April 07 2005 © Lee Hae-Sun
In March, we posted a request from leading shorebird researcher (and Birds Korea international member) Dr. Phil Battley in New Zealand, asking observers based in the Yellow Sea to be on the look-out for colour-banded Bar-tailed Godwits Limosa lapponica baurei.
Why bother though? What exactly is the benefit to anyone or any bird for an observer in Korea to report to someone in New Zealand that they've seen one godwit out of thousands with a few coloured flags and bands on their legs? It's not always easy to see what the point is, but the following may help to explain...
The Ornithological Society of New Zealand (OSNZ) are conducting research into the movements and survival rates of Arctic-breeding waders, and have devised a scheme whereby the position of the bands and flags on the godwit's legs can be used to identify individual birds without having to re-capture them - potentially a single, individual bird could be tracked in this way from its non-breeding area to its breeding ground via its staging site simply by recording the arrangement of flags and bands it carries.
And this is exactly what is starting to happen.
On April 7th, 2005 a Bar-tailed Godwit (white flag upper right; Yellow over Blue bands, both left and right lower leg), was photographed by Lee Hae-Sun, at Cheonsu Bay (Seosan), and the record was passed on to New Zealand by Birds Korea. Phil Battley's response was as immediate as it was enthusiastic: this individual was "2YBYB", a female, which had been banded in New Zealand on October 5th as an immature bird, possibly a three-year old.
"2YBYB" has had a good re-sighting history in the Firth of Thames, in New Zealand's North Island. After the initial banding in October, she was seen a further eight times - with the last sighting on March 26th.
Dr. Battley personally made good checks of the local shorebird flock on 27th, 28th and 29th March without seeing her, so surmises that "2YBYB" departed on the evening of the 26th.
As she was first found on 7th April in South Korea (not necessarily on the day of arrival of course), this means that she made the flight in a maximum travel time of 12 days. Not only was this the earliest New Zealand leg-flagged Bar-tailed Godwit seen in South Korea to date, but it also supports the possibility that this individual at least undertook a direct New Zealand-Korea flight…
Since the discovery of the remarkable 2YBYB, a further three individually-marked birds were found in South Korea in spring 2005, with these records too passed on to New Zealand and to the Australian Wader Studies Group for analysis, and the results passed back to the original finders.
Such re-sightings and the networks that exist to transfer the information reveal clearly the benefits of international cooperation in bird conservation. Despite huge energies put into banding projects in the Southern Hemisphere and breeding ground studies in Alaska, the Bar-tailed Godwit's spring migration would remain largely a mystery without the direct involvement of birders in Korea and the Yellow Sea.
Moreover, the nature of migration itself means that species like the Bar-tailed Godwit don't "belong" to one country or even one region, as such a well-documented individual as "2YBYB" clearly demonstrates. They travel huge parts of the globe, dependent on a whole chain of sites. Without the wetlands used by non-breeding birds in New Zealand (and elsewhere), without the staging sites in the Yellow Sea such as Saemangeum, without undisturbed Arctic breeding grounds, eastern Bar-tailed Godwits could not survive. A loss of a site anywhere along the chain of sites used during the year would have severe repercussions on its survival.
What is the benefit of reporting sightings?
No single group or organisation has the resources to monitor let alone to protect all of these key sites on their own. By looking for flagged birds, however; by coordinating the records and passing them along existing networks; by sharing information on threats to sites; by sharing information on solutions, we can all help to deepen understanding and to raise awareness and concern.
Amongst the scientific contributions a sighting may make, one bird, observed in South Korea on its way to the Arctic, acts as a focus for researchers, birders and conservationists along the whole length of the Flyway. It is this kind of cooperation that will be needed increasingly in the coming months and years as we step-up our efforts here in Korea to use science and good sense in opposing the very worst kinds of development…tidal-flat reclamation and estuarine barrages.
Additionally, we recently received the following note from Dr. Battley which points towards the important fact that Bar-tailed Godwits are probably using multiple staging sites within the Yellow Sea:
"A nice record sent to us recently - 2WBYY, which was seen by Jake MacLennan and Peter Nebel on 25 April at the Mangyeong Estuary was seen at Yalu Jiang (China) on 13 May.
This fits more with what people have claimed from counts about birds moving northwards within the Yellow Sea than did the bird seen in Korea last year on 15 and 30 April. It also helps explain why the sightings have dried up in Korea!
(Dr. Phil Battley, May 2005)