Kids releasing a Spoon-billed Sandpiper in Myanmar. Photo by Rob Robinson/BTO
In late January I was lucky enough to join the tail end of an international expedition* organized under the auspices of BirdLife International to survey birds in the coastal estuaries of Myanmar. We spent two days on a small offshore island in the northern end of the Gulf of Martaban, just off the communities of Bilin and Kyaikto. I found the site is extraordinary. Both mornings we arrived when the salt marsh and mud flat island was still under the high tides; as the tide dropped large numbers of shorebirds would fly in, including Greater and Lesser Sand Plovers, Pacific Golden and Kentish Plovers, Curlew Sandpipers, Marsh Sandpipers, Greenshanks, Redshanks, Rufous-necked Stints, and many other species. We spotted at least 71 Spoon-billed Sandpipers among more than 35,000 shorebirds.
These surveys were part of a coordinated effort by BirdLife and other partners (listed below) to survey coastal Myanmar over the past two years. Over the course of several weeks other sites in Myanmar were surveyed, too, with only about another 18 Spoon-billed Sandpipers reported.
The global population of this Arctic-nesting sandpiper is now estimated to have dwindled to about 120-250 pairs. A 2005 survey estimated the total population at under 1,000, dramatically down from an estimated 6,000 in the 1970s. This precipitous drop in numbers has lead many to believe that this species could be extinct within the next decade without a concerted conservation effort.
BirdLife International has been sponsoring a series of surveys on the Spoon-billed Sandpiper’s breeding grounds in Russia, as well as its wintering grounds in Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Thailand. The three years of winter surveys, organized by Dr. Christoph Zoeckler of ArcCona Ecological Consulting, estimates that the Gulf of Martaban in Myanmar alone may hold 150-200 birds, or 50 percent of the world’s population. Surveys also reported small numbers of Spoon-billed Sandpipers elsewhere on the bird’s wintering grounds: 30 were observed in Bangladesh in early March 2010, and a minimum of six in Thailand, Vietnam, and China in early 2010.
Confirming the Spoon-billed Sandpiper’s wintering locations will allow conservationists an opportunity to take action to try and protect the aggregation sites and work to reduce identified threats, particularly bird trapping. Indeed, the surveys were also able to confirm that bird trapping is a significant threat in the Gulf of Martaban. Our team encountered a hunter who had just caught a Spoon-billed Sandpiper and was holding it in a small cage. Fortunately, the hunter was pleased to allow the survey team and local children to release the bird!
To ensure Spoon-billed Sandpipers’ future survival, however, local communities need to be able to earn an income while conserving their bird populations. Nan Thar Island in the Arakhan region in Myanmar is one example of how conservationists and local communities are already collaborating. Conservationists were able to acquire the hunting rights for one season for under $400, thereby providing hunters with alternative income for this year. During our surveys, a social economic survey team covered the same area and will provide important information to help craft strategies to provide alternative sources of income that will reduce trapping of shorebirds in key Spoon-billed Sandpiper wintering sites.
*The international survey team that conducted this survey was organized by Dr. Christoph Zockler (ArcCona Consulting, Cambridge, England) under the auspices of BirdLife International with coordination with the BirdLife Partner in Myanmar, BANCA, and involved biologists from the British Trust for Ornithology, UK, Birds Russia, and additional participants from Germany, Canada and U.S.