A bill for the Spoons

A bill for the Spoons

Assignment diary : Tukai Biswas
Expert speak : Sayam U Chowdhury

Bangladesh is in turmoil. People are voicing their sentiments and taking to the streets. A Saevus photographer travels to this strife-torn country to capture a different battle- a battle for survival of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper, a rare shorebird that goes to great lengths from Russia to Bangladesh to exist in this planet. Found in the islands of Sonadia, Kaladia, Khorir char on the Bangladesh-Myanmar border, we follow this bird through Tukai Biswas’s journal. Sayam U Chowdhury lends his expertise to the findings

John Gerrard Keulemans (1842–1912)


We have always keenly encouraged the documentation of lesser-known but critically endangered life forms, which do not ever become focal points for many wildlife photographers. The Spoon-billed Sandpiper is one such charismatic species, which exists in an extremely small population and is staring extinction in the face. This assignment attempts to usher this bird into the light. Bangladesh is in turmoil. People are voicing their sentiments and taking to the streets. A Saevus photographer travels to this strife-torn country to capture a different battle- a battle for survival of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper, a rare shorebird that goes to great lengths from Russia to Bangladesh to exist in this planet. Found in the islands of Sonadia, Kaladia, Khorir char on the Bangladesh-Myanmar border, we follow this bird through Tukai Biswas’s journal. Sayam U Chowdhury lends his expertise to the findings

Tukai Biswas
Tukai is a passionate nature photographer who believes that true freedom for the human soul can be found only in the lap of nature.The fact that he went to Bangladesh amidst protests,demonstrations and unrest, not once but twice to complete his assignment, speaks volumes about his dedication to the cause of conservation. He is the founder member of a non-profit organization Bongaon Green Wave which actively works towards curbing wildlife smuggling. Based out of Kolkata, Tukai aims to connect people with nature through his photography.


The Bangladesh coast is an extremely important wintering ground for the Spoon-billed Sandpiper

Day 1
Close, but no cigar Md Foyal, a young researcher, and I head to the ferry ghat at 5.30am, for a speed boat that is taking us to the islands of Kaladia (30 minutes) and Sonadia (45 minutes). The blue is overwhelming. Blue water touches the blue sky giving Kaladia the impression of having risen from the water. It is the start of low tide, and soon we disembark, armed with our telescope and camera, to the muddy earth that rises to our knees. This island is the foraging ground of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper, and after a long search, we spot our desired bird for the first time. Our initial excitement is short-lived as we soon discover its shy nature, thwarting our approaches and denying us good shots by losing itself in a crowd of other birds. Now, low tide has settled in, and since the creek is quickly drying up, we have to reach Belekardia Island through the Bay of Bengal. The sea is terrifying a few miles into our journey, almost sinking the boat as I hold on for dear life, holding my camera even closer. We reach calmer waters soon and the boat rushes off to Sonadia after dropping us off, to get to the mainland before the creek dries further. Belekardia is an extension of Sonadia so we can walk the remaining 5km. Despite this being a ‘high tide roost area’ for birds, there’s not a single Spoon-billed Sandpiper.

The Spoon-billed Sandpiper (SBS) (Eurynorhynchus pygmeus) is a charismatic wading bird, as tiny as the House Sparrow; its distinctive spoon-like bill earns the bird its name and has a riveting reputation with birdwatchers. Life of a shorebird is complex; its survival strategy changes from season to season. It breeds between May and July along the coastal tundra of the Chukotsk peninsula and southwards up to the isthmus of the Kamchatka peninsula, in north-eastern Russia. Breeding takes place in this time as the days are longer and food is plentiful, which facilitate in nurturing chicks. As the winter arrives in the tundra from August to September, the ground freezes, the days shorten and food supply diminishes, causing these birds to migrate south to the warmer climates of Asia. During their journey to the main non-breeding range in Bangladesh and Myanmar, they take a pitstop in the tidal mudflats of Japan, North Korea, South Korea, China, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

The spatulate or the spoon-like bill is this bird’s most striking feature, used to forage for food in coastal mudflats

Day 2
Sites of Passage
We start at dawn from Cox’s Bazar again, this time to a new Island, Khorir Char, an hour away. The beautiful island is covered with white and golden sand. After a short scan, we locate our bird roosting with a few Sanderlings and Stints. It’s very difficult to differentiate between a Spoon-billed Sandpiper and a Sanderling while they’re roosting, and while we successfully identify our bird, it continues to fly away whenever we get close. After a three-hour wait,we leave for Kaladia, where the high tide had covered the foraging area completely. We wait, but even after the water level starts to come down, drawing Kaladia out, we don’t spot a single Spoonbilled Sandpiper. The sky is slowly reddening as dusk settles in. We’re down one more day.

The first specimen of the critically-endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper was collected in the mid-19th century from Bangladesh, and it still maintains the reputation for the highest singlecount anywhere in the world – 202 birds in 1989 from Moulevir Char. After that, a count of more than 100 was never witnessed and numbers have gone down with years. After a series of surveys, we can now say that Bangladesh is still an extremely important wintering ground for this bird; we identified Sonadia Island and Domar Char as the key wintering and passaging sites, respectively, in Bangladesh. While working on Sonadia Island, we encountered hunting of shorebird; eight hunters claimed to have captured a total of 22 Spoon-billed Sandpipers between October 2009 and April 2010. However, hunting is now more controlled in Bangladesh, after some serious conservation work in recent years, but these incredible birds are still threatened by development. A sea port is likely to be built on Sonadia Island in Cox’s Bazar, where more than 10 per cent of the world’s population of this species spends the winter. Even in November 2012, we saw 26 individuals foraging blissfully on the sandy mudflat of Sonadia Island.


