Alarm over 21pc drop in spoonbill population

PUBLISHED : Friday, 01 April, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 01 April, 2011, 12:00am


Birdwatchers are puzzled and alarmed by a decline in the population of black-faced spoonbills, an endangered species which has recorded its sharpest drop in almost two decades.

After climbing to a record high of 2,347 last year, the migratory bird's numbers have plummeted. Only 1,848 spoonbills were found in East and Southeast Asia in a census carried out between January 21 and 23 this year, down 499 or 21 per cent from last winter.

This is the biggest fall recorded since a global census on the rare bird was carried out in 1993. In the latest count, Hong Kong and Taiwan - two important habitats for the species - reported declines of 11 per cent and 34 per cent respectively.

The news has disheartened bird lovers in Hong Kong and baffled specialists. Some blame the exceptionally long winter for the decline and say the cold weather may have forced birds to travel further south.

Others attribute this to the lower-than-usual birth rate at their breeding grounds in Korea. But no one is sure what has happened to the birds, which each year migrate south in October and north in March.

'We are in almost total darkness. It might take years of further study to solve the mystery,' said Yu Yat-tung, a member of the Hong Kong Bird Watching Society.

Deep Bay, between Hong Kong and Shenzhen, and the coastal regions of Taiwan are home to more than 68 per cent of black-faced spoonbills. In the Greater China region, 524 black-faced spoonbills have gone missing, far outnumbering a moderate increase of 25 recorded in Japan, Macau and Vietnam.

Yu said that although where the missing birds had gone remained a mystery, he was optimistic that they were still alive because birdwatchers were unaware of any reports of massive deaths in the region.

He hoped that the birds might have travelled further south for winter or hidden in places unknown to birdwatchers. For example, one spoonbill tagged with a global positioning device was found in Cambodia, which joined the census for the first time. That was the only sighting of the bird reported there this year.

Yu said there were still lots of uncertainties about the bird's population, with reports from Korea that fewer spoonbills had been born there this year. He also warned of poaching and habitat destruction as the biggest threats to the birds. Earlier this year, birdwatchers saved 11 spoonbills which had been caught by poachers in Vietnam, he said.

Precious few

A count of black-faced spoonbills in January found a total population of only: 1,848