Birding Without Borders

Day 307: The Best Little Shorebird in Town

Noah's gang picks out a special rarity—among a flock of thousands of other birds.

November 3, 2015: Colombo, Sri Lanka — On the way back to Bangkok this afternoon, Par, Tui, Nang and I passed by Pak Thale, the site of our earlier Spoon-billed Sandpiper sagas. Even though we burned several hours searching there two days ago, Par suggested we stop today to try the Spoon-bill one last time.

Pak Thale is an area of commercial salt pans where ocean water is guided through a maze of shallow impoundments to evaporate. It’s a tidal system, of course, which means the salt pans provide great habitat for waders. Thousands of migratory shorebirds, from 20 different species, filled an area of several acres. Somewhere among them were one or two Spoon-billed Sandpipers, each one smaller than your fist.

When we arrived, a lone Swedish birder named Johan was standing in the sun with a spotting scope, looking a bit fatigued. “I’ve been here for six hours,” he said, “and haven’t seen the Spoon-billed Sandpiper, although one was reported here yesterday.” That sure sounded familiar! Johan seemed gratified to pass off the baton and, before he went to find some shade, left his cell number in case we managed to spot one.

The four of us spread out to cover the territory and we were joined by Mr. Deang, a local birder whom Par had called for extra help. We all knew the search image: The tiny Spoon-billed Sandpiper looks very similar to a Red-necked Stint (a common shorebird here) except its beak is spatulate at the tip, like a little shovel, and it has a different feeding motion. Instead of using its beak like a sewing machine, it swipes it from side to side. The difference is more subtle than it sounds, and you pretty much have to look at every individual bird to pick out the Spoon-bill.

I was standing next to Tui, who had become a bit distracted by gulls (“See that one?” he said at one point, “It’s a first-winter Heuglin’s Gull [a subspecies of Lesser Black-backed Gull], an unusual one in Thailand”), when he suddenly stiffened, stepped back from the scope, and grabbed me by the shoulders. No words were necessary as I peered through the eyepiece. There, peering back from behind a spoon-shaped beak, was one of the world’s rarest shorebirds.

You wouldn’t know this bird was critically endangered just by looking at it. For its part, it probably didn’t have much concept of its species’ peril, either. It foraged energetically alongside a group of Red-necked Stints, occasionally chasing one of the stints out of its personal space. Tui deftly picked out a second Spoon-bill, and, while we were photographing those two, Par found a third one in the same flock. I don’t know how many hundreds of grainy, distant photos I took (so much for philosophical birding!). For me, this was one of the most emotional and exciting birds of the year—sometimes working hard makes the reward sweeter.

I texted Johan, the Swedish guy, who arrived on a motorbike as we were heading out. He seemed a little envious of our crew (it’s fun to roll with a posse of locals!) but was thankful for the tip. Meanwhile, Par, Tui, and Nang returned me to Bangkok after an action-packed five days in Thailand. (If you ever visit this country, check out wildbirdeco.net). I flew west into the night, toward Sri Lanka, with Spoon-billed Sandpipers flitting through my dreams.

New birds today: 5

Year list: 5104

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