Birds Korea update on migratory bird monitoring

29/03/2007

29/03/07

The incredible Bar-tailed Godwit and the credible SSMP

Dear All,

With apologies for cross-posting,

Satellite tracking has again proved the impossible: the migration of eastern Bar-tailed Godwits Limosa lapponica baueri.

In the past few years, researchers in Alaska (coordinated by Dr. Bob Gill, US Geological Survey) and in New Zealand (coordinated by Dr. Phil Battley, Massey University New Zealand, and SSMP co-manager) have teamed up to track the migration of Alaskan-breeding Bar-tailed Godwits, a pigeon-sized shorebird, to their non-breeding areas - following their direct flights across open ocean all the way from Alaska to Australasia!

This February, the same team then put satellite transmitters on 16 more Bar-tailed Godwits in New Zealand, and the results are perhaps even more staggering. Unassisted by strong tail winds, the first of these birds set off from New Zealand in mid-March, and have already arrived in the Yellow Sea. One bird even continued all the way north up the Yellow Sea to the extremely important Yalu Jiang National Nature Reserve (on the Chinese side of the border with DPRK), after a non-stop flight from Miranda Nature Reserve, in the Firth of Thames in North Island, New Zealand.

According to a mail from Dr. Clive Minton (Australasian Wader Studies Group): The distance between these two locations is 9,575 km, but the actual track flown by the bird was 11,026 km. This is the longest known non-stop flight of any bird. The flight took approximately nine days. At least three other Bar-tailed Godwits also appear to have reached the Yellow Sea after non-stop flights from New Zealand. Several others are still in flight and following the same track. Only two (out of 12 satellite-tagged birds which have so far migrated) appear to have not made their intended goal. One diverted westwards and has stopped in the Philippines. The other only reached Papua New Guinea and, after moving to two other locations there, has now tracked south to Queensland....

Two of the original 16 (numbered E1 and Z0 in white, on a large black leg-flag) are now in South Korea. They have been joined by E0, a female banded at the nest by Bob Gill on the Yukon Delta in 2005. In the northern winter of both 2005/2006 and 2006/2007, E0 was sighted back in New Zealand. On March 26th this year, she was then found again -- though this time by Geoff Styles (Birds Korea) at the Geum Estuary, a site in South Korea presently threatened with reclamation. The Geum Estuary is immediately adjacent to the worlds largest ongoing reclamation, the 40,100 ha Saemangeum project.

The story of the godwit migration does not end here in the Yellow Sea of course. Like millions of other shorebirds dependent upon the Yellow Sea's tidal-flats, they need to refuel once more, before making yet another massive migration to far northern breeding grounds. This spring, how will they fare?

Before the completion of a 33-km long seawall (on April 21st, 2006), the 40,000 ha Saemangeum area (on the Korean west coast) had become recognised as the single most important shorebird site in the whole of the Yellow Sea. This year, much of the Saemangeum area is now drying out or permanently flooded as part of the reclamation process, and most of the benthos have died. It is very likely that huge numbers of shorebirds, after undertaking some of the longest and most demanding migrations of any species on the planet, will no longer be able to find sufficient food there to refuel adequately.

Over the next two months a total of up to 50 volunteers will be at Saemangeum and the Geum Estuary, participating in Year Two of the Saemangeum Shorebird Monitoring Program (SSMP). The SSMP is a three-year program (2006-2008) conducted by Birds Korea and the Australasian Wader Studies Group, to monitor and publicise the impacts of this massive Saemangeum reclamation on populations of migratory shorebirds. Fieldwork entails repeated shorebird counts, habitat assessment and in 2007 and 2008, increased sampling and analysis of benthos.

During SSMP survey work in April and May 2006 (before the impacts of the reclamation had reduced the shorebird food supply, and based on a simple addition of peak counts of individual species), we counted an absolute minimum 198,031 shorebirds in Saemangeum, 15 of which (including Bar-tailed Godwit and the Endangered/Critically Endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper) we found in Ramsar-defined internationally important numbers. We also counted a minimum of 82,990 shorebirds at the still-threatened Geum Estuary, including internationally important numbers of at least 13 species. These included some of the highest counts made at any single site worldwide of the globally Endangered Nordmanns Greenshank, and over 11, 000 Bar-tailed Godwit.

With South Korea set to host the next Ramsar Convention conference (October 28 to November 4, 2008), now is the clearly the time to use our growing understanding of these extraordinary birds to help move decision-makers towards fulfilling national and international obligations, to conserve rather than to destroy these vital coastal wetlands and the amazing biodiversity they support.

For regularly updated information (with maps) on the northward Bar-tailed Godwit migration, please go to: http://www.werc.usgs.gov/sattrack/shorebirds/overall.html

And to offer support or to follow the Saemangeum Shorebird Monitoring Program through April and May: Http://www.birdskorea.org (English) and Http://www.birdskorea.or.kr (Korean)

With thanks to Dr. Bob Gill (US Geological Survey), Dr. Phil Battley (Massey University New Zealand, and Saemangeum Shorebird Monitoring Program co-manager), Dr. Clive Minton (Australasian Wader Studies Group), and Geoff Styles (Birds Korea) for doing the work and providing so much of this information to a wider audience.

Nial Moores
Birds Korea,
South Korea

Nial Moores Birds Korea E-mail (personal): spoonbillkorea@yahoo.com http://www.birdskorea.org http://www.birdskorea.or.kr
Birds Korea: Dedicated to the conservation of birds and their habitats in Korea and the wider Yellow Sea Eco-region.

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