Members of the Center for East Asian-Australasian Flyway Studies observe migrant birds in the Tiaozini Wetland in Dongtai, Jiangsu Province, on August 15, 2020 (COURTESY PHOTO)
August 14, 2020. In the morning. The sun has not yet risen from the Yellow Sea, but three researchers from Beijing Forestry University are already hastening across the mudflats toward a distant tidal channel to observe the migratory birds that visit the area each year.
The tidal flat they are crossing is called Tiaozini. With ni meaning mud and tiaozi meaning strips, the wetland was named after its long sections of estuarine mudflats. Located in Dongtai, Jiangsu Province, it covers 270 square km and makes up part of Jiangsu's larger Yancheng Coastal Wetlands.
Day breaks at 5:30 a.m. "Green flag, number 24," a spoon-billed sandpiper with a tag on its leg is spotted by one of the researchers. This young bird was last spotted by researchers in the Arctic Circle, but this August it has come to China.
Tiaozini and its four neighboring nature reserves are included in a 186,400-hectare national environmental protection project known as Migratory Bird Sanctuaries Along the Coast of the Yellow Sea-Bohai Gulf of China (Phase I). The UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) recognizes the intertidal mudflat system protected under the project as the largest in the world and granted it the world heritage status in 2019.
The Yellow River in the north and the Yangtze River in the south have both delivered nutrient-rich silt to the wetlands for millennia, creating a biologically productive ecosystem that is not only an important nursery for many marine species, but also a vital habitat for migratory birds.
Many of the bird species that find refuge in these wetlands are endangered, including the red-crowned crane with a wild population of fewer than 2,000. Every December, 40 to 80 percent of the world's red-crowned cranes descend on the Yancheng Coastal Wetlands to spend the winter.
Migratory birds face many threats to their existence, including habitat-loss and degradation caused by agricultural and coastal development, unsustainable agricultural practices, and illegal poaching. "The pin-point accuracy of their navigational ability is astounding, but their journeys are full of threats and most of these are caused by human activities," Jia Yifei, a researcher with the Center for East Asian-Australasian Flyway Studies (CEAAF) at Beijing Forestry University, told Beijing Review.
Guests from afar
The State of the World's Birds report released in April 2018 said nearly 40 percent of approximately 11,000 bird species on the planet are in decline and one in eight is under threat of global extinction.
Currently, there are fewer than 650 spoon-billed sandpipers in the world, according to Jia. This species has been declared critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and is on the brink of extinction.
Zhou Mengshuang, a volunteer at Tiaozini, told Beijing Review that although he's a seasoned bird watcher and knew what he was looking for, the bird's rarity made his first encounter with it a surprise. "I was very excited at the time, and at one point I wondered if I could trust my eyes," he said.
"Regular monitoring helps conservationists and policymakers identify the most important sites and prioritize their protection so that this charismatic bird can be saved from extinction," Zhou said. He is one of about 33,000 volunteers across the country who work on protecting migratory birds. As a photographer and journalist in Beijing, the 28-year-old has participated in a number of bird protection programs.
This spoon-billed sandpiper undertakes an annual marathon migration, making a number of stops on its journey from Russia's easternmost point on the Chukchi Peninsula in the Bering Sea, over to the southern regions of South and Southeast Asia. The Tiaozini area, which was added to the Phase I project later than the other areas, is a critical habitat along the route.
According to Jia, the main threat to the little creature is habitat loss in its breeding, passage and wintering grounds due to the reclamation of tidal mudflats, as well as their erosion. The protection of migratory species requires the monitoring and protection of habitats separated by tens of thousands of kilometers, underlining the importance of international cooperation, he added.
En route to their breeding grounds, spoon-billed sandpipers enjoy a three-month stopover at Tiaozini to molt, before continuing their journey back to Russia. "Each bird has its own tags, helping researchers to discover unknown wintering and breeding sites, and to detect and remove illegal bird traps," Jia said. The National Bird Banding Center of China grants the necessary permissions for bird bands and satellite tags to be placed on the spoon-billed sandpiper and other waders.
A joint survey completed earlier this year by the Mangrove Conservation Foundation and the CEAAF found around 26 spoon-billed sandpipers in seven protected areas in south China.
Connecting the dots
The tidal flats have connected China and the world through their visiting migratory birds. Among the world's nine major bird migration pathways, the East Asian-Australasian Flyway is the busiest. At its heart, the Yancheng Coastal Wetlands is the winter home of between 200,000 and 300,000 migratory birds each year, and a stopover for more than 3 million others, including 17 endangered species.
The flyway travels south from Alaska and the Russian Far East through Japan, the Republic of Korea and China, and then extends to Southeast Asia, Australia and New Zealand. It crosses 22 countries and has a longest distance of 12,000 km. "These distant geographical areas are connected by migratory birds," Zhou said. "Even subtle changes in the ecological environment will have an impact on wetlands thousands of kilometers away."
While it has been introducing measures to protect coastal wetlands since 2010, China introduced its toughest measures in 2018, restoring unauthorized reclaimed land and placing a halt on approval of new reclamation projects. Jia described these new measures as "an exemplary approach that provided a significant degree of protection for the entire coastal wetland system."
(Print Edition Title: A Day's Journey Into Night)
Copyedited by G.P. Wilson
Comments to firstname.lastname@example.org