If you were to liken the more than 500 bird species recorded in Hong Kong to a movie cast, the two stars would be the black-faced spoonbill and the spoon-billed sandpiper. Both are wetland birds seen in Deep Bay, including Mai Po marshes, and, as their names suggest, both have flattened tips to their bills, which somewhat resemble spoons.
The black-faced spoonbill is the better known of the two and, in recent years, has begun appearing in newspaper articles and television reports. Size is part of the appeal; at more than 70cm tall, it's one of the larger birds in Hong Kong, easily spotted as it stands or wades in shallow waters. During the winter, the spoonbills are white, apart from black skin from bill to eye, but in the spring, adults sprout sulphur-yellow punk-rock-style head plumes and matching sulphur breast patches.
The spoon-billed sandpiper is far less showy. At no more than 16cm from bill tip to tail tip, it's only a shade larger than a sparrow, and not even as long as a spoonbill's bill. Most people have never heard of the spoon-billed sandpiper but among birdwatchers, it has a special, almost mythical status - partly because it's a rare denizen of South and East Asian coasts. Also, while there are six broadly lookalike spoonbill species worldwide, the spoon-billed sandpiper is the only one of the world's 213 shorebird (or wader) species to have a spoon-like bill.
For all their differences, both are teetering on the brink of extinction as threats to their wetland homes continue to rise.
THE BLACK-FACED SPOONBILL seemed anything but star material when I moved to Hong Kong, in early 1987. During a visit to Mai Po, I saw a variety of birds, including pelicans, herons, shorebirds and ducks, as well as four resting black-faced spoonbills, to which I paid little attention, as the field guide said the spoonbill was a regular at Mai Po, and there was no suggestion it was a global rarity.
In April that year, I saw my first spoon-billed sandpiper. It was one of several that were sighted along with tens of thousands of migratory shorebirds stopping at Mai Po that spring and, although only about 2,500 were known of worldwide, there was no great excitement as records showed the sandpiper was an uncommon but regular visitor.
Most Hong Kong birds are migratory, breeding in summer and heading south to escape the northern winter, mostly following the East Asian-Australasian Flyway. Thanks to its subtropical climate and position, Hong Kong hosts birds making a wide variety of journeys, with long-distance travellers nesting in Alaska and spending the winter in New Zealand, others shuttling between north and south China. The routes travelled by the black-faced spoonbill and spoon-billed sandpiper coincide along the China coast, the spoonbill ranging from the Yellow Sea to Vietnam, the sandpiper breeding in northeast Russia and flying as far as the Bay of Bengal for winter.
Since my first encounters with them, the situations for both species have changed, initially and most abruptly for the spoonbill.
"Out of curiosity, I started to gather information on the spoonbill's status throughout northern Asia," says British birdwatcher Peter Kennerley, who arrived in Hong Kong in the mid-1980s. "Basically there wasn't any information, so I dug deeper."
Birdwatchers assumed most of the spoonbills were in southeast China, where they had been reported early last century. Yet Kennerley turned this notion on its head. By gathering all the data he could find, he found that the black-faced spoonbill was close to extinction, estimating there were no more than 288 left in the world, 90 per cent of which wintered at three sites: Vietnam's Red River Delta; the Chiku wetland, in Taiwan; and Deep Bay. He wrote of his findings in the Hong Kong Bird Report 1989, published by the Hong Kong Bird Watching Society.
"This sounded the warning bells and prompted others to search," Kennerley says. "The black-faced spoonbill had been edging towards oblivion unnoticed."
Almost overnight, the spoonbill became a flagship species for conservation, highlighting the need to protect wetlands and thus benefit other wildlife. Its presence helped persuade the governments of Britain and China to list Inner Deep Bay - including Mai Po - as a Wetland of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention, an intergovernmental treaty focusing on the use of wetlands. The spoonbill was also prominent in conservationists' arguments against plans for new houses and a golf course to be built beside Mai Po, which were eventually halted, helping to protect an area of fish ponds.
Kennerley's findings spurred a quick response in Taiwan, too. Here, in 1984, birdwatcher Philip Kuo Tung-hui had helped count 121 black-faced spoonbills at Chiku lagoon. Having read the 1989 report, Kuo realised the Chiku flock was of global significance.
"At the time, there was hunting at Chiku, mostly of ducks but sometimes of black-faced spoonbills," he told me when I visited the area, in Tainan county, on the island's west coast, in 2000. "We petitioned the Council of Agriculture, and said there are rare black-faced spoonbills which shouldn't be disturbed."
Hunting was already illegal, and the government clamped down on it. There were also plans to build a steel refinery on the mudflat site, but the government rejected them after groups, including Kuo's newly formed Wild Bird Society of Tainan, pointed out that construction would involve destroying an area of critical importance for the spoonbill.
