Wader Quest was originally all about the Spoon-billed Sandpiper; raising money for it and raising awareness about it. This soon developed into a world-wide search for wader species that took us to 14 countries on 6 continents to see 175 species of wader and then evolved into a charity dedicated to wader conservation.
The situation waders find themselves in these days is precarious to say the least. No matter what habitat they choose to live in, man’s desire for economic growth and greater wealth seem to find a way of mucking it up! Grasslands and Steppes are relentlessly being turned into wheat fields, wetlands are being drained for pretty much the same reason, deserts are being afforested and irrigated, bays become marinas, arctic tundra is thawing out, the conflict between beach goers and beach nesting birds is hard to reconcile and above all, the intertidal zones of the world are being ‘reclaimed’ and converted into yet more agricultural land, or worse still, transformed into industrial estates.
As a result you don’t have to look hard to find rare and endangered birds of this ilk all around the world. Our first major trip was to Thailand where we went in search of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper and were delighted, and not a little relieved, to see three in number. During and after our search for these birds we also came across their fellow denizens of the salt pans which included the endangered Nordmann´s Greenshank another bird high on any visitor to the region’s list of wanted birds. Nearby beaches, we discovered, held the near threatened Malaysian Plover and, alongside it, the White-faced Plover, both birds under pressure from the growing tourist industry developing beaches throughout their ranges and although the latter’s taxonomy is not certain, the threat to its existence most certainly is. Another of their congeners, the hulking Eastern Curlew, is now considered vulnerable along with the Great Knot which thankfully you can still see in good numbers there, but for how long? On our way home we stopped in the UAE where we were very fortunate to find Sociable Lapwings, the population of which has declined so steeply that it is now on the critically endangered list.
If you are a global wader chaser then the United States of America is of course a must. Nearctic waders are almost familiar to us in Europe as many of them occur annually on our shores. But here too there are birds in all sorts of trouble. The Buff-breasted Sandpiper narrowly missed the same fate as the now long gone Eskimo Curlew which fell victim to uncontrolled gunners, and now, a near relative, the Bristle-thighed Curlew, is categorised as vulnerable. Near threatened species of that region include the Piping Plover which is actually a good news story, being a fine example of how species management can bring wildlife back from the brink. Also near threatened is the Mountain Plover which is losing ground as the prairies come under the plough while the Semipalmated Sandpiper is a species that has suffered, along with the Red Knot, due to the over exploitation of horseshoe crabs in Delaware Bay. In addition tens of thousands of these birds are hunted in northern South America each year adding yet more unnecessary pressure on them.
South America fares much better but there is still a small number of species that are near threatened mainly because the habitat they have evolved with is rare and fragile. We were lucky enough to catch up with the Diademed Sandpiper Plover, the jewel in the crown of mountain waders in Peru precariously existing in a Puna bog that it would take very little to destroy if some ‘valuable’ resource were to be found there or nearby. Another bird living on the edge of existence is the Magellanic Plover which we saw in Chile at the end of the world.
Africa gets off fairly lightly with rare wader species. We were not able to get to Madagascar due to financial restraints; this was unfortunate as it harbours some rare and endemic waders in the forms of a jacana, a pratincole, a plover and a snipe. The southern tip of Africa however is home to two near threatened species, the African Black Oystercatcher which is closely related to the now extinct Canary Island Oystercatcher and the White-fronted Plover which dwells for the most part on the beaches in the region.
The dubious accolade of the greatest centre for threatened waders has to be Australasia with particular focus on New Zealand. Australia has the Hooded Plover which is in the same boat as the Malaysian Plover, soft sandy beaches are its preferred habitat, the very same beaches that people like to use for everything from the famous ’barbie’ to wheel-spinning 4x4s. Wader Quest adopted the Hooded Plover as a second fundraising project in 2013 when BirdLife Australia lost its government funding, we raised a small amount of money before our trip and handed it over to them in Melbourne and have since pledged to raise a further £1,000 before the next breeding season. New Zealand however, can boast two extinct snipe species (or subspecies depending on your taxonomy), the critically endangered Black Stilt (which surely only survives as a species due to human intervention), no less than three endangered species; Chatham Island Oystercatcher, New Zealand Dotterel and Shore Plover. The characteristic Wrybill is considered vulnerable as its braided river habitat becomes ever more compromised and another snipe taxon is in the same category while yet another is near threatened.
But you don´t have to travel to these far flung places to see waders in trouble. The Slender-billed Curlew that crossed Europe on its migration from the tundra to northern Africa is officially still critically endangered but is, in all probability, extinct. The Black-winged Pratincole is near threatened as is the Great Snipe and, perhaps surprisingly to some, you can add to these the familiar Eurasian Curlew and Black-tailed Godwit.
Even Britain’s most common wader, the Northern Lapwing has declined by 50% in the country over the last 30years, a fact that was brought home to us on our first day of the Wader Quest challenge. We had, quite reasonably we thought, expected it to be our first species on the list as we drove across eastern England through the fens to Norfolk, indeed, in my youth, it would have been difficult to make such a journey and not see one or more flocks but on that morning we failed to see any.
We finished our travelling in January 2014 and were happy to hand over £3,526.06 to the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust Spoon-billed Sandpiper captive breeding programme as a result of all our efforts. But we were not destined to hang up our binoculars, put away our passports and retire, oh no! We still had the little matter of a pledge to fulfil for the Hooded Plovers in Australia; we could not have stopped then even if we had wanted to. In order to keep the momentum going without having the interest of our travels to keep us fired up, and to keep people following our cause, we decided that the only logical route to take was to formalise Wader Quest´s status as a charity in its own right.
In addition to our continued efforts for the Hooded Plover we have now also embarked on our own Wader Quest project working with an ornithologist in southern Chile to try to shed light on the population of the Magellanic Plovers which, if local hearsay about their gradual decline turns out to be true, may be worthy of a higher category of threat than near threatened. The problem is that the population of this species has not even been accurately estimated. We hope to take the first steps, through a ringing and flagging programme, to establishing an accurate population estimate, looking at the longevity and survival rates of the species and this in turn may reveal a trend which can be used, if necessary, to establish measures to manage the species. The sooner we get started the better if we don’t want to be funding a captive breeding programme for this species too!
In addition to further fundraising we also consider it vitally important to continue to raise awareness about the problems waders face, of which here, we have merely scratched the surface. We intend to do this through talks given to clubs and societies and by mounting stands at major birding events.