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A rare sighting

By Chen Liang  (China Daily)

13:57, February 21, 2013

No other wader has a bill quite like that of the spoon-billed sandpiper. Tang Zhenghua / For China Daily

Known among birdwatchers as the 'holy grail', the critically endangered spoon-billed sandpiper is suffering further habitat loss. Chen Liang reports in Fangchen, Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region.

Two weeks before the Lunar Spring Festival, Yu Yat Tung and two of his colleagues arrived in Nanning, capital of Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, on a mission to find a rare bird. They hired a van and traveled to Hepu, a coastal town in Qinzhou city. From there, for five days, they scanned 12 sites, including intertidal mudflats, tidal ponds, sandbars, saltpans and fishponds, all along the region's coastal line in Qinzhou, Beihai and Fangcheng cities, looking for the bird. Finally, at a drained fishpond, through powerful telescopes, they spied the bird they were after - a spoon-billed sandpiper - among dozens of wintering waders. But all too soon, a curious passerby scared the birds away.

"That was the only sighting of the bird on our whole trip," says Yu, research manager of the Hong Kong Bird Watching Society, an NGO dedicated to the conservation of birds and their habitats in Hong Kong. "To be honest, it was an exciting discovery and kind of a relief for us. Before the survey, we had no confidence that we would find any in Guangxi."

The spoon-billed sandpiper is a little bigger than a sparrow, though with a much longer bill and legs, but it is listed as critically endangered by IUCN ( International Union for Conservation of Nature).

The migratory wader known for its flattened bill that flares into a "spoon" at the tip, is on the brink of extinction in the wild, and breeds on the tundra of Northeast Russia and winters on the coasts of Bangladesh, Myanmar, Vietnam, Thailand and elsewhere in Southeast Asia.

According to data from the Birdlife International, the world's largest collection of conservation organizations striving to protect birds, their habitats and global biodiversity, bird numbers have shrunk further in recent years. Breeding ground surveys suggest a decline from 2,000 to 2,800 pairs in the 1970s, to fewer than 1,000 pairs in 2000.

The breeding population in 2009-2010 was optimistically estimated at 120-200 pairs, of an estimated total population of 500-800 individuals. By 2011, the first figure had been revised downwards to fewer than 100 breeding pairs. No birds were sighted wintering in Vietnam in 2009 at a site that supported at least 27 birds in the mid 1990s.

According to BBC Wildlife magazine, "the 'SBS' became one of the world's most sought-after species - a kind of holy grail".

In China, the bird used to winter in Fujian, but in 2012 just four birds were seen in the province up until early December, Yu says. HKBWS members and local bird watching societies launched a joint survey in January, but failed to find any.

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