds at Chris’s study site has increased in the last few years. However, this is almost certainly due to the destruction of nearby habitat where many birds used to feed with birds now ‘crowding’ into an ever-decreasing feeding area. A big concern now is the sustainability of the remaining areas. Competition for the declining food sources will almost certainly mean birds will have to move on earlier and with fewer fat reserves, which could lead to a higher mortality rate and lower breeding success.

As Chris mentions in his latest report, all of the migratory birds using the Bohai Sea coast and covered in his report are covered by the China-Australia Migratory Bird Agreement and it should be a “source of embarrassment to both governments that this destruction of critical habitat.. ..is happening“.

So what are the prospects for the future?  Chris and his team are leading, with WWF-China, calls for part of the area – including mudflats and some of the saltpans – to be protected by establishing an ‘International Shorebird Shared Resources Reserve at Bohai”.  The mudflats would provide the inter-tidal area for migrant and wintering shorebirds and the saltpans could be developed as high-quality high tide roosts and breeding areas for Avocets, Black-winged Stilts and Kentish Plovers.  Let’s hope this proposal gains enough support to outweigh the local financial incentives for development.

The plight of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper (see recent posts) is certainly helping to raise awareness of the importance of protecting stopover sites along this coast and hopefully efforts to stop the decline of this most charismatic of waders will help all of the other species that rely on the same sites.  These small birds travel tremendous distances – many from Australasia to the arctic and back again each year – and it would be a tragedy if we lost them…

Me introducing the locals to wader-watching, Pikou, May 2011. Photo: Tom Beeke

Below is the list of colour-flagged or banded birds we saw along the coast between Pikou and Zhuange on the east coast of Liaoning Province in mid-May.  I find this data incredibly rewarding and it adds a new dimension to wader-watching.  It has even converted wader-wary local birder, Tom Beeke, into a shorebird fan! (well, almost…).

Bar-tailed Godwit

Yellow engraved “ELT” flag on right leg.

This bird was flagged Beaches, Crab Ck Rd, Roebuck Bay, Broome, Australia, approximate co-ordinates 18deg 0min S, 122deg 22min E, which uses the flag combination ‘Yellow Engraved’, on 1/04/2011.

Originally ringed on 2 April 1994 as a 2+ years old bird.  This bird is now 19+ years old!

The resighting was a distance of approximately 6406 km from the marking

location.

Yellow engraved “CST” flag on right leg

This bird was flagged Beaches, Crab Ck Rd, Roebuck Bay, Broome, Australia, approximate co-ordinates 18deg 0min S, 122deg 22min E, which uses the flag combination‘Yellow Engraved’, on 5/03/2005.

The resighting was a distance of approximately 6406 km from the marking

location.

Orange flag on right tibia

This bird was flagged in Victoria (Australia), approximate co-ordinates

38deg 0min S, 145deg 0min E, which uses the flag combination ‘Orange’,

sometime since January 1990.

The resighting was a distance of approximately 8922 km, with a bearing

of 343 degrees, from the marking location.

Yellow flag on right tibia (4 birds)

These birds were flagged in North-west Australia, approximate

co-ordinates 19deg 0min S, 122deg 0min E, which uses the flag

combination Yellow, sometime since August 1992.

The resighting was a distance of approximately 6518 km, with a bearing

of 1 degrees, from the marking location.

White flag on right tibia

This bird was flagged in the Auckland area, North Island (NZ),

approximate co-ordinates 37deg 0min S, 175deg 0min E, which uses the

flag combination White, sometime since 22 December 1991.

The resighting was a distance of approximately 10048 km, with a bearing

of 323 degrees, from the marking location.

Great Knot

Yellow flag on right tibia (2 birds)

These birds were flagged in North-west Australia, approximate

co-ordinates 19deg 0min S, 122deg 0min E, which uses the flag

combination Yellow, sometime since August 1992.

The resighting was a distance of approximately 6518 km, with a bearing

of 1 degrees, from the marking location.

Black flag above white flag on right tibia

This bird was flagged at Chongming Dao, Shanghai, China, approximate

co-ordinates 31deg 27min N, 121deg 55min E, which uses the flag

combination Black/White, since April 2006.

The resighting was a distance of approximately 910 km, with a bearing of

5 degrees, from the marking location.

White band on tarsus

This bird was flagged as a juvenile at Roebuck Bay, Broome, Australia, approximate co-ordinates 17deg 55min S, 122deg 35min E, which uses the flag

combination White band, at age 1, between Sept. & July in 1999-2000 or

2003-4.

The resighting was a distance of approximately 6397 km from the marking

location.

Grey Plover

Black flag on tibia

This bird was flagged at Chongming Dao, Shanghai, China, approximate

co-ordinates 31deg 27min N, 121deg 55min E, which uses the flag

combination Black+White (inferred), since April 2003.

The resighting was a distance of approximately 910 km, with a bearing of

5 degrees, from the marking location.

