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Recap: Pieces of China (S3, E9): Wendy Paulson on the Spoon-billed Sandpiper, 4.21.21

Recap: Pieces of China (S3, E9): Wendy Paulson on the Spoon-billed Sandpiper, 4.21.21

Pieces of China is an online series using objects to tell the story of China.


Season 3, Episode 9 took participants on a hide-and-seek journey to the mudflats of Jiangsu province in an effort to spot and protect the spoon-billed sandpiper. Unfortunately, industry and reclamation threaten the birds’ habitats. Spoon-billed Sandpipers are one of the most threatened species in the world, with fewer than 100 remaining. Join us as Wendy Paulson, conservationist, birder, teacher, shares her encounters with this fascinating bird and how a growing environmental movement in China might ensure its future.

Wendy Paulson’s (WP) career has been in education and conservation action. She taught in both public and private schools and helped start programs of classes about birds in New York City and Chicago public schools (still teaching in the latter) and chairs the Bobolink Foundation which focuses on biodiversity conservation. She serves as trustee or adviser for multiple conservation organizations, both domestic and international. Wendy has led bird walks for over 40 years – in Illinois, New York City, and Washington, DC – and is a longtime participant in native grassland restoration. She values her friendships with conservationists in China who are committed to the protection of migrating shorebirds.

Selected Quotes from Pieces of China, Season 3, Episode 9:

WP: Nature has always been an important part of [Chinese] culture. The spoon-billed sandpiper has a close and important connection to China. It is a small shorebird, about the size of a sparrow weighing about one ounce but it is on the brink of extinction, maybe 200 to 600 are still alive.

It is one of many species of songbirds that follow the east-Asia flyway. The heart of its migration is on the mudflats of the Yellow Sea. It is the only shorebird that has that [unique] type of bill.

Dinda Elliott (DE): Tell us how you first learned about the bird and when you first saw one.

WP: I had seen images of it but I didn’t think I would see one. In 2013, I attended a bird-life world congress in Ottawa Canada and one of the speakers was a 12-year-old Chinese girl who spoke about her awakening to the bird world. And she showed photos of spoon-billed sandpiper she had seen. She had people in the audience in tears- and one year later I went to China, visited with [her and her mom] and flew to Gansu province to join local experts to look for them. It was the most wretched day for birdwatching with wind flying and rain falling…we were all covered in mud…it was just a mud bath and everyone was freezing cold. We got back to the seawall and I got to the scope and I could see one bird that looked different than the others. As a long time birder, it was not a very authentic sighting. But three years later, I went back and saw six!

DE: Why is this bird so terribly threatened?

WP: It was never super common because it has a narrow breeding area and a confined wintering area, and also a narrow band of migration. BUT, what has happened is on that migration route is that on the Yellow Sea coastline, in recent decades, has euphemistically called ‘reclamation.’ So It has been reclaimed to industrial and commercial real-estate. So, every year, these mudflats are shrinking and the nourishment they provide for the birds [shrink]. And as the food supply shrinks, the number of birds shrink. So the numbers have plummeted in recent decades.

The shore of the Yellow Sea is like the Serengeti of China. It fills you with awe, it is a miracle.

Scientists have for years been documenting the status and decline of the spoon-billed sandpiper. There is a blueprint for the conservation and management of these wetland sites. The good news is that in 2018, the Chinese government issued a moratorium on development on the Yellow Sea. And many of the sites were recognized as World Heritage Sites which gives them more protection.

The bird has become a mascot for [local] schools and they take fieldtrips to go look for a “Spoonie” and they will become ambassadors.

DE: There has also been an incredible rise of birders in China who look to protect them.

WP: The whole grassroots movement for a love of nature and wanting to protect nature has come so far, and that gives me the most hope. Everywhere I went, there were scientists and volunteers doing everything to bring attention to these species. And the spoon-billed sandpiper has galvanized the movement. They care about their places and they want to bring protection and conservation to these species. They are my heroes.

Check out A World on the Wing, the first chapter of which is about the ‘Spoonies.’

I have cautious optimism…the vigilance just has to continue. We have our own national parks but there will always be pressure. And very few people know about these birds. But the fact that there is such a burgeoning grassroots movement in China to bring attention to these species, it gives me hope.


Full Video of Pieces of China with Wendy Paulson


Resources from Wendy Paulson

Facts about the Spoon-billed Sandpiper.

To help save the sandpiper, please consider donating to American Friends of BirdLife International

Please consider becoming members of China Institute.

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