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A celebration of spoonbills in Tainan County

New conservation center in Cigu helps raise awareness of local endangered bird species

About half of the world's 2000 black-faced spoonbills spend their winters in Taiwan.
Black-faced spoonbills gather in large flocks to rest and sleep during the day.
Tainan County Magistrate Su Huan-chih (rear center) leads county officials and young 'spoonbills' in opening the spoonbill watching season.
Happy Wang is an ardent supporter of black-faced spoonbills, both in person and on his blog.

About half of the world's 2000 black-faced spoonbills spend their winters in Taiwan.

Black-faced spoonbills gather in large flocks to rest and sleep during the day.

Tainan County Magistrate Su Huan-chih (rear center) leads county officials and young 'spoonbills' in opening the spoonbill watching season.

Happy Wang is an ardent supporter of black-faced spoonbills, both in person and on his blog.

The black-faced spoonbill is quickly becoming a symbol of Taiwan's struggle to strike a balance between development and protection of the natural environment. The southwest coast of Taiwan is a distinct ecology different from that of any other part of the island, and for about six months of each year it is home to the black-faced spoonbill, a species that is listed by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species as an Appendix-one species (those which have had their numbers reduced to a minimum below which they will become totally extinct).
Local birdwatchers in Taiwan first spotted the black-faced spoonbill twenty years ago in the Cigu Wetlands at the mouth of the Tsengwen River in Tainan County, just north of Tainan City. For a while an average of 500-600 birds would make the trip south from their summer homes in Northeastern China, Korea and Japan. Since then the size of the flock has increased gradually so that there are currently about a thousand birds wintering in the Cigu area.
One reason for the birds' precarious recovery has been strong support from local leaders in the private and governmental sectors. The black-faced spoonbills are being championed by people like the very appropriately-named Happy Wang, a veteran photographer who has devoted much of his life to snapping shots of the birds; and Su Huan-chih, the Tainan County Magistrate, who is working to raise the profile of the spoonbills and other animals in the region by emphasizing their value as a draw for tourism.
Wang, who maintains his own blog as part of his efforts on behalf of his beloved spoonbills and other species, is a frequent visitor to the conservation area who loves to introduce the birds to new supporters. Su has also been very active in the campaign to preserve the wetlands ecology and help its winter residents to increase their numbers. He was a key part of the opening ceremonies held January 19 at the Black-faced Spoonbill Conservation and Management Center in Cigu for a series of weekend events designed to draw more visitors during the spoonbill season. The opening day also featured an afternoon concert by noted Taiwanese crooner Bobby Chen, and weekends through February 17 will offer activities like jigsaw puzzle contests, lots of educational opportunities, and lantern making and riddle contests prior to the Lantern Festival which falls on February 21 this year.
Winter sojourners
The black-faced spoonbill is a member of the Threskiornithidae family of birds, which includes spoonbills and ibises. During its six-month sojourn in Taiwan the black-faced spoonbills rest during the day and feed mostly at night, setting off at dusk to scour nearby waters for fish and shellfish. During the day they huddle in sleepy scrums which may be composed of 500 to 600 birds, drowsing on one leg and rousing occasionally to stretch their wings or shift position in the flock. Occasionally they will stir early and treat visitors to captivating demonstrations, lining up and sweeping their long black bills back and forth in soft mud or shallow waters in search of food, in routines that almost seem choreographed to the observer.
The most visible part of the movement to save the spoonbills is the Conservation and Management Center located at the edge of a lagoon near the water gate which ensures that tides in the area stay at their normal range of about one meter. The Center consists of two observation areas where visitors can peer at the blurred white smear in the distance that is the largely somnolent flock of spoonbills. Telescopes in each area are kept constantly trained on the birds to monitor their status, and a nearby television set provides live coverage of the main flock.
The complex also boasts a newly-opened exhibition area which provides information on the overall ecology of the wetland areas and the many varieties of animals and plants that abound in the region. There are videos and displays of spoonbills as well as many of the other species of birds in the area. And beyond the display area is the Catoria, a small cafe that offers a sunny place to relax, with beverages and simple foods including a business lunch and several milkfish specialties.
It has not always been easy for the black-faced spoonbills. Cigu was once a favorite haunt for hunters, who were mostly interested in duck but were known not to turn down a chance to bag a spoonbill. Protests and petitions by conservationists led to a clampdown on all waterfowl hunting in the area.
Another type of targeting in the wetlands area involved an industrial development project sponsored by Cigu Township. The project originally called for a steel refinery to be sited on a drained mudflat. When the proposal was turned down by the government due to protests that it would destroy an area critical for the spoonbill, the steel company enlisted the help of a petrochemical company in calling for Binnan Industrial Park to be set up just to the north of the mudflat with a total area of more than a thousand acres. An environmental impact study showed that the proposed plan would have displaced some 30 percent of the lagoon while a displacement of only five percent would have been harmful to the lagoon. Moreover, an accompanying harbor would have disturbed wave action and led to erosion of sand bars and wetlands in the area, threatening the habitats of spoonbills and many other animals.
Once more a call for support nationwide by conservationists led to pressure to abandon the project, a move which became even more clear when the chairman of the steel company stepped down and was replaced. Hopefully now the spoonbills will have a small area of pristine land to ensure that they will always have a suitable homeland when they come south in September or October each year.
Slowly making a comeback
The spoonbills have also encountered setbacks such as an outbreak of botulism which killed more than 60 members of the flock in 2002. The cause of that particular incident was identified by the Council of Agriculture as a cold front which killed a number of fish and left them rotting on the shores of nearby fish farms. These fish were eaten by the hungry spoonbills, with deadly consequences.
Still, the spoonbills seem to be slowly regaining a foothold in the Southwestern Taiwan region, with the help of people like Wang and Su, who campaigned on a spoonbill-friendly platform of conservation when he first won office in 2001. On another front, students attempted to boost public awareness and concerns for spoonbills by conducting a black-faced spoonbill write-in campaign during the 2004 presidential election. Given the stakes in this year's presidential elections it is unlikely the spoonbills will garner many write-in votes this time around. Perhaps with the growing support from civic and government organizations, however, these unique birds will not need the imprimatur of the ballot box - at least in the presidential race.
As of January 12 of this year the spoonbill count at the Conservation and Management Center showed 713 birds in the conservation area, 795 in Tainan County and 1013 in Tainan County and Tainan City combined. While numbers like these are still cause for concern, the gathering groundswell of awareness among the residents of the area, in particular the young school children who troop to the area in school buses, is a sign of hope for the black-faced spoonbill. Luckily the bird's distinctive black bill lends itself easily to cartoons and the playful twists designers love to put on Chinese characters in headlines, and with all the creative energy that is going into the campaigns being organized by the Tainan County Government, the birdwatching societies throughout Taiwan and other interested parties, Taiwan will indeed be a safe haven for the black-faced spoonbill.