International Shorebird Rescue

Guest post by Graham Appleton

I am pleased that we hear so much about the effects of long-line fishing on albatrosses and the recovery programmes for vultures, decimated by anti-inflammatory drugs, but I would argue that the most dynamic bird conservation activities are reserved for waders.  Nests are protected, chicks are reared, individuals are ringed and tracked, flocks are counted and laws are changed. These are all facets of international shorebird rescue projects which develop our understanding of wader ecology and support conservation measures.

Just to illustrate my point, if a Slender-billed Curlew turns up anywhere in Europe, Africa or the Arabian Peninsula, a small team of shorebird experts is on stand-by. They would quickly get together, collect their kit and head off in search of the bird, first to confirm identification and then to try to catch it. So much could be learned from a feather sample and by tracking just one bird – assuming that any Slender-billed Curlews still exist – and this well-thought-out plan will make the most of any sighting that presents itself. Wader conservation is dynamic and focused, and I  attempted to prove this in a presentation that I did on 28 November, at the start of the BOU’s first 24-hour Twitter conference.

spoonie RAR

Why is wader conservation so well developed? Is it because the ‘supply chain’ between data-collectors and conservation advocacy is short or does the global span of wader migration encourage international cooperation? At the heart of everything is the International Wader Study Group, originally founded as the BTO’s Wader Study Group and then released upon the world. Its members count waders, ring waders, write about waders, develop international agreements for waders and talk to governments about wader conservation.  It takes hardly any time at all for scientific findings to influence policy because wader lovers talk to each other all of the time. Like the species they study, IWSG members are gregarious and focused.

The Spoon-billed Sandpiper is one species that is benefiting from international shorebird rescue efforts. You may well have heard that eggs laid in Siberia have been hatched by WWT in Slimbridge, in an attempt to set up a captive breeding programme that could repopulate areas from which this at-risk species has been lost. This is only part of a project that has included head-starting chicks, targeting shorebird hunters in the spoonie’s wintering areas and trying to create protection for migration stop-over sites. Volunteers and scientists from over 20 countries are involved in this research and working with local conservation groups.

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Conservation solutions cannot be parochial because waders link countries – and continents.  The culling of Welsh Oystercatchers in the 1970s might have placated cockle-gatherers in the Burry Inlet, who were worried about the perceived effects that these waders were having on their income, but it also upset the people of Norway.  It turned out that Norwegians quite liked their nesting Oystercatchers and did not appreciate the fact fewer birds returned to herald the next spring. This is not the only example of national priorities clashing; a liberal attitude to hunting in some countries is at odds with the work being undertaken elsewhere to protect declining species.

Coming right up to date, the rapid economic development of the countries around the Yellow Sea is affecting birds that travel from Siberia and Alaska to countries as far apart as India and New Zealand. A recent paper, summarised in this WaderTales blog, shows that the species that are suffering the biggest declines across the East Asian-Australasian Flyway are the ones that are most reliant on the Yellow Sea. These and other findings are already leading to international agreements that are designed to reduce the pressures on migratory and wintering shorebirds – which is really encouraging. Given that 30% of potential feeding areas have been built upon, it is unlikely that recent losses can be reversed but perhaps future planning may be more sensitive to the needs of birds that use this flyway.

These are just a few examples. If you want to learn more then follow me on Twitter at @grahamfappleton and take a look at the BOU’s Twitter conference. My presentation was based upon examples that illustrate the benefits of science-based decision-making. Including innovative techniques, such as head-starting breeding waders, global solutions, through international treaties, and incentives that turn hunters into bird guides. With most of the world’s wader species under some form of threat, there has never been a more important time to engage in their conservation.

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Graham Appleton is the author of the WaderTales blog series, in which he draws upon over 40 years of shorebird experience. Some articles are generic, such as Which wader, when and why?, which is about migration, whilst other focus on a single paper, e.g. Why is spring migration getting earlier? A full list of published blogs is available at https://wadertales.wordpress.com/about.

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