For his 60th birthday on June 16, Joel Sartore celebrated with another milestone: Photographing the 13,000th species in National Geographic’s Photo Ark.
He captured photos and video of the critically endangered spoon-billed sandpiper, a European and Asian shorebird with a distinctive spoon-shaped beak, at the Slimbridge Wetland Center in England.
The birds’ caretakers spent more than a month training the animals to walk on a blackboard by covering it with sand (to imitate its natural habitat) and feeding them baby crickets as treats.
Sartore was then able to photograph the birds against the Photo Ark’s signature black-and-white backgrounds, which puts all species on the same footing, so to speak.
“Most of the animals that we share the planet with are not tigers or gorillas or polar bears or giraffes,” says Sartore. “They’re small things like the star-nosed moles and worms and salamanders and turtles. These are animals that make the world turn, and with this portrait process, we give all species an equal voice.”
Creatures great and small are the focus of Photo Ark, which aims to highlight the 35,500 plant and animal species that are on the verge of vanishing forever. (Read why Sartore founded Photo Ark 15 years ago.)
Known affectionately by conservationists as “spoonies,” the sandpiper is second bird to serve as a Photo Ark milestone, with the first being the California condor, the thousandth species to be photographed. The 12,000th, announced in November 2021, was the Arabian cobra.
Due to human pressures, in particular hunting, habitat loss, and climate change, the population of spoon-billed sandpipers has declined by 90 percent, so that only about a hundred to 150 breeding pairs remain in the wild, says Jonathan Slaght, director of conservation for the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Russian Program.
“Spoon-billed sandpipers are the canary in the East Asian coal mine: if they succumb to extinction, many others will likely follow,” Slaght told National Geographic by email.
A bird under threat
The birds change color by season; in winter, they’re mostly white with brown flecks, but breeding season activates a flashier look: Their head and breasts turn “brick red, like they had been held upside down then dipped in rusty paint,” Slaght says.
The reason for their unusual bill is unknown, but scientist David Sibley has observed the birds using their bills like snowplows to move mud around, then dine on any worms, shrimp, or other small invertebrates that emerge.
These sparrow-size birds undertake an impressive migration, breeding in the Russian Arctic, then migrating south along the Eurasian coast and wintering in Southeast Asia. They take rest stops on intertidal mudflats along coastal Asia, particularly the Yellow Sea. This journey has become much harder, as between 50 to 80 percent of coastal wetlands have been lost in this region during the past 50 years to human development, river damming, power generation, and invasive grass species, Slaght says: “This concentrates more birds into less habitat, often with degraded food resources.”
What’s more, half of the global population winter on the mudflats of southern Myanmar, where subsistence hunters catch them in nets and sell them as food in roadside markets for less than a dollar.
In the rapidly warming Arctic, shifting seasons and temperatures are interfering with the species’ life cycles. One example of this is that shorter springs are giving the birds less time to breed.
But there are major efforts underway to boost the bird’s numbers. The Spoon-billed Sandpiper Task Force coordinates the work of researchers, citizen scientists, and birdwatchers across the species’ range to maximize their conservation impact, according to Slaght.
In 2020, Russia announced the creation of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper Nature Park in Chukotka, a 5,800-square-mile reserve that’s home to the largest known population of breeding birds.
What’s more, the Slimbridge Wetland Centre, the only facility in the world to house captive spoon-billed sandpipers, has made advances in how to incubate and rear sandpiper chicks and has launched a trial captive-breeding program.
“This bird is fortunate that it’s so cute, because that’s really turned a lot of attention toward trying to save it,” says Sartore. (Go behind the scenes of Photo Ark.)
Racing against time
Sartore had initially set the goal of cataloging 15,000 species when he launch Photo Ark in 2006, but now aims to accomplish 20,000 over the next 10 to 15 years. “I wish I’d started 20 years ago,” he says.
Upcoming photography trips will take him Austria and Czechia for freshwater fish and mammals such as the Siberian weasel, Minnesota for primates, and Ontario for Stone’s sheep. (Read about the güiña, the mystery cat that marked Sartore’s 10,000th photo.)
What keeps Sartore going, he says, is the knowledge that many animals go extinct every day.
“A lot of these species,” he says, “are going to come and go before we’ve even met them.”