The number of East Asia’s endangered Black-faced Spoonbills rose 2.6% in 2016 to 3,356 individuals thanks to hunting restrictions and international conservation efforts.
By Rex Graham
Global warming is expected to coax the shorebirds farther north this century, complicating recovery to historical highs of 10,300 or more individuals.
Volunteers with the Hong Kong Bird Watching Society coordinated the latest spoonbill count in historically used habitats in South Korea, Japan, China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, Vietnam, the Philippines and Thailand. “Spoonbill numbers have increased because two major wintering sites – Taiwan and Hong Kong – are well protected, and breeding sites in the Korean Peninsula have not been seriously disturbed,” said Yat-tung Yu, Research Manager of the society.
Black-faced Spoonbills have come a long way since their numbers hit a dangerous low in 1988 of only 288 total individuals. In 1992, the species became the Asian avian icon equivalent to the Great Egret in the U.S. That’s when spoonbill hunting was banned in Taiwan and Hong Kong. The shrimp- and fish-eating shorebirds with the tennis-racket bills immediately began to bounce back.
Black-faced Spoonbill prey
Freshwater shrimp, Macrobrachium nipponense (OpenCage)
Mullet, Mugil cephalus (Roberto Pillon)
Leaping Mullet, Liza saliens (Citron)
Mosambique Talapia, Oreochromis mossambicus (Bryan Harry)
Black-faced Spoonbill surprise
The surprisingly high spoonbill counts announced March 11, 2016, by BirdLife International come after the number of spoonbills wintering in Taiwan more than tripled from a 1991-1992 low of 200 individuals to more than 600.
At the same time, major threats to spoonbills and other endangered shorebirds have not gone away. Huge areas of wetland habitat have been developed or turned into rice fields. The rivers flowing into important tidal habitats that are relied upon by spoonbills and other birds are grossly polluted. For example, the delta of the Pearl River (also called Zhu Jian, Guangdong or Canton River) is one of the largest wintering grounds outside of Taiwan. The river delivers an estimate 8 million tons of agrochemicals, heavy metals and other pollutants a year from Macau, Hong Kong and China’s Guangdong Province. An outbreak of avian botulism killed 73 Hong Kong birds in the winter of 2002-03. Toxic red tides and algal blooms regularly create unfavorable conditions for wildlife at the deltas of the Pearl and other large East Asia rivers.
However, those negative factors have apparently been more than offset by the hunting restrictions, additional seabird sanctuaries, intensive scientific study and monitoring, and other conservation actions in China, Taiwan, North and South Korea and Japan, according to BirdLife International. In some areas frequented by spoonbills, people have stocked shallow ponds with fish for the birds to eat.
Taiwan has emerged as one of the most effective countries for protecting habitat and individual spoonbills and other birds that winter or breed there. Indeed, more than half of the world’s Black-faced Spoonbills are thought to winter in the coastal wetlands of southwestern Taiwan. The rest winter in coastal areas of Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Macao, Hong Kong, and China. Taiwan environmentalists worked with international colleagues to oppose a huge wetland development project near Tainan City. Together, they secured 95% of the threatened wetland for conservation purposes.
At the same time, about 50% of the Futian Nature Reserve in China’s Guangdong province has been lost. Residential development is eating away at the eastern part of the Mai Po Nature Reserve in Hong Kong.
Poised for rebound
Spoonbill pairs nest in small groups producing 4 to 6 eggs per clutch. The bird is one of the avian world’s most efficient fish-catchers. They plunge their upper and lower tennis rackets into shallow water slightly apart and sweep back and forth as they slowly walk. They specialize on freshwater shrimp, mullet, carp, and other fish that feed at intertidal flats and lagoons in sheltered estuaries. The spoonbills also feed at manmade fish ponds and canals. After only a few seconds of sweeping, they stop to swallow shrimp or fish before resuming.
China’s vast rice fields account for 6% of the world’s wetlands, and fishes in the fields and canals during fallow periods attract at least 31 species of endangered birds, including the Black-faced Spoonbill. China also is the world’s largest user of pesticides, with its greatest use in rice fields. “Water regimes and chemical use have been implicated in the decline of biodiversity and of species such as the Black-faced Spoonbill,” Chinese and Japanese researchers recently reported in the journal Waterbirds.
The Korean War, Vietnam War, Cultural Revolution in China, wetland losses, and poaching are some of the most significant human-caused events that have hurt the birds.
Northward spoonbill shift
However, global warming could have a significant positive impact, according to statistical modeling studies. “The center of the predicted range of spoonbills will undergo a latitudinal shift northwards by as much as 240, 450, and 600 km by 2020, 2050 and 2080, respectively,” scientists with the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the South China Institute of Endangered Animals wrote in the journal Oecologia. Overall increases in the wintering range were projected to be 6% by 2020, 2% by 2050, and 25% by 2080
Other studies have documented the northward movement of wintering habitats for North American and European birds, but the latest Chinese modeling is bad news for watchers of spoonbills at their current wintering habitats as the birds winter hundreds of km farther north by 2080:
- Northeastern Vietnam will lose 98% of its suitable wintering habitat.
- Taiwan will lose 61% of its wintering habitat.
- Coastal areas across the South China Sea will lose 85% of their winter habitat suitability.
Unfortunately, climate change may push wintering spoonbills into an ecological trap. Why? The wintering estuaries, wetlands and tidal areas farther north may shrink or vanish because of relentless development for agriculture, aquaculture and other industrial uses.
I believe that the more we watch, photograph, protect and study Black-faced Spoonbills, the better for the species, all birds, all wildlife and all humans.