On a quest to save waders

Author: Rick Simpson, Wader Quest


Waders are everywhere – aren’t they? I mean, go to any estuary and you can see any number of them can’t you? So what exactly is the problem?

The fact is that waders are facing dire downturns in their populations across the planet. Some of these are caused by major habitat destruction such as that which is happening in the Yellow Sea region and some are being caused by a more insidious sort of destruction, the sort that cannot really be quantified; to quote BirdLife Australia, it is ‘death by a thousand cuts’.


Spoon-billed sandpiper – © Elis Simpson, Wader Quest


The trouble is it is hard to turn people on to a vast expanse of mud. Show them a giant redwood tree or an ancient mahogany tree being felled and the destruction of the surrounding forest and they will not be able to miss the obvious obliteration of an ecosystem. But show them an expanse of mud being churned up, flooded or otherwise irreversibly altered and it may not be as obvious to them that an equally valid and rich ecosystem is being written off.

Mud is not sexy, but there is good reason that many thousands of birds spend a great deal of time on it probing around and pecking at the surface. Hidden beneath the ooze lay many millions of creatures that are ideal for the waders to feed on to fuel their migrations north and south.

The birds returned and found their feeding ground gone!

To the uninformed eye, this flat ooze is a waste of space and would be much better if turned into something useful for mankind, like a factory, or some aquaculture ponds, or even an essential golf course perhaps. But what about the birds, where would they go? Well, they have wings don’t they so won’t they simply move on to the next estuary and feed there? Well actually, no they won’t! What they will do is die. This may sound like a godwit hugger in full cry, but this is not an emotive outpouring, it has been proven.

Saemangeum, an estuary complex in South Korea was vibrant and lush and at times housed some ninety thousand great knots along with hundreds of thousands of other migrant waders including the Critically Endangered spoon-billed sandpiper. Some bright spark thought it would be a good idea to turn the vast flat expanse into something else, it matters not what, needless to say it would not benefit the waders or anything else that depended on the estuary for survival.


Great knot – © Elis Simpson, Wader Quest


When eventually the barrier across the mouth of the estuary was closed, the ebb and flow of the sea was halted and the estuary gradually died leaving a great expanse of dry, soulless and barren mud. The birds returned and found their feeding grounds gone, but did they fly on and find somewhere else?

Researchers had counted the great knots prior to development and found that around ninety thousand passed through there on their way to Australia. They also counted the great knots on neighbouring estuaries. During the re-count, following the closure of the estuary, only dead birds were found on the dried-out mud. In addition, the number of birds on the adjacent estuaries had hardly changed. This suggests that the Saemangeum birds did not move on to these estuaries; if fact those that had not died, simply disappeared!


Saemangeum sea wall – under CC license


These birds were mainly headed for Australia where a national count of the great knots showed that somewhere in the region of ninety thousand were absent. So, where had our great knots gone? They had died, it’s that simple and that was something like 25% of the entire world population of great knots gone in one fell swoop.

So why don’t the birds go somewhere else? Well, in order to migrate birds such as our waders alter their bodies to facilitate for this massive journey. They put on fat and muscle but, more bizarrely, they also shrink their stomachs and other internal organs – they’ll not be needing them on the long flight and the added weight is better served being energy producing fat. As they fly they burn their fat, when that’s gone they burn muscle. When they arrive at the feeding grounds they are in a desperately depleted condition, they are spent. They are finely tuned to arrive at exactly the right place at exactly the right time.

Since I was a lad around 80% of the lapwings to be found in the UK have disappeared.

They do not choose where to go, it is innate and inherited; they just do it. When they do arrive, they need to rest and feed profusely. If there is no food available, they have no energy reserves to call upon, so they stay there until they are killed by a predator taking advantage of their depleted responses or they starve.

The other more undetectable problems are small scale but by the cumulative effect soon escalate into large scale issues. Take the situation of the northern lapwing in the UK for example. Since I was a lad around 80% of the lapwings to be found in the UK have disappeared. But we do not have a disaster the scale of Saemangeum to attribute this to. So what has happened?


Northern lapwing – © Elis Simpson, Wader Quest


The fact is, we do have a disaster the size of Saemangeum, only it’s not all in one place, it’s spread thinly, so thinly that only the most insightful would notice. A meadow here a swamp there, maybe a few acres of marsh, in each case only one or two pairs of lapwings may have been displaced. However, as the numbers accumulate it turns into a disaster equally as devastating as the estuary destruction in South Korea.

This sort of thing is happening all around the world. Pristine beaches where we like to lounge on our holidays also happen to be places where waders such as hooded plovers in Australia or piping plovers in North America like to lay their eggs and raise their young. Inevitably whenever man and wildlife come into conflict it is usually wildlife that comes off second best and this has a disastrous effect on the population if they are unable to breed. And it is happening globally, an area that we visited in South Africa once had fourteen pairs of double-banded coursers breeding on it, it now has none ever since it became popular with quad-bike enthusiasts.


