Spoon-billed Sandpiper Facts
Critically Endangered (IUCN). Perhaps as few as 100 breeding pairs remaining.
A small sandpiper with a one-of-a-kind black spatulate bill. During the breeding season the bird is rich reddish brown particularly around the head, breast and back. The breast has varying amounts of dark spotting extending toward the belly, which is white. During the nonbreeding season Spoon-billed Sandpipers are a mixture of white, black, and gray. The upperparts are mostly gray with a lightly streaked cap and back of the neck. Its underparts, throat and forehead are white often with a white streak over the eye. Legs are black.
The Spoon-billed Sandpiper’s spatulate bill is unique among shorebirds. For this reason, it is placed in its own genus, Eurynorhynchus. In all other characteristics the species closely resembles the many “peeps” in the genus Calidris, including the Semipalmated Sandpiper, Dunlin, and Sanderling.
Spoon-billed Sandpipers arrive on the breeding grounds in Russia during the final days of May or early June. Males immediately begin displaying over favored habitat to define their territory and attract a mate. They perform courtship flights while circling their territories and deliver a repeated trill alternating with bursts of rapid wingbeats. Once a male and female have paired the male stops or markedly reduces his displays. The pair selects a site to nest and the female begins laying a clutch of four eggs in a shallow tundra depression.
Once the eggs are laid, both adults incubate, usually on shifts lasting half a day, and the young hatch in 19 to 23 days. After hatching the young leave the nest within a day and immediately begin feeding themselves. The male leads them away from the nest and attends to them until they fledge about 20 days later. The female departs soon after the young hatch and begins migrating south. After the chicks reach fledging age the male too departs. The chicks to migrate south on their own a few weeks later.
On the breeding grounds, Spoon-billed Sandpipers feed on a variety of larval and adult invertebrates, especially midges, mosquitoes, flies, beetles, and spiders. They also feed on some plant material including grass seeds and berries. On the wintering grounds and during migration they feed on a variety of marine invertebrates including polychaete worms and shrimp.
Like sandpipers in the genus Calidris, the Spoon-billed Sandpiper makes many different sounds during the breeding season both from the ground and during aerial display flights. During winter and migration, vocalizations are likely limited to a few simple calls. Northward spring migrants may occasionally utter calls related to breeding.
To date, no complete studies of the species vocalizations have been accomplished but new recordings from the 2011 expedition will provide a good basis for future study.
Breeding Range: The Spoon-billed Sandpiper breeds in far northeastern Russia along the Bering Sea coast of the Chukotsk peninsula and southwards down the Kamchatka peninsula. Within this range it requires specific habitat types that are widely separated. The birds are now absent from the majority of their historical breeding range, including Belaya Spit, formerly the largest core breeding area known for the species.
Winter Range and Migration: Spoon-billed Sandpipers migrate down the Pacific coast of Russia, Japan, North and South Korea, and China to their main wintering grounds in Southeast Asia. They rely heavily on Yellow Sea intertidal areas during their migration. Most remaining Spoon-billed Sandpipers winter in coastal Myanmar and Bangladesh, though some birds are still found in coastal southern China, Thailand and Vietnam.
During the breeding season Spoon-billed Sandpipers live in coastal tundra, most often near large coastal lagoons or bays. Within these areas they nest among crowberry plants on sparsely vegetated gravel spits or in more heavily vegetated lowland tundra dominated by sedges, moss, and dwarf willow. They feed along lake shores, shallow ponds, and in wet tundra meadows.
During migration and winter Spoon-billed Sandpipers occupy coastal marine sites, especially mudflats on the outer reaches of tidal estuaries.
Reasons for Decline
Most researchers believe that two factors are responsible for the Spoon-billed Sandpipers population decline: the elimination of migratory stopover habitat, particularly in the Yellow Sea region, and subsistence hunting on the wintering grounds.
The Spoon-billed Sandpiper is one of many long-distance migrant shorebirds whose populations depend on intertidal habitats to fuel their migrations. In the Yellow Sea, large-scale reclamation projects are draining intertidal areas to convert them to other uses, particularly in rapidly developing countries like China and South Korea. The Saemangeum, the largest seawall in the world, eliminated one of the Yellow Sea’s most important shorebird refueling habitats. It typically hosted a half-million migrating shorebirds negotiating their 15,000-mile round trip journeys between the Southern Hemisphere and arctic Alaska and Russia. The Spoon-billed Sandpiper is the first of these species to be pushed to the brink of extinction, but others like the Great Knot may follow if additional development continues as planned.
At least half the world’s remaining population of Spoon-billed Sandpipers winters in Myanmar‘s Bay of Martaban, where subsistence hunting with nets is a common activity. These nets routinely capture and kill Spoon-billed Sandpipers. Hunting, carried out by the poorest of Myanmar’s people, is now considered to be the greatest immediate threat to the species.
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