Update from the Republic of Korea, 26 February 2013
Nial Moores PhD, Birds Korea (NGO representative of the SBS Task Force in the Republic of Korea).

At the request of Dr. Christoph Zöckler , the following is an update of Birds Korea’s recent research and public awareness work for Spoon-billed Sandpiper Eurynorhynchus pygmeus. This is followed by four suggestions respectfully offered for consideration by others in the Task Force.

1. Research

There is only a rather short history of shorebird counting in the ROK and still no frequent survey or monitoring of sites that might support the species (Moores 2012). However, literature review and fieldwork in the ROK already provide a reasonable insight into Spoon-billed Sandpiper (SBS) national population and trend, migration phenology, moult, habitat preferences, threats and conservation requirements.

Population Trend

The SBS has experienced a long-term population decline in the ROK which has accelerated in recent decades. It was considered an uncommon species in the first half of the twentieth century (Austin 1948); the first modern ornithological survey effort of suitable habitat resulted in a count of “several hundred on the mudflats in the Nak(d)ong Delta on 18-20 September, 1970” (Gore & Won, 1971: 233); and in the late 1990s, peak counts of 180 (on September 6th 1998) and 150 (on September 28th 1999) were claimed at the Mangyeung Estuary with 100 (on September 29th 1999) also claimed at the adjacent Dongjin Estuary (Park 2002, Barter 2002).

In 2012, there was some coverage of all known best sites. While more records might still come to light, we are presently aware of only c. 26 individuals being recorded this year in the ROK with eight counted during northward migration (four at the Mangyeung Estuary, Saemangeum, and four at the Geum Estuary: Kim & Chung 2012) and approximately 18 recorded during southward migration (Table 1).

Table 1: Records of Spoon-billed Sandpiper in the ROK during southward migration in 2012

DatePeak Number / Estimated TotalAgeLocationApproximate CoordinatesLead Observer / Source
Unknown4 / 4unknownMangyeung, Saemangeum35°51' N, 126°33' Evia Kim Han-Kyu
Sep 6th6 / 95 adults,
1 juvenile
Yubu Island, Geum Estuary35°59' N, 126°36' EJason Loghry
“September”1 / 1Juvenile?HeuksanIsland34°41' N, 125°28' Evia National Parks Migratory Bird Research Centre
Sep 23rd1 / 1JuvenilePohang36°01' N,  129°40' EHuang Jae-Hong
Sep 23rd1 / 1JuvenileJeongdal Ri,  East Jeju33°29' N, 126° 55' Evia Kim Han-Kyu
Oct 1st1 / 1unknownGomso Bay35°35' N, 126°36'  ELee Dae-Jong
Oct 13th1 / 1unknownNamyangBay37°10' N, 126°48'  EKim Jun-Cheol

2012 was perhaps the first recent year without any records of SBS in the Nakdong Estuary (35°30' N, 129°24' E). However, counting effort there during the expected peak period in September was greatly limited by inclement weather.

Migration Phenology

The SBS is a migrant through the ROK, most regular in April and May and again between August and late October. It has apparently not yet been recorded in the ROK between November and February and only doubtfully in March. Four March specimens reported in Austin (1948) were probably dated by the lunar rather than the solar calendar – and thus were actually in April. In recent years, earliest records are from the first decade of April, with small numbers until mid-May rising to a sharp peak comprised largely of adults with some Second Calendar-years.  The timing of this peak is later than in most other shorebird species and has therefore probably been missed by most count effort. There are perhaps no June records (a month with almost no shorebird research) but there were apparently one or more July records during the last decade (either early migrants or individuals which over-summered locally).  The number of adults typically increases again gradually through August to peak in September. In 2012, the earliest record during southward migration was on August 17th at Yubu Island, Geum Estuary (with none found there during daily research between August 14th and 16th). Juveniles arrive in September (earliest in 2012 on September 1st) and apparently peak in the last decade of the month. In 2012, the latest record was apparently of two (one adult and one First-winter) at Yubu Island, on October 21st (though with no counts there after that date).


Previous experience and photographs and video (taken by Jason Loghry) in 2011 and 2012 suggest that some adults probably stage only briefly in the ROK during southward migration, while others remain and undergo a post-breeding moult (August-September/October). In 2012, one bird (age?) had apparently already assumed non-breeding plumage as early as late August, while some others retained obvious breeding plumage features well into September. Due to rapid moult of juveniles and adults in early October, we believe that ageing of birds after about October 10th is rather challenging and generally requires good images and / or prolonged field views at close range.

