Saturday 26 January 2013

Wader Quest meets; Nigel Clark BTO.

Elis and I first met Nigel Clark at a talk he gave for the Bucks Bird Club in Wendover in March 2012 shortly after returning from Brazil. We were keen to learn more about the Spoon-billed Sandpipers with a view to seeing one, so we went to the talk when we saw it advertised. Nigel gave a very compelling run-down of the spoonies' chances and threats and we both felt inspired. We had returned from Brazil a little deflated after our project there had sailed onto the rocks and were searching for an aim in life, that evening we found it!

Nigel is Science Business Manager for the BTO and has worked for them for 25 years. He is also coordinating the multi-organisation UK effort to save the Spoon-billed Sandpiper from extinction. He gave up some of this valuable time to talk to Wader Quest about how he and the BTO are involved in saving the spoonies.

WQ:  Nigel, when did the programme to save the Spoon-billed Sandpiper from extinction begin?

NC: In 2009 people woke up to the idea that there is a huge problem with the Spoon-billed Sandpiper and if we don’t manage to do something within a very short space of time, we will have Slender-billed Curlew all over again.

With the Slender-Billed Curlew there were two problems; firstly we didn't wake up to what was going on when we should have done, partly because of lack of experience; secondly the technology wasn't up to it, remembering that we were then in in the early nineties, now we would've got satellite transmitters on some birds and would be finding where the breeding grounds were and would have been miles ahead.

WQ: Was where they were a factor as far as the curlews were concerned?

NC: It was to a degree but this was a bird that moved through Europe. The Spoon-billed Sandpiper, in world conservation terms, lives in places where conservation has not been high on the list, and yet we have done an amazing job on that and that’s largely down to Evgeny Syroechkovshiy and Cristoph Zȍckler in the early days realizing there was a problem and ‘banging on about it’ until people were sick to death and eventually they realised that yes, they were right!

WQ: You hear lots of figures bandied about reference the population of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper; we understand there could be about 400 individuals and about 100 breeding pairs left. What is the official number left in the wild?

NC: It is most likely that there are less than a 100 breeding pairs at our best estimate. The 400 individuals figure comes from the theory that if they had had any sort of reasonable breeding success you would have juveniles and 1st year birds to add on to that. The fact that they have such low breeding success almost certainly means that that estimate is high.

WQ: My main reason for contacting you was specifically to find out what the BTO’s role is in this fight to save the Spoon-billed Sandpiper?

NC: I am the coordinator of the UK Spoon-billed Sandpiper support group, which is basically a group of organisations within the UK who work together because they are all involved in Spoon-billed Sandpiper conservation. At a fairly early stage we realized that there needed to be some coordination within the UK. This was not to usurp the Task Force or anything like that, but to coordinate what we’re doing in the UK so that we can maximise what we can do.
I got involved in the Spoon-billed Sandpiper as a wader ecologist who worked on wintering waders all my life and got involved with a whole range of issues where there were a number of crises we needed to resolve; be it in Delaware Bay working on the effect of over-harvesting of Horseshoe crabs reducing the food for migrant waders or on the Wash where we had issues with low numbers of cockles and mussels. I became involved in an advisory capacity at a couple of meetings that BirdLife organized to discuss what should be done. When the opportunity to go out to Myanmar came to do some surveying in Martaban when we didn't really know what was there, I jumped at it. It was probably the hardest 2 weeks of field work that I have ever done.

WQ: I remember your presentation at the Wendover RSPB group where you were rather graphic about your experiences.

NC: I have never been out in the field before when, at about day 10, I was thinking ‘can I survive another four days of this?’ I had awful bruising on my feet and we were walking more than 10 KM per day… but the results were just phenomenal.
I got involved then and we decided to put this group together. The one point about the BTO is, although we have a lot of expertise and excellent statisticians to analyse data and the like, we don’t have any money to bring to the table, so I can act as coordinator of that group without saying I want to be running this piece of work or that piece of work. Also, as I have been around for rather a long time, it seemed that I would be a rather good person to coordinate that group. So that’s why the BTO got involved.

WQ: So the BTO got involved because of your involvement.

NC: Yes, but having said that the BTO does get involved in projects internationally every now and then anyway. When we can bring our expertise, and the sort of knowledge we have learned in Britain from the volunteer surveys we have run and all those sorts of things, and the way we analyse data, we can get involved in advising organisations in other countries on how they can basically short circuit the 75 years that we've been going. We've made a lot of mistakes over the time and we have learnt from them; helping other organizations to give them a running start.

