Almost the entire Alaskan breeding population of the bar-tailed godwits is dependent on the Wadden Sea of the Chinese Yalu estuary, the only stopover during the spring migration from New Zealand. Photo by Gerrit Vyn.
From the spring 2021 edition of Living Bird magazine. Subscribe now.
Friends are often skeptical when my husband Hank and I tell them that some of our most extraordinary bird watching experiences took place on the coast of China. In terms of volume, variety and drama, nothing can beat the days we spent on the coast of the Yellow Sea.
On the shores of the Tiaozini Wadden Sea, I wrote in my diary in November 2017 about what I considered “one of the greatest natural spectacles in the world”. The sheer numbers, the black bands of movement across the sky, the constant repositioning of the groups in the Wadden Sea – that made for a bird panorama in constant motion. “There I had the almost indescribable thrill of first seeing an extremely rare spoon-billed sandpiper pointed out to me by a top Chinese bird guide, and then finding one myself.
The reason for the coastal visit wasn’t just personal interest or adding to a bird list, however. The birds at the heart of the experience were in trouble. We wanted to see if and how we could contribute to efforts to protect their fast-vanishing layover.
Base map from Google Maps; Flyway overview of U.S. fish and wildlife service.
Years earlier, Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s director, John Fitzpatrick, was asked about the world’s most threatened bird populations during a table talk among a group of conservation leaders, and answered without a break: the waders of the East Asian-Australasian flyway. The flight route extends over 22 countries from Alaska in the USA and Siberia in Russia in the south via China, Southeast Asia to Australia and New Zealand. The centerpiece is the Yellow Sea and the Gulf of Bohai, an important gas station for 240 water bird species, including 22 globally threatened species on the IUCN Red List.
The pace and extent of reclamation of coastal wetlands along China’s east coast has been relentless and seemingly unstoppable. In the past 50 years, up to 53% of the temperate tidal flats, 73% of the mangroves and 80% of the coral reefs have been lost. The trajectory was on the verge of collapse. When Professor Theunis Piersma, a world-renowned coastal bird scientist from the Netherlands, first visited the Bohai Gulf in China in 2010 and looked at the heavy machinery, excavators and pumps that turned tidal flats into commercial real estate, he complained, “So this is the end of one Trajectory. “
Fitzpatrick at Cornell Lab clearly hoped that wasn’t the case. We also. A collaboration between the Paulson Institute – a think and do tank for US-China relations with an emphasis on business, markets and the environment – the Cornell Lab, BirdLife International and other partners began to grow with a focus on preserving the most important Stopovers in the Yellow Sea.
Chinese partners were decisive for the efforts. Chinese scientists had documented the number and diversity of waders using wetlands on the coast. Through tracking studies, they were able to show that what was happening in the Yellow Sea and the Gulf of Bohai was the main cause of the steep decline in the populations of waders. For example, the Far Eastern curlew has declined by 80% over the past 30 years and the great knot by 58%. Most alarmingly, the charismatic spoonbill sandpiper has an estimated world population of fewer than 600 individuals, and is falling by an estimated 10% per year.
To build on science, the Paulson Institute worked with the Chinese Academy of Sciences to develop a blueprint for the conservation and management of coastal wetlands in China. The blueprint concluded that China’s coastal wetlands provided ecosystem services worth $ 200 billion a year. 180 priority protected areas have been identified, including 11 of the most critical but unprotected coastal habitats for migratory waterfowl. And broad policy recommendations have been proposed to strengthen coastal wetland protection, including stopping further wetland reclamation.
Good news came in January 2018 when the Chinese Oceanic Administration announced a moratorium on all “commercial” reclamations of coastal wetlands along its coast. The moratorium was reinforced by a political directive passed by the State Council, China’s cabinet, in July this year. The speed and strength of the government’s engagement has been impressive.
Then the focus quickly shifted to securing the long-term protection of the remaining coastal wetlands. The vision was ambitious: to secure world heritage status for a number of sites along the Yellow Sea – Bohai Gulf. Thanks to the hard work of the Chinese government, academics and non-profit organizations, as well as support from the international community, key sites – Yancheng Yellow Coast Coastal Wetlands (including Tiaozini) in Jiangsu Province – were granted World Heritage status in July 2019. A further 12 locations are to be nominated for enrollment in the next two to three years. The world heritage status goes hand in hand with tough protection obligations. Sustainable management and restoration plans are already being drawn up in Yancheng.
Almost all bar-tailed godwits that breed in Alaska rely on the Wadden Sea of China’s Yalu Estuary during migration. Photo by Brian Calk / Macaulay Library
Of course, securing the world’s most threatened trajectory in the long term is only possible if all 22 countries along the route, which are jointly responsible for protecting the birds and the habitats they need, work together. China’s commitment to protecting the heart of the flight path is a welcome boost. And in a broader sense, the advances in China should inspire other countries.
It’s not just birds that will thrive. Coastal wetlands serve several important functions. They act as a buffer for tsunamis and hurricanes. They serve as important nurseries for fish and shellfish. they clean the water of pollutants; and they act as a carbon sink. All of these functions, plus the tourism that a healthy coast can promote, add up to real economic value.
Birds are the conservation magnet that catalyzes the collaboration of many partners to preserve the coastal wetlands. The work, the vigilance continues. It will no doubt take decades, probably centuries. However, with so many disheartening events happening in the conservation world, it’s important to recognize and celebrate some good news.
Professor Piersma says: “Now we feel completely different. We don’t think there will be an extinction. Now we can document and talk about a recovery that is very, very positive for the world and for China. “
Wendy Paulson is a nature educator, conservation activist, and Chair of the Bobolink Foundation. She is an educator at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and a past board member, teaches bird instruction at Chicago Public Schools, and leads bird walks in Illinois.