Day 304: Milky Stork

The fruitless search for an endangered shorebird is redeemed by the sudden appearance of a rare and endangered stork.

October 31, 2015: Ton Mamuang, Thailand — Happy Halloween! They don’t celebrate it here in rural Thailand, but I did have a pumpkin stir-fry in solidarity (along with some squid, which was scary enough). I haven’t seen any Christmas decorations here yet, either, unlike the Philippines last weekjust the usual palm trees.

Par, Tui and I were joined today by an energetic woman named Nang who will hang out with us for the next couple of days. Our posse of four headed south from Bangkok and spent this afternoon looking for one of the world’s rarest shorebirds, the Spoon-billed Sandpiper.

The Spoon-bill, a cute ball of feathers with a crazy beak, is critically endangered: Its total population is estimated at fewer than 1,000 individuals, perhaps only a couple hundred, and has declined by up to 90 percent just in the past 10 years. In other words, this bird is heading for extinction unless something drastic happens. It seems that habitat loss is the main culprit, along with some trapping, but the sandpiper is in serious trouble.

Short of un-developing a couple of favored wetlands in China and Korea, it’s hard to know what to do with a bird that ranges over half a continent but apparently can’t cope with modern human civilization. A captive breeding program has been started (always a last-ditch effort), and maybe, if the Spoon-bill disappears from the wild, it will live on that way. Or maybe it will prove more adaptable than we assume. For now, there are still enough left to sustain a barely viable population, and we can only hope those Spoon-billed Sandpipers will survive in a changing world.

This is the season when Spoon-bills return from their breeding grounds farther north in Russia. A few spend each winter in central Thailand, and two were reported this week from one of the traditional spots here. Par, Tui, Nang and I searched the area for hours this afternoon, though, and came up empty. Maybe the birds had moved on or maybe we just missed them among the thousands of other shorebirds. The diminutive Spoon-bills are difficult to pick out unless you glimpse their distinctive spatulate beaks. We’ll try again tomorrow morning.

We did, however, spot a different rare bird, called a Milky Stork, which made my day. This species is very scarce in Thailand (Nang had never seen one in this country, and Tui had only one other sighting in 25 years), and the stork has been listed as endangered throughout its range. A welcome surprise! As the bird cruised overhead, I couldn’t help pondering its significance. A thousand Spoon-billed Sandpipers may be on the verge, but one Milky Stork is still infinitely more than zero.

New birds today: 10

Year list: 5061


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