Red Knot

Orange flag on tibia

This bird was flagged in Victoria (Australia), approximate co-ordinates

38deg 0min S, 145deg 0min E, which uses the flag combination Orange,

sometime since January 1990.

The resighting was a distance of approximately 8922 km, with a bearing

of 343 degrees, from the marking location.

Terek Sandpiper

Black flag on tibia above white flag on tibia

This bird was flagged at Chongming Dao, Shanghai, China, approximate

co-ordinates 31deg 27min N, 121deg 55min E, which uses the flag

combination Black/White, since April 2006.

The resighting was a distance of approximately 893 km, with a bearing of

4 degrees, from the marking location.

Dalian – Day Four

Today was wader day.  And after travelling to Jinshitan (just north of Dalian city) yesterday afternoon, we stayed overnight in a very cheap (but functional) hotel ahead of our 5am pick up.  Our destination was Pikou, a relatively small town (or so it appears on the map, but actually looks larger than many UK cities!) north of Dalian on the east coast of the peninsula.  The journey, which without stops should take less than an hour and a half, is peppered with good birding sites and there are lots of mudflats all the way up, providing good habitat for wading birds.  Tom showed us some fabulous sites and I am indebted to him for his guidance, expertise and company today – thanks Tom!!

The highlight was undoubtedly the 6 Black-faced Spoonbills at Zhuange (north of Pikou) with a supporting cast of over 50 Chinese Egrets, 400 Great Knot, over 1,000 Dunlin of the very smart race sakhalina, 300+ Bar-tailed Godwit, 450+ Red-necked Stint, 150+ Terek Sandpiper, 40 Lesser Sand Plover, 2 Greater Sand Plover, 26 Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, 7 Grey-tailed Tattler and Saunders’ Gull.

After enjoying the Black-faced Spoonbills (almost all of the total breeding population in China!), we experienced a stunning encounter with a host of waders at a site just south of Zhuange where we sat and watched the waders come towards us as the tide came in, giving us fabulous views of Great Knot, Bar-tailed Godwit, Red-necked Stint, Grey Plover, Lesser Sand Plover etc all in superb breeding plumage.  A real bonus was finding 15 birds with coloured rings or flags on their legs.  These birds will have been ‘marked’ by ornithologists studying migration routes and I will report these birds (7 Bar-tailed Godwit, 5 Great Knot, 1 Red Knot and 1 Grey Plover) in the hope of discovering something about their history.  Many will almost certainly have been ringed in Australia, illustrating just how far these birds travel every year from their breeding grounds near the Arctic circle to their wintering grounds in the southern hemisphere..  truly remarkable.

The drive back ended with a Little Owl just outside Jinshitan – the first time I have seen this species in China – and we arrived back too late to catch the last train back to Dalian and from there to Lushun.  So we will begin tomorrow by travelling to Lushun, checking in to our hotel and probably won’t reach Laotieshan until late morning.  So we will miss the early hours of migration but it was worth it!

I was a bit lax on the species list today, simply because we stopped at so many sites and saw so many birds!  So the following species list is not comprehensive but hopefully gives a flavour of the day…

Chinese Egret (one of more than 50 seen today)
Black-faced Spoonbills, Zhuange
Black-tailed Godwits
Bar-tailed Godwits

Whimbrel (300+)

Kentish Plover (12)

Chinese Egret (56)

Chinese Pond Heron (1)

Oystercatcher (6)

Black-tailed Gull (150+)

Peregrine (1)

Grey-tailed Tattler (7)

Black-headed Gull (400+)

Little Egret (6)

Common Sandpiper (4)

Intermediate Egret (1)

Wood Sandpiper (16)

Black-crowned Night Heron (8)

Grey Heron (5)

Common Pheasant (8)

Barn Swallow (300+)

Red-rumped Swallow (25+)

Fork-tailed Swift (60+)

Kestrel (3)

Little Tern (8)

Pacific Golden Plover (57)

Richard’s Pipit (4)

Turnstone (43)

Red-necked Stint (428 including 385 just south of Zuanghe)

Bar-tailed Godwit (300+)

Eurasian Curlew (35+)

Far Eastern Curlew (40+)

Meadow Bunting (3)

Grey Plover (85+)

Terek Sandpiper (c160)

Lesser Sand Plover (34)

Black-tailed Godwit (43)

Saunders’ Gull (5)

Black-faced Bunting (4)

Red Knot (15)

Dunlin (1,000+)

House Martin sp (6)

Yellow Wagtail (14)

Sand Martin (14)

Sharp-tailed Sandpiper (38)

Great Knot (c400)

Black-faced Spoonbill (6)

Caspian Tern (1)

Common Shelduck (240)

Chinese Penduline Tit (1)

Blue Rock Thrush (2)

Moorhen (1)

Coot (1)

Little Grebe (2)

Little Owl (1)