WQ: From a personal point of view, what was it like to be involved with this project?

NC: Well, it’s been absolutely stunning. When I initially got involved I thought this would be one of those species that I advise on, about what we should do and the like, but never go and see. Then the opportunity came up to go out to Myanmar and even then there was no guarantee that we would see any Spoon-billed Sandpipers, so to get out there and onto the mud on the first day and for the first flock of birds we looked to have a Spoon-billed Sandpiper in it, was just amazing. Now I could go to Martaban in winter and would be staggered if I couldn't find them within a few hours of looking for them, because we know a lot more about them and we know what habitat they require and where they are concentrated.

WQ: That’s interesting because most people, as we did, go to Thailand if they want to see Spoon-billed sandpipers. As eco-tourism is a good way of highlighting the worth of birds on a local level I wondered what the prospects were that Myanmar and Bangaldesh would be able to benefit from this?

NC: There is certainly the potential there with Myanmar opening up and in fact there has been a start with some eco-tourism at Nan Thar just north of Sitwe. There is certainly potential in Bangladesh, it’s not that easy; I've not been to Bangladesh but it is pretty hard but I think it could be done. There is also potential in China at the stop-over sites, that’s possibly the easiest place to see them, a few hours from Shanghai.

WQ: It is the stop over points that are the Spoon-billed sandpiper’s major problem. As I understand it work is on-going in Bangladesh as it is in Myanmar to try and stop the subsistence hunting, things are in place to try and improve things on the breeding ground but all of this is a waste of time if the stop-over points are not protected.

NC: That’s right. In the last two years we have realized that the area we call the Rudong mud flats, which is actually 250 KM of coastline, is almost certainly the absolutely key stop over site. We are sure it is in autumn; we know that over half the breeding adults are there and it may be that all of them are there going through their annual moult. In spring we’re not sure how many are there, we know at least a quarter of the population is but that is probably going to prove of critical importance in both spring and autumn. And there are a lot of threats there which will be very difficult to deal with.

WQ: Do you see eco-tourism perhaps being a useful tool in this?

NC: Absolutely, it can be everywhere, one of the things, in many of these countries, we have to be aware of is that they have other priorities than we have and they are, like China, developing societies. Now in China there is just a fledgling ornithological interest, there are some extremely good ornithologists there doing some brilliant work but it is a very very small proportion of the population. But as people become more affluent they take more interest in nature and this happens the world over so what we've got to do is to find ways to make them want to keep Spoon-billed Sandpipers. We can’t simply go in there and just tell them, ‘you must do this, that and the other or you’ll lose this tiny, little, insignificant bird’, as most of them would see it, that’ll get nowhere, but by encouraging them in a way that they will want themselves to save the bird, then that’s the way to be successful.

WQ: That’s a recognized methodology across the world, we tried to do something similar in Brazil, it’s no good telling a hunter not to hunt he’s got to have an alternative, but this was all on a very small scale and our resources were insufficient to be effective I’m afraid. Anyway, as the BTO is coordinating this, where do you see the fight to save the Spoon-billed sandpiper gong from here? We've got the captive breeding programme, we have the ‘head-starting’ project etc. What’s next?

NC: It is a multiple pronged approach, and you’re right, and we've got to be absolutely clear about this, the captive breeding programme is an insurance policy and I hope we are never in a situation where we are having to say we have got to reintroduce this because it’s gone extinct in the wild. We’re not doing it for that but the rate at which things are changing we need that insurance policy in place. The ‘head-starting’ is a way of basically kick-starting the population, that was very successful last summer and we hope to go on from here.

Almost every country has to have their own conservation plan and there are, in many of the countries already, plans to reduce hunting and to ensure the habitat is protected. There is a short term and a long term issue here. The short term issue very often is hunting, the long term issue is normally habitat loss which is the critical concern because estuaries, especially in SE Asia, are areas that are easy to reclaim and ideal for industry because they are large flat places to build factories on. So there are these short term and long term things that we have got to be going at all the time. Continued hunting in the short term could mean there’d be no point in saving the habitat if we don’t deal with that; if we can’t save the habitat there’s no point in stopping the hunting if there’s not going to be any habitat at the end of the day.

WQ: How quickly can a species be turned around when it has reached the point that the Spoon-billed sandpiper has reached?

