Watching shorebird flocks on the tidal flats of coastal British Columbia recently made me reflect on this moment in ecological history, and on the difficulty of grasping the scale of what has been lost. Fisheries scientist Daniel Pauly famously called this problem “shifting baselines”—we let conditions at the beginning of our lives establish mental baselines for how the world should look, despite the fact that conditions have shifted radically from their original state. Today, for example, barely more than 100 years after we ate them all, none of us can comprehend skies darkened by hundreds of millions of birds such as Passenger Pigeons or Eskimo Curlews. As I marveled at a few thousand Western and Least sandpipers descending onto eelgrass beds near Tofino, I wondered how big these flocks used to be, and how they will appear 100 years from now. Will the “baseline” for birders in 2112 include flocks of just a few hundred Western Sandpipers (above)? Will Red Knots and Spoon-billed Sandpipers be dreamy features of the distant past, the way we think of Eskimo Curlews today?
Our point of reference is moving rapidly. Study after study shows worldwide shorebird numbers to be drastically declining. In eastern North America, Semipalmated Sandpipers once migrated in extraordinary flocks each year, but an estimated 800,000 in 1982 have dropped to only about 260,000 today. Red Knots have dropped from more than 100,000 in the 1980s to fewer than 30,000 today, and Whimbrels may have declined by 50 percent just since the mid-1990s. In eastern Ontario, 17 of 19 regularly surveyed species show declining trends, averaging a staggering 4 percent annual loss. Precise data are difficult to obtain for many species that do not travel or winter in huge flocks, but recent data suggest that Lesser Yellowlegs, Snowy Plovers, Solitary Sandpipers, and numerous other species are showing steady declines.
The situation in the Old World is equally alarming, and may be worse. Hope is fading that any Slender-billed Curlews exist, so the European equivalent of the Eskimo Curlew has met an identical fate. Explosive economic development along the Asian coast is steadily eliminating the vast tidal mudflats so vital for shorebirds that migrate between Australia and southeastern Asia and breeding grounds in northern Siberia. The Yellow Sea has been described as “Times Square” for Asian-breeding shorebirds, but massive conversion of its coastal wetlands represents an enormous threat to more than 50 species that depend on it during both spring and fall migrations. Nordmann’s Greenshank has fallen to just 1,000 individuals. Curlew Sandpipers, Far Eastern Curlews, and Asian Dowitchers join the iconic Spoon-billed Sandpiper atop the list of most-threatened species, but many species that are far more common appear to be dropping rapidly.
The Ramsar Convention, an international treaty dating back to 1971, now has 163 signatory countries and 2,051 designated globally significant wetlands. Wetlands International, BirdLife International, and dozens of other nonprofit organizations are devoted to wetland conservation. But long-distance migrant shorebirds present truly extraordinary challenges, because they require resources and habitat at both ends of the globe, and at crucial stopover wetlands in between. Worst of all, our baselines keep shifting, and along with them our expectations and definitions of success grow ever more limited. All of us are at risk of forgetting what the word “common” meant even a decade ago. Unprecedented decline of long-distance migratory shorebirds could symbolize the most alarming global conservation story of our time. While you still can, get out to a place where you can watch—and reflect on—thousands of sandpipers foraging together. Unless we can stem the declines, you may be the last generation to experience this sight firsthand.
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