Habitat and Feeding

We have found and mapped adults feeding actively only within estuaries and only within the rather narrow habitat type of open areas of sand-mud tidal flat, with silt-rich pools and creeks. While substrate samples we collected from both the Geum and Nakdong estuaries remain to be analysed, feeding habitat nonetheless appears remarkably similar to that described in Bangladesh by Bird et al. (2010) and as reported in Marteban Bay. As noted elsewhere too, feeding generally entails rather rapid walking and pecking, followed by rapid pummelling of the mud surface. As first suggested by Dr. Danny Rogers of the AWSG in 2008, pummelling liquefies the surface of the mud, apparently exposing benthic prey that might otherwise lay hidden. The bill-shape and surface water tension together trap and help guide some such prey up the bill. The evolutionary radiation of shorebirds is to large extent a radiation of the bill-tip organ (Piersma 2011), and we suggest that the bill of the SBS is most likely an adaptation to optimal staging and non-breeding intertidal habitat found within the dynamic and historically massive estuaries of several of East and South Asia’s larger rivers. In contrast to adults, juveniles are sometimes found feeding on beaches or in rather poorer habitat, while roosting birds (both adult and juvenile) also use salt-pans and beaches (latter usually in slight hollows, often shadowed by beached vegetation).


Only four ROK sites remain that probably support the species (more or less) regularly: the Geum Estuary, the Mangyeung Estuary (now within the Saemangeum reclamation area), Gomso Bay / Jeulpo and the Nakdong Estuary. Although the SBS has been recorded at a number of other sites in recent years, such records tend to be of lone juveniles, often in suboptimal habitat, and often coincident with inclement weather (e.g. the passage of storm systems as in late September 2012).


The greatest threat (past and present) to the SBS in the ROK is habitat change. Our assessment of tidal-flat area found that probably 75% of historical tidal-flat area in the ROK has now been reclaimed (i.e. converted to land or artificial wetland by mechanical means), with two-thirds of this loss of area since the late 1980s (Birds Korea 2010, Moores 2012). Moreover, many rivers (including the Geum and Nakdong) have estuarine barrages that in several cases have been shown to result in changes in biota, sedimentation and / or tidal-patterns within remaining estuarine areas (Moores 2012). No counts of >10 SBS are known in the Nakdong Estuary after barrage construction in the 1980s and the Saemangeum Shorebird Monitoring Program found a 91% decline in SBS there in only three years following seawall-closure in 2006. Although the Mangyeung Estuary (Saemangeum) still supported at least five SBS in September 2011 and four in 2012, this area will continue to degrade as reclamation continues - unless greater conservation action is taken within the next few months (see below). Recent public proposals for Saemangeum (formerly East Asia’s most important shorebird site: Barter 2002) do not consider shorebirds. Rather, they now include foreigner only casinos (see: http://www.birdskoreablog.org/?p=7173).

Other immediate threats in the ROK include increased disturbance (both by photographers and also by researchers: see http://www.birdskoreablog.org/?p=5931 and http://www.birdskoreablog.org/?p=5956) and perhaps pollution.

2. Recent Public Awareness Work

The SBS is the nation’s only regularly-occurring Critically Endangered bird species. It is part of our organisation’s banner and we have worked as hard as our limited capacity allows to raise the profile of this species and to use science to clarify the link between reclamation and its decline. To this end, in recent years we have posted several hundred SBS-related online notes and articles and links in English and Korean on our websites and blog; held photo exhibitions and events; and have published several reports, contributed to two books and published one children’s education book that highlight the species.

In 2012, we participated in the Palembang workshop; we contributed at several stages to a major IUCN report on intertidal wetlands and shorebirds (Mackinnon et al. 2012) and were also commissioned to translate it into Korean; and we co-organised (with Microhabitat and several other domestic organisations) two publicity events immediately preceding the opening of the IUCN World Conservation Congress here in the ROK. These September 3rd events included a press conference with a video message from the Mayor of Seoul, the Honorable Mr. Park Won-Soon, displaying his name-card emblazoned with an SBS logo in addition to presentations by several leading opinion makers, including the Chief of the East Asian-Australian Flyway Partnership; and an event on the tidal-flat at the Geum Estuary, participated in by the enlightened mayor of Seocheon County. Resultant coverage included several articles in national media (for links see below: http://www.birdskoreablog.org/?p=5809) and a special children’s magazine on the SBS produced by Dong-A Science. We look forward in 2013 to working with inspired colleagues in Hong Kong on their SBS short animation project and as proposed with another leading body on developing a mini-documentary on the species.