Media coverage of these issues - students even introduced the black-faced spoonbill as a "candidate" in Taiwan's 2000 presidential election - helped propel the bird to prominence.
Budding birdwatcher Yu Yat-tung was an undergraduate at the University of Hong Kong when Kennerley's paper was published.
"I dreamed of being a zoologist, doing cool things - David Attenborough was so cool," he says.
Mai Po marshes' then director, David Melville, discovered Yu wanted to work with birds and asked if he might be interested in a project on the black-faced spoonbill.
"To me, it was just a bird, though I knew it was very rare," Yu recalls. "They seemingly slept all the time and stayed in Mai Po. I told him, 'Yes, I want to do it.' But in the beginning I thought it was a bit boring.
Nevertheless, he found that "the spoonbills may look lazy, but I realised they're not. They perhaps look stupid, but they know how to find fish in muddy water. I learned a lot."
It was believed most spoonbills passed through Hong Kong on migration, with small numbers staying throughout the winter, and they fed mainly at night. But Yu visited Mai Po on winter nights and found large gatherings of spoonbills - most of which spent the day in Deep Bay. And when conditions were suitable, the spoonbills fed at any time of the day or night.
Yu remained closely involved with the spoonbill, including as coordinator of the International Black-faced Spoonbill Census, which had started in 2002, and of the Black-faced Spoonbill Working Group, which has representatives from all the countries frequented by the bird.
"I believe it was really rare after world war two," says Yu. "Along the China coast there were people who would disturb and hunt birds, collect eggs and drain wetlands. I think this is why numbers of spoonbills went down, along with other species."
This pressure evidently led to the black-faced spoonbill becoming the only member of its family to nest in colonies on rocky islands - chiefly those at the western end of Korea's demilitarised zone, which has become an accidental sanctuary for wildlife.
Kennerley's paper proved a turning point for the spoonbill, as numbers subsequently began rising, benefiting from protection measures at Chiku and Mai Po. By early 2000, the total population had doubled, and though still pitiful, at about 600 birds, it was enough for conservation group Birdlife International to change its status from "critically endangered" to "endangered". In January this year, the annual census logged a record 3,356 black-faced spoonbills.
The main growth in population has happened in Taiwan, where spoonbills have begun spreading from Chiku to other sites. Numbers have also risen in Japan and mainland China, and even Macau now has a wintering flock of black-faced spoonbills - at the Cotai Ecological Zone, where the government established a reserve in 2003.
"We recorded 61 spoonbills during the census held in January," survey team member Silvia Choi Cheng-a says. "I hope more people will show concern for these lovely birds."
That figure is just one less than the 62 birds seen in Vietnam during the winter of 1998-99. But numbers there have plummeted, to just nine in January this year. Despite the improvements seen at Mai Po, even Deep Bay has become less attractive, with a slight dip in the winter flock this year.
As Deep Bay becomes less of a haven for wetland birds in general, perhaps as the inter-tidal mudflats dwindle as surrounding development continues, more serious issues afflict other wetlands along the flyways travelled by East Asia's migratory water birds. Some have been not just damaged, but destroyed - as is the case with Saemangeum, on the west coast of South Korea.
Saemangeum was perhaps the most important of a suite of wetlands around the Yellow Sea, an inlet where two river estuaries had formed immense mudflats. At least 330,000 shorebirds stopped to feed and rest here each year, during their spring and autumn migrations. The nutrient-rich mud teemed with life and the area was home to significant fisheries. Even so, the Korean government pushed ahead with a plan to build the world's longest dyke across the mouth of the inlet, and create some 400 sq km of land - five times the size of Hong Kong Island - that was initially earmarked for agriculture and later rezoned for an industrial city.
Conservationists protested and campaigned to protect Saemangeum. Yet work continued, accompanied with assurances the scheme would be "environmentally friendly" and the shorebirds would move to other places. Work on the 33km dyke was completed in 2006. With the tides blocked, much of the land drying and a lagoon forming, birdwatchers found that shorebird numbers had tumbled to just 5,000 by the spring of 2014.
And the other birds did not move elsewhere; instead, it seems, they simply died, leading to lower counts as far afield as Australia. The great knot - a plump sandpiper - was among the main casualties: the seemingly healthy world population of at least 380,000 was so hard hit that Birdlife International promptly classed it as "endangered". Nor has a thriving new city materialised. Empty environmental boasts remain, however, along with the claim that, "The city will also be a mega-resort where people can fully enjoy nature."
