Published online by Cambridge University Press: 17 September 2018
The natural coastal wetlands of the East Asian-Australasian Flyway (EAAF) are disappearing at alarming rates, leading to rapid declines of many populations of waterbirds in the most species-rich flyway in the world. The identification and assessment of possible alternative habitats that may buffer the loss of natural wetlands should, therefore, be a priority for the conservation of migratory waterbirds using this flyway. Coastal saltpans are functional wetlands that support large numbers of waterbirds worldwide. The Nanpu Saltpans in the northern Bohai Bay of the Yellow Sea in China are one of the largest (290 km2) saltpan complexes in the world. In this paper, we document the value of the Nanpu Saltpans for supporting waterbirds. The surveys, carried out from 2013 to 2016, included waterbird counts in the saltpans (93 km2) at high and low tide and on the adjacent natural tidal flats (57 km2) at low tide. Of the 89 waterbird species recorded, 27 had maximum counts exceeding the 1% threshold value of estimated flyway populations. The maximum counts of waterbirds in northward migration and southward migration in the Nanpu Saltpans were 96,000 and 93,500, respectively, including both foraging and roosting birds; these figures do not account for turnover, so the total number of birds using the site is likely to be higher. The maximum counts on the adjacent tidal flats at low tide amounted to 73,000 and 20,000 waterbirds during northward and southward migration, respectively, and most of them were foraging birds. In the boreal winter, few birds fed in the saltpans, but several thousand fed on the tidal flats. Waterbirds used the inland ponds (2.0–18.0 km from the intertidal area) mainly for feeding both during low tide and high tide and used the nearshore ponds (0.3–4.3 km from the intertidal area) mainly for high-tide roosting. Some species, such as Black-tailed Godwit Limosa limosa, Marsh Sandpiper Tringa stagnatilis, Pied Avocet Recurvirostra avosetta, and Black-winged Stilt Himantopus himantopus, occurred mainly in the saltpans; other species preferred tidal flats, such as Red Knot Calidris canutus, Great Knot Calidris tenuirostris, Bar-tailed Godwit Limosa lapponica, Eurasian Curlew Numenius arquata, Relict Gull Larus relictus, and Grey Plover Pluvialis squatarola. This study clearly demonstrates the joint ecological function of the Nanpu Saltpan complex and adjacent tidal flats as a key staging area for waterbirds in the EAAF, and as such both urgently warrant protected status.