© Nikolai Yakushev

Tundra to tropics: Flyway cooperation for Arctic-breeding species

15 October 2019

This article originally appeared in The Circle: On the move: Migration in the Arctic. The Circle shares perspectives from across the Arctic, and the views expressed here are not necessarily those of WWF. See all Circle issues here.

Many different bird species migrate to the Arctic to breed—and some are struggling to cope with the effects of climate change and other environmental hazards. Courtney Price explains how the Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna’s Arctic Migratory Birds Initiative is leveraging Arctic Council partnerships to help secure healthier populations of declining Arctic-breeding birds, including the critically endangered spoon-billed sandpiper.

Sayam Chowdhury cracks a smile as the email arrives. He opens it and beams from behind his desk in Dhaka, Bangladesh. He’s discovering that a little Arctic bird, Lime 07—so named for his leg band, though affectionately nicknamed “Super-spoonie”—has made it safely back to his breeding grounds in Chukotka, Russia to start another desperately needed generation.

"When I heard that Lime 07 had survived another year, I was extremely delighted, especially because I had seen the bird in November 2016 at Sonadia Island, Bangladesh," says Chowdhury, a conservation biologist and assistant coordinator with the East Asian–Australasian Flyway Partnership Spoonbilled Sandpiper Task Force (EAAFP SBS TF).

It’s really amazing when you think about it, what this tiny bird goes through just to survive.

The steep decline of the spoon-billed sandpiper

Lime 07 elicits international attention because he is one of an estimated 300 to 600 critically endangered spoon-billed sandpipers left in the world. Because of the species’ 90 percent population decline over the past 40 years, every time Lime 07 makes it back to his Arctic breeding grounds, researchers, activists, community members, school children, land managers and others from the tundra to the tropics breathe a collective sigh of relief. It means the small bird has managed to safely traverse a network of sites spanning 9,000 kilometres.

The journey requires “Superspoonie” to survive predators, floods, harsh weather, potential food shortages, illegal hunting, entanglement in fishing nets and more.

The sandpiper task force that Chowdhury belongs to is a dedicated group of global researchers who are following Lime 07’s moves as he zig-zags across the East Asian–Australasian Flyway. Group members send flurries of excited emails to each other when satellite-tracking or monitoring efforts locate the bird. Teams then sometimes travel hundreds of kilometres to spot him and report back on any site-level threats or other important observations.

Lime 07 is so esteemed because he has generated a wealth of information to date to support the survival of his species. His travels have provided scientists with previously unrecorded locations in North Korea, South China and Indonesia; he and other satellite-tagged birds have informed the boundaries of a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation, and his offspring are participating in a scientific “headstarting” program to increase the chance of fledgling survival. On top of all that, Lime 07 himself somehow managed to retain a satellite tag during a full-body moult, allowing for bonus information collection. He’s a scientific boon.

The spoonbilled sandpiper’s alarming decline is mirrored by those of many other Arctic-breeding birds along this flyway and others, including the red knot, dunlin, curlew sandpiper, bartailed godwit and others. Depending on the population, some Arctic-breeding shorebirds have declined by anywhere from 50 percent to 90 percent in the past 40 years. The Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna’s (CAFF’s) 2013 Arctic Biodiversity Assessment flagged this issue as a major concern.

The Arctic Migratory Birds Initiative

CAFF is the biodiversity Working Group of the Arctic Council. It launched the Arctic Migratory Birds Initiative (AMBI) to improve the conservation status and secure the long-term sustainability of declining Arctic-breeding, migratory bird populations. AMBI works with partners across four major flyways (the Americas, African–Eurasian, East Asian–Australasian and Circumpolar flyways) to connect Arctic and non-Arctic researchers and policy-makers on priority conservation issues that affect shorebird, waterbird and seabird species, including habitat conservation, unsustainable or illegal harvest, pollution, bycatch and more. AMBI works with ongoing conservation programmes and addresses issues and species that are globally under-represented.

At the most recent Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting, ministers approved the second phase of AMBI efforts identified in the 2019–2023 Work Plan. The plan builds upon the successes of AMBI’s first phase and guides actions going forward. But implementation depends on raising the international profile and plight of these species, deepening strategic partnerships to support on-the-ground conservation, and fundraising for priority activities.

Migratory species don’t respect geopolitical borders. A failure to protect species in any one location affects all others. This is the challenge that Lime 07 faces with each annual migration as he dodges the impact of climate change, unprotected habitats, pollution and more. But with each successful navigation, Lime 07 brings hope to those dedicated to bringing his species—and others on the same trajectory—back from the brink of extinction.

This work requires flyway-level partnerships—and the Arctic Council is in a unique position to bring together diverse actors for the common cause of protecting the species that connect us all.

COURTNEY PRICE is the global coordinator of the Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna’s Arctic Migratory Birds Initiative and SAYAM U. CHOWDHURY is a Bangladesh-based conservation biologist with the East Asian-Australasian Flyway Partnership’s Spoon-billed Sandpiper Task Force.