3. Suggestions for Improving the Work

It is clear that the SBS Task Force, convened under the EAAFP, is an essential vehicle for the conservation of this species and its habitat. We are deeply encouraged by the successes of the Task Force in many parts of its range, and by increasing concern shown by some researchers for the species (including Kim Han-Kyu and Chung Ok-Sik whose poster on the SBS was presented at the IWSG conference and who provided some of the 2012 records in Table 1). We recognise that all Task Force members are already working to full capacity and doing excellent work and we too believe that conservation action in China (especially at Rudong) is now particularly essential and urgent. We also recognise, more than most, that developing collaborative conservation projects in the ROK generally remains challenging. At the same time the ROK has one of the world’s largest economies and some in government have shown much intention to lead on environmental issues; several key sites in the ROK could be restored or enhanced; and the development of much greater conservation capacity here in the ROK will likely prove vital in helping to support the future growth of conservation capacity in the DPR Korea too. Conservation in the ROK therefore needs even more of the Task Force’s support!

In order to help improve the efficiency and effectiveness of our work, we would welcome:

  1. Improved mechanisms for information-sharing. There is at present remarkably poor sharing of waterbird and shorebird count data and information between government bodies, academic bodies and most birdwatchers and NGOs in the ROK. Information exchange between Task Force members too could be enhanced through e.g. the establishment of a dedicated online forum; development of information sheets in each of the range state’s main languages; and use of e.g. regular skype conferences (publicised well in advance) to enable wider participation. As discussed in Palembang, greater opportunity could also be made of SBS press stories by sharing press releases with Task Force members in advance to allow adequate time for translation and the addition of the local perspective.

  2. Improved protocols to increase political support for the SBS Task Force and for SBS Task Force members. Numerous recent international meetings in the ROK for example did not include formal representation of the SBS Task Force. Is there a protocol to permit Task Force members to represent the SBS Task Force at relevant meetings in their own country? Is there a protocol to encourage visiting experts to liaise with the Task Force member(s) in that country when attending related meetings? If not, development of such protocols might add little to any organisation’s workload – and might instead achieve much by increasing the voice of the Task Force and its members.

  3. Greater financial and technical capacity (either from within or from outside of range states) to help develop research programs that aim to gather and analyse data on substrates, benthos and SBS / shorebird distribution at key intertidal sites as called for in Recommendation 17 of the SBS Action Plan (Zöckler et al. 2010). Such research is essential to understand SBS site usage in a number of range states and along the Flyway. As requested in Palembang, as a Task Force member we would like the Task Force’s support in developing funding applications to this end, and in learning of similar applications being made by other Task Force members.

  4. Joint development and open sharing of Task Force-agreed strategies. In Palembang and Jeju, much effort was made towards generating a motion on intertidal wetlands. Is promotion of this motion still a key strategy for Task Force members? What, if any, are strategies and plans for future international meetings? Most urgently, we would welcome detailed discussions on strategies to improve conservation opportunities for the presently-impounded Saemangeum reclamation area and also to learn if there are ways in which we too can help to support the conservation of Rudong. Greater coordination of advocacy strategies now by Task Force members might yield great results!


Thanks to Jason Loghry (for several weeks of field-work) and to all who have contributed SBS count data and information from within the ROK (for 2012 including Jeon Shi-Jin, Tim Edelsten and Kim Hankyu) and thanks too to Dr. Kim Sanha, Kim Hanmin and Prof. Choe Jae Cheon and all participants for their tremendous effort towards and on September 3rd.  Warmest thanks too to those who raised funds for our SBS work through the World Migratory Bird day Birdathon, and to Edward Keeble, the RSPB (for support through an RSPB small grant) and Nicola Crockford; and of course also to the Task Force and BirdLife International for supporting my (mud-soaked!) attendance at Palembang.


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