"I believe the Saemangeum reclamation was the major driver in the decline of the spoon-billed sandpiper," says Nial Moores, the British co-founder of conservation organisation Birds Korea. "At least 200 spoon-billed sandpipers had occurred on migration prior to the dyke, but nowadays there are none."
The rapid decline was highlighted in 2010, when a paper concluded, "The current estimate of 120-200 pairs may be optimistic [and] unless immediate conservation action is taken … this species will probably become extinct, most likely in little more than a decade."
Lead author Christoph Zockler differs with Moores in pointing the finger at hunting and trapping as the chief culprits, saying that, "Hunting still occurs along most of the China coast and almost all other important sites through the flyway, including Russia."
More than half of the world's sandpiper population spend the winter on the coast of Myanmar. While the huge deltas and estuaries fringing the nation's Bay of Bengal coast remain largely intact, some hunters there focus on winter shorebirds, to both eat and sell, catching them in nylon filament nets that may be strung together for up to a mile, or by setting out poisoned fish and shrimps.
"The bird hunters are very poor and have no other opportunities," says Pyae Phyo Aung, programme manager with the Biodiversity and Nature Conservation Association in Myanmar. "No one really likes this job, due to strong traditional Buddhist and animist beliefs. One former hunter reported that he ceased hunting because his wife died after vomiting blood, which he saw as karmic retribution for the way he poisoned birds and cut off their necks."
Pyae Phyo Aung is working on a programme to help the hunters adopt other livelihoods, such as fishing. She's hopeful the government will conserve the spoon-billed sandpiper's wintering areas.
Vivian Fu Wing-kan, China programme officer of the Hong Kong Bird Watching Society, recalls the first time she saw the bird, at Mai Po, in 2007: "I thought, 'Cute!' The spoon-shaped bill was really striking. It stayed in my mind for a long time, especially after I learned it was critically endangered."
The society began focusing on the spoon-billed sandpiper soon after Zockler and colleagues revealed that it faced extinction. There had been reports of migrant sandpipers at Rudong, a coastal site north of Shanghai, and Cheung Ho-fai, the society chairman, decided surveys should be carried out.
"More and more were found, especially in the autumn," says Fu. "I went [to Rudong] mostly for training and educational activities, especially in schools. People were amazed by this funny-looking bird."
Yet Fu encountered frustration, too, as local officials refused to meet her and other team members. A national policy for the development of the area - which would involve substantial funding as well as coastal reclamation - was already in place. Although there was talk of conservation, little was undertaken.
"A sign was erected, designating a small protected area, but it had no legal status," says Fu.
Realising there was a gap in records between Rudong and Myanmar, the society began supporting a quest to find wintering sandpipers in southern China. This produced scattered sightings of up to four birds at a time during 2012-13.
"There were also thousands of nets catching birds [found]," says Fu.
Surveyors, especially China-based British birdwatcher Jonathan Martinez, began raising awareness of the issue. Fortuitously, an incident involving rare storks being poisoned in northern China spurred a campaign against illegal hunting.
"The Let Birds Fly group, formed by local birdwatchers, brought China Central Television to Leizhou [west Guangdong] and filmed mist nets," says Fu. To her amazement, the local forestry department began cooperating in efforts to combat the trapping.
Martinez had tried tackling the issue himself by pulling nets down, which angered people. Now he and others can call upon forestry officers to remove them, which they duly do. In January, Martinez and other survey members counted 43 spoon-billed sandpipers in the Zhanjiang Mangrove Nature Reserve: the most seen anywhere outside the Bay of Bengal in winter.
Reports of the sightings reverberated through excited birdwatching and conservation circles. Yet consider for a moment the number: 43. That's less than the capacity of a single-decker bus; you'd find more children in many a Hong Kong classroom. And the spoon-billed sandpiper is just one of the regional waterbirds in trouble, albeit one that is closer to oblivion than most.
Biologists theorise that the Earth is entering a sixth mass extinction; natural catastrophes such as volcanic activity and an asteroid caused previous losses but humanity is the driving force behind this one. A visit to a wetland such as Mai Po is like having a front-row seat to watch the mass extinction unfold.
Moores believes the situation is even worse than some academics and government bodies acknowledge.
"If reclamation continues, the black-faced spoonbill will also decline, though its extinction will likely take longer than several of the shorebird species that now seem to be on the very edge," he predicts.
Should reclamation destroy Rudong, Zockler says, it would be devastating for the spoon-billed sandpiper; it might even "kick the species into extinction".
Fu takes a rosier view, at least as far as the sandpiper is concerned.
"In the past two years, it's been kind of stable; there are still 200 pairs," she says. "I'm optimistic. More and more people and organisations are aware of the threats, and all along the flyway, people are helping the survival of the spoon-billed sandpiper."