Double-banded courser – © Elis Simpson, Wader Quest


I heard a wonderful comment on a recent Channel 4 documentary called Between Clouds and Dreams about the emerging calamity that the growth of China is having on the environment, wildlife and people; ‘Death is a part of life, but extinction is quite another thing, it is the end of birth!’ Brilliant and succinct and that is what preventing birds from breeding on our beaches, or anywhere for that matter, is heading towards.

But, together we can make a difference; we can actually do something positive because as surely as many setbacks can bring about disaster, then many small victories can bring about triumph. One of Wader Quest’s main aims is to be a disseminator of information, through our various networks we try to bring events like those above to the attention of as many people as we can, the more people that know, the more they will care and the more they care the greater their influence on the decision makers. And people are taking action.


Piping plover – © Elis Simpson, Wader Quest


In the cases of the two plovers mentioned above, what can only be described as miracles happened but those miracles were not delivered by some unseen deity they were brought about by the actions of people like you and me. People who cared and who decided enough was enough and did something about it. Volunteers from the local communities gave up their time to protect nests on the beaches, making the difference as often as not between success and failure. As a result, the piping plover has gone from being nearly extinct in 1991 to being merely Near Threatened now. In the case of the hoodies, they had a successful reproduction rate of just 5%. Now, under the stewardship of local communities in what we call community wader conservation, that figure is up to 50%.

Both of these plovers were lucky that they live in a region where conservation is high on the agenda, in developed countries where people with a little time and money to spare can afford to be generous to our fellow beings. But what happens to the birds that suffer the same fate in countries where conservation is an expensive luxury, beyond the means of the average person? The problems there are no less acute, and may even be more acute as some of the problems might be caused by poverty.


Hooded plover – © Elis Simpson, Wader Quest


Wader Quest has another aim beyond making sure that people are aware of the problems waders are facing and that is to raise money to help fund projects in areas where people with low income, but high enthusiasm can ill afford to do what is needed. It is amazing how effective a few posts, a bit of rope and some posters accompanied by a sympathetic volunteer prepared to inform passers-by, can be in stopping nests and eggs from being trampled.

These things are inexpensive enough to us, but may be well beyond the means of local people where the problems are occurring. Here then is where we like to help, we don’t send money but we purchase the equipment needed and get it delivered to where it needs to be. Small ringing projects can also benefit if they also show some engagement with the local community. All ringers have to buy their own rings and equipment and in some places, that can be a month or more’s worth of wages. Wader Quest has helped such projects by purchasing rings and nets and sending them to the project leader.


Wader Quest in the field – © Elis Simpson, Wader Quest


So how can you get involved in this worldwide drive to save our wader populations? We know that not everyone lives near a beach where birds are struggling to nest or roost without disturbance. Nor are they equipped to persuade landowners not to drain their land, but rather to leave it be for the benefit of the wildlife. However, you can be a part of the movement to help save waders, simply by becoming a Friend of Wader Quest. We can guarantee that every penny of your subscription will be used to support international conservation projects and give waders the protection they deserve.


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Author: Rick Simpson

Rick Simpson – Co-founder and Chair of Wader Quest

Rick and Elis from Wader Quest – © Elis Simpson, Wader Quest

A life-long birder having followed a circuitous route to conservation from garden birder as a child through local patch watcher, British birder, twitcher, world birder and bird guide. It was being a guide in Brazil that led to running local community and school conservation projects with Elis in the Atlantic forest. In addition, he was involved for several years in making twice yearly survey counts of aquatic birds for the Contagem Naçional de Aves Aquáticas (CNAA) for Wetlands International in Brazil.

 Volunteered at British Natural History Museum bird collection Tring: volunteer collector (road kill) for MZUSP. Bird guide in UK and Spain for Capital Birding Tours and in Brazil as Rick Simpson Birding Services.

 Since returning to the UK Wader Quest has taken over his life taking him around the world to six continents, birding on all nine flyways to see one hundred and seventy-five species of wader; giving talks in many places along the way. Wader Quest has become a conservation effort for a group of birds about which Rick is passionate becoming more and more concerned about the pressures they face and the seemingly low profile their problems have among birders and other wildlife observers.

Together with Elis became Membership Secretary for the International Wader Study Group in March 2014. Rick is also a writer, speaker, blogger and artist.

Find Rick Simpson in the Speakers Directory

Elis Simpson – Co-founder, Trustee (Treasurer / Membership)

Growing up in the Brazilian countryside Elis developed a strong connection to nature and a love of pristine, wild environments. The beauty of Brazilian birds drew her to photography and she is now rarely seen in the field without her camera although she insists that she is not a bird photographer, but is instead a birder who takes photographs, as she always carries her binoculars too. Having said that her photographs have graced many articles, web pages and newsletters and she has been successful in wildlife photo competitions too. Starting in Brazil, watching the destruction of the Cerrado near her home and latterly travelling the world and witnessing the destruction of wetland environments, Elis has become a passionate conservationist and her interest in waders has given that passion direction.

Together with husband Rick she has organised and run conservation projects in Brazil, including community and school projects as well as the CNAA, twice annual, water bird counts before becoming co-founder of Wader Quest.