Photo: Nikolay Yakushev
Photo: Nikolay Yakushev
Building flyway cooperation to support Arctic-breeding birds across the world

Written by Courtney Price, Jake Russell-Mercier and Isadora Angarita-Martínez

Dr. Evgeny Syroechkovskiy must be careful where he steps. The ornithologist has worked in Arctic Russia for 35 years, but in the tundra close to Meinypil’gyno village in coastal Chukotka, something as fragile as it is precious is hidden amongst the vegetation: Spoon-billed Sandpiper nests, the next generation of one of the Arctic’s most endangered birds.

For the fifty-day field season he’ll plod carefully, documenting location, environmental conditions, predators, chick survival and more. Twenty years ago, he initiated the region’s field work targeting this small bird with the charismatic bill after he and colleagues sounded the alarm on the bird’s dramatic population decline; over 90 percent gone in 40 years. Ever since, he has helped build an international network of researchers and conservationists passionate about this species, with enthusiasts dotting the globe.

“There are probably more admirers than there are birds! Less than 200 breeding pairs left on the planet, we think,” says Syroechkovskiy. “It’s a special species, breeding only here in the Eastern Russian Arctic and travelling up to 8,000 kilometers to winter in China, North and South Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Indonesia and even India! Everywhere it goes we get emails from people about how excited they are to see it because it’s so rare.”

Most birds that call the Arctic home are born here and forever on the move. Migration is one of the planet’s most amazing phenomena. A constant flow dispersing species to places and peoples across the globe, connecting us all. But there’s increasing evidence of disturbances in these journeys, an arrhythmia in a once regular heartbeat.

Waders—like the Spoon-billed Sandpiper—are experiencing the most widespread and dramatic declines of all Arctic tundra birds. Many populations of Red Knot, Dunlin, Curlew Sandpiper, Bar-tailed Godwit and other Arctic-breeders have declined anywhere from 50 to 90 percent in recent decades. Birds face unevenly distributed threats around the globe and along entire migration routes, making international collaboration necessary to understand how threats compound across locations, and act to support sustainable populations.

“We’re seeing grim declines in long-distance migrants, the birds that breed in the Arctic tundra and winter in the tropics,” says Nicola Crockford, BirdLife International Global Flyways Programme policy lead. “These are sentinel species; they criss-cross the globe and their declines are a warning about the health of the planet. Conservation solutions for waterbirds can also be nature-based solutions to store carbon, reduce risk from flooding and other extreme weather events, as well as support ecosystem services that benefit local communities and their economies.”

In the Arctic, waders encounter increasingly unpredictable effects of climate change. Floods, extreme weather events and earlier snow melt challenge the ability of some species to mate and build a nest under optimal environmental conditions. Disrupted ecological cues jeopardize the deeply-engrained strategies birds have developed to give the next generation the greatest chance of survival. Adult birds time their egg-laying to make sure hatch coincides with the peak availability of food when it’s most efficient are well-positioned for their treacherous journeys. The effects of missing this window of opportunity are a complicated story; in some areas, it has reduced growth rates and body size of some species, but in other areas, some species are apparently not affected.

Of concern is potential large-scale Arctic habitat loss and changing interactions with other species. Recent modelling indicates that in just 50 years, 60 to 80 percent of High-Arctic breeding wader species may lose most of their currently suitable areas for breeding. These potential changes on the breeding grounds may disrupt species interactions, migration patterns and the flow of birds throughout the world.

With unclear effects of Arctic climate change looming large, waders currently face the most urgent challenges to survival in staging and wintering grounds outside the Arctic. Indiscriminate and widespread illegal hunting, contaminants and pollution, entanglement in mist nets and discarded fishing gear cause unknown levels of mortality around the globe. Currently, the leading cause of many declines is the loss or reduced quality of intertidal habitats. These habitats offer respite from lengthy non-stop flights and a chance to eat, rest and live out the northern winter. With locations around the world lost to urbanization, development and rising sea levels, it’s becoming harder for birds to find safety and build up the resources needed to return to the Arctic healthy enough to breed.

In response to declining Arctic-breeding wader populations, the Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna (CAFF) under the Arctic Council 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 across major migration corridors—called flyways—to connect Arctic and non-Arctic actors on priority conservation issues such as habitat conservation, unsustainable/illegal harvest, pollution, bycatch and more. AMBI works with ongoing conservation programs and engages foreign ministries in what is usually the preserve of environment ministries. This helps advance solutions to specific conservation challenges as well as cross-cutting issues such as knowledge generation, cumulative effects understanding, data-sharing and coordinated cooperation.

“Global population estimates are largely based on winter counts in areas where birds from different flyways can congregate,” says Wilmar Remmelts, Senior Policy Advisor to the Dutch Ministry of Agriculture, Nature, Food Quality. “This overlap reduces the reliability of some flyway-level data. Therefore, we need to supplement these with counts and tracking studies in the breeding areas to make our information more robust. The Netherlands has a long history of world-class wader research and considers partnering with Arctic states, in particular with Russia, very important to better understand flyway delineation and population status.”

AMBI is implementing its 2019-2023 workplan, which builds upon the previous successes and engages other global mechanisms and multilateral agreements. Important to implementation is raising the international profile and plight of these species, deepening strategic partnerships to support on-the-ground conservation, and fundraising for priority activities. For example, the East Asian-Australasian Flyway Partnership developed an Illegal Hunting Taking and Trade Task Force in response to AMBI’s awareness raising.

Arctic Council Observer states and organizations play an essential role in AMBI’s activities. Observer states are home to vital staging and wintering grounds, and actions undertaken in their jurisdictions have the power to change the storyline for many species.

“The Chinese Government has attached great importance to the conservation of migratory birds and their habitats,” says Lu Jun, Director of the National Bird Banding Center of China’s National Forestry and Grassland Administration. “China is taking unprecedented conservation measures in relation to coastal development. Keeping migratory birds safe is the responsibility of every country along the flyway. We’re willing to collaborate with the Arctic Council, and other countries along the flyway, to guarantee the safety of migratory birds.”

A failure to protect species in one location affects all others; a fate that faces each Spoon-billed Sandpiper as they dodge impacts of climate change, unprotected habitats, illegal hunting and more. But with each successful navigation back to Chukotka these birds give hope to those dedicated to bringing this 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 with a common goal to protect species that connect us all.

“There’s a lot of urgent work to be done because the Spoon-billed Sandpiper is critically endangered. I decided I would dedicate a serious part of my life to try to help this amazing creature, because if not us than who?” Evgeny Syroechkovskiy asks. “We don’t want this to be the fate of other Arctic-breeding birds, and there’s still hope if we act now. We’ve interested, invested and dedicated colleagues around the world with AMBI, and I believe cooperation under the Arctic Council can make a difference.”

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