Surely, it was a hallucination. A figment of my weary, sodden brain after seven days of slogging across the soggy tundra in search of one of the world’s rarest birds. It was mid-thaw in Chukotka, and the going was tough. Stomping through stubborn snowfields. Wading through melt-water ponds. Scrutinizing the broad gravel spits for signs of life. My eyes were bleary and my body exhausted. And now this stinging, sleety rain.
I was trudging back to the village, head down, thinking only of the warm meal that awaited me, when I suddenly stopped dead in my tracks. A little bird stood alone along the edge of a thawing pond, just 15 feet away, puffed up against the cold. Russet-brown and tiny, about as tall as an apple, it winced every time an icy rain pellet hit its head. I stepped back to give it some space, frantically wiping the lenses of my foggy binoculars, and brought the bird into focus. With its broad, spatulate bill, it was unmistakable.
Crisis in the East Asian-Australasian Flyway
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the East-Asian–Australasian Flyway is used by more waterbird species, and more IUCN-listed globally threatened and near-threatened bird species, than any other flyway in the world. Nearly every shorebird that breeds in the northeastern Russian Arctic is declining. Most Japanese shorebird species are declining, especially those that use stopover habitat in the Yellow Sea. The Spoon-billed Sandpiper is just one of a suite of shorebirds threatened by the massive intertidal areas being developed in Southeast Asia:
NORDMANN’S GREENSHANK: Endangered on the IUCN Red List; fewer than 1,000 adults remaining. GREAT KNOT: Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List; the Saemangeum intertidal development project in Korea alone caused a 25 percent decline. BLACK-TAILED GODWIT: Near-threatened on the IUCN Red List; the global population has declined by about 25 percent since 1990. EURASIAN CURLEW: Near-threatened on the IUCN Red List; the global population has declined by 20 to 30 percent in the last 15 years. ASIAN DOWITCHER: Near-threatened on the IUCN Red List; a declining global population of about 20,000 adults.
Though I’d traveled across 18 time zones to reach this remote spot in extreme far eastern Russia, at that moment I knew it was well worth the effort. I was standing before a Spoon-billed Sandpiper, one of perhaps only 200 remaining in the world.
I had come on an assignment from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to record the first high-definition video footage ever taken of Spoon-billed Sandpipers on their breeding grounds, as well as to take photographs and high-quality sound recordings for the Lab’s Macaulay Library. I spent nearly every day of June and July 2011 on the Siberian tundra searching for spoon-bills and documenting every phase of their breeding cycle I witnessed. I was with a 10-person expedition crew, made up of ornithologists and conservationists, there to monitor and work to save this critically endangered species.
The global population of Spoon-billed Sandpipers is estimated to be as low as 100 breeding pairs. The species could easily become extinct within the decade, and five years isn’t out of the question. It was a grim realization. I knew that I may well be on a mission to document the final days of a species we barely got to know. These videos, still photographs, and sound recordings might well be the 21st-century digital equivalent of a Passenger Pigeon specimen in a museum. But all of us who took part in the expedition desperately hoped there was yet time to turn around the bird’s catastrophic decline. I wanted my videos and photographs to be more than just a final record of a lost species for the archives. I hoped they would serve as a way to finally introduce this enigmatic and charming species to the world—to enlist peoples’ aid in a global effort to save the Spoon-billed Sandpiper, conserve its flyway, and by extension, to preserve the dozens of other declining bird species that migrate along the East Asian–Australasian flyway.
Theoretically, I could have flown from my home in Seattle to Anchorage to Anadyr, Russia, in half a day—if only there had been direct flights westward. Instead, I had to head east, nearly circumnavigating the globe, from Seattle to New York to Moscow, across all of Russia, and finally to Anadyr. There I spent the better part of 10 days waiting in a little room at the Anadyr airport—for my baggage and gear to clear customs, for the weather to cooperate, for the pilots to feel like flying—before I could board a big, orange helicopter on June 1 and continue to my final destination: Meinypil’gyno, a tiny, isolated fishing village pinned between the shores of the Bering Sea and a vast range of lonesome icy peaks.
My first forays from the village onto the tundra seemed familiar, like being in Alaska again. The typical community of diminutive arctic plants grew all around me. Brown bear tracks wound along coastal lagoons. Much of the bird chorus was familiar, too: singing Snow Buntings, yodeling Pacific Loons, and the staccato rattling calls of Sandhill Cranes flying overhead. Several afternoons I just sat on the shore in amazement watching gray whales surface just 20 feet away, using the coarse beach gravel to rub barnacles off their massive bodies.
I spent the early days prepping my gear each morning, getting ready for whatever opportunity might arise. But as each cold windy day passed with no Spoon-billed Sandpiper sightings my anxiety grew. This area in Chukotka was home to the densest known breeding population of spoon-bills in 2010, but “dense” for this species consists of a miniscule assemblage of only 12 breeding pairs. We knew it was a possibility that none of the birds would return on this year’s spring migration. It seemed less and less possible to find and film a tiny shorebird no bigger than a sparrow on this vast tundra, in this weather. Then I made that fateful first contact with a spoon-bill on my slog back to the village on the seventh day.