NC: It depends very much on the potential productivity of the species. So if you've got a species like the Blue Tit, which can have ten young a year and it can rear all of those ten young, the potential for the population to increase rapidly is very high.  Spoon-billed Sandpipers in common with most waders, especially the high arctic waders, only lay one clutch of four eggs. Spoon-billed Sandpipers will occasionally relay if they lose the eggs early but they normally lay just four eggs and in many years they will raise no chicks at all and then in few years they raise quite a few chicks . We know for instance, the Red Knot population that winters in Great Britain, in the mid-1970s, went through a population crash because there were two summers where there was an incredibly late thaw in the arctic and the birds got there and found everything frozen up. The population declined by half and it has barely now recovered. That’s incredibly slow; most things seem to do a bit better than that. The introduction of Red Kites in Britain is a good example; they have just taken off. You can’t expect something like that to happen with SBSs. It will be a long, slow process.

WQ: But worth it?

NC: Oh! Absolutely worth it. The critical thing about Spoon-billed sandpipers is that this is not just another sandpiper. There is nothing that is closely related to it. For example its bill morphology; it’s clear now that SBS is a very small sandpiper that specializes in feeding on large prey, they feed on crabs and shrimps, they are not feeding on really small things so they are very different to all the other calidrid sandpipers.

WQ: This fact of them eating larger prey, does that make them easier to keep in captivity?

NC: To be honest, all waders, when they are in captivity, will feed on a wide range of things; it is quite possible to keep them on substitute diets.

WQ: Is there anything you’d like to add?

NC: No, I think you have covered all the important issues, except perhaps to add that, to me, the stunning thing is how people have worked together, and by doing so we have had some fantastic successes. It’s not all going to go as perfectly as we would like it to, but, we have got off to a really good start in the last few years at really trying to turn things around.
One thing that is highly relevant is that the Spoon-billed Sandpiper is a flagship species. All the waders that use the inter-tidal mud flats of the East Asian Pacific region are going to be in a real crisis situation unless we can do something about those mud flats very soon and if we manage to save the habitat for Spoon-billed Sandpipers we are also going to be saving it for a large number of other species too.

WQ:  We are very lucky that the Spoon-billed Sandpiper is such a gorgeous and enigmatic bird. If it was just another Red-necked Stint look-alike people probably wouldn't pay much attention.

NC: That’s exactly right; we need to be clear that you need to pick your conservation champions as ones that will really turn people on. And Spoon-billed Sandpipers do.

WQ:  And finally, what message do you have for Wader Quest?

NC: I think Wader Quest is brilliant. I think the idea of individual people, or in this case a couple, asking ‘how can we contribute and how can we do something that is going to help make a difference?’ is great. The more people that see that by actually doing something at an individual level you can have global reach I think is really valuable. It’s the sort of ground breaking thing of trying to do something different that will catch people’s imaginations and ultimately, if we’re going to win in conservation terms to save many of the species that are disappearing on our planet, we need to change people’s hearts and minds and you do that by getting human stories in there and I think that’s where Wader Quest has a real part to play.

WQ: Thank you, we appreciate that we are not going to change the world, but we may just be the butterfly’s wings that cause change elsewhere.

NC: Exactly and that’s exactly the way to look at it. I think that by trying different things you might suddenly find that you might be the lucky one that gets an ‘in’ somewhere that nobody else has and that makes a real difference.

WQ: Yes indeed, well that’s a positive message and something for us to aspire to but at the end of the day we are doing this because it’s what we can do and whether it makes a difference or not, that’s it , that’s what we’re going to do.

NC: And doing something that you enjoy as well is invaluable, if you aren't enjoying it you won’t be able to enthuse other people. And enthusing other people is what is critical.

WQ: I have to say that we knew all about the Spoon-billed Sandpipers crisis for some time but you are personally responsible for kicking our active involvement off. It was the talk that you gave that changed us from being people that wanted to see a Spoon-billed Sandpiper before they became extinct, to being people who wanted to do something, however small, to prevent it from happening.

NC: Well that’s nice of you to say so. I have been lucky in that my job at the BTO is largely about negotiating contracts and overseeing the way in which we deliver the science and things like that but I still get involved in a few science projects to keep my had in; to have had the opportunity to get involved with something like this, that makes a real difference, is just fantastic.

WQ: Nigel, thank you for your time and keep up the good work, we all appreciate what you are doing on our behalf.

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