Day 3
In times of conflict A strike has confined us to the hotel. It occurs to me that I didn’t feel the restlessness during the last two days staying at the island. I felt no conflict, no sense of stress when I spent time with the birds. I didn’t observe any communal threat in the islands. The birds I am looking for do not belong to any religion.

The Spoon-billed Sandpiper breeds along the hinterland in the Chukchi and Kamchatka peninsulas. In winter, it migrates down the Pacific coast to its wintering grounds in South and Southeast Asia

EXPERT SPEAK The Spoon-billed Sandpiper is hurtling towards extinction perhaps faster than any other bird species in the world, with probably fewer than 100 pairs remaining, and numbers still declining. Surveys from the breeding ground show a drop by 88 per cent between 2002 and 2009 and population estimates reflect between 240-400 mature individuals now.Breeding in Chukotka, and wintering thousands of miles away in the tropics of South and South-East Asia, the Spoon-billed Sandpiper faces a wide variety of threats, primarily hunting in Myanmar, Bangladesh and Thailand (devastating the population of young birds), and the reclamation of migration-route stopover sites for farming and development.

The spoon-shaped bill With its unusually shaped beak, the Spoon-billed Sandpiper posseses possibly the most striking and mysterious bill shapes in the avian world. Previously, it was assumed that Spoon-billed Sandpipers use their bills much like the true Spoonbills of the genus: Platalea that swipe their bills sideways in water, sensing and grabbing food items, as they pass between the flattened tips of the mandibles. On the contrary, the feeding strategy of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper is remarkably different than that of the true Spoonbill. Like all shore birds, the left tip of the upper mandible is flexed upwards (see illustration), is strongly hooked and is distinctly longer than the lower one. The ‘spoon’ of upper and lower mandibles do not exactly match each other, the latter appearing slightly compensated and closer to the base of the bill. Also, both mandibles are thick and strong and the lower mandible is angled slightly upwards. The Spoon-billed Sandpiper uses its distinctly shaped beak as a shovel, to push lumps of mud and algae ahead of it. This requires a lot of strength and the Spoon-billed Sandpiper uses its body and legs to leverage and push the mud, often slipping backwards into the slippery soil. After having raked up some mud and algae, the bird quickly works the bill tip underneath it and moves on. While the broad bill tip could be used to rake up loose substrates, it would also make an effective gear for grabbing any small invertebrate in the thick slurry underneath the lifted substrate. Probably because of this feeding behavior, the Spoon-billed Sandpiper covers huge areas while foraging on the mudflats.

Day 4 Going, going, gone Today, we are in Kaladia all day. We’ve spied a pair of Spoon-billed Sandpipers at a distance. We approach them slowly, almost crawling on the ground to manage photographs. But I want more and despite the bird backing away while feeding, I try and get closer, till the shy thing flies off. We wait, but it does not return.

Now the question arises: why are these birds disappearing? There is no lone reason for this decline, but a combination of several autonomous factors. The species was never plentiful and perhaps has had least adaptive power owing to its highly specialised habitat requirement. Weak breeding success, nest predation, grim weather and climate change are reasons for its decline, but ornithologists believe the peril primarily triggers in the non-breeding grounds. In the last few decades, large-scale land reclamation projects have destroyed almost 50 per cent of tidal flats in the Yellow Sea, which is a key stopover site for the Spoon-billed Sandpiper. In Bangladesh and Myanmar, rapid habitat alteration and hunting coupled with climate change, seem to be major threatening causes.

During the breeding season, the Spoon-billed Sandpiper sports a red-brown head, neck (below) with dark brown streaked breasts while the non-breeding adults (facing page) lack the reddish colouration, but have pale brownish-grey upperparts with whitish fringing to the wing-coverts

Plan attack
We’ve reached Kaladia early and have our sights on a pair of Spoon-billed Sandpipers. I haven’t slept well, worrying about how to get close enough to this bird. Today, I have come with a plan: an air pillow substitutes my tripod, so it’s easier to crawl softly, and my camera, safely wrapped in plastic, is ready for muddy trails. I’ve smeared mud all over me to avoid detection. Positioning the camera on the air pillow, I move towards the bird very slowly, reaching closer than ever before. Keeping my eye on the viewfinder, I click the shutter and suddenly, the entire flock of birds takes to the air. As I watch their flight in the sky, I see a Peregrine Falcon right above us but that is the last I see of the birds. I watch the setting sun behind the island as the speedboat puts more distance between me and Kaladia. Those birds don’t know the horrific situation of this country. They don’t belong to any specific country, all they know is that their citizenship is of Planet Earth. It is we, who have drawn vague borders all over the world for our own selfish needs.

Since September 2010, surveys were conducted to identify hunters and offer alternate livelihood options for them in Sonadia. After a solid year of background work, we signed conservation agreements with 25 active shorebird hunters of the island between October and December, 2011. Livelihood options include seeds and fertilisers for watermelon cultivation (most successful), fishing boat, net, livestock, and grocery and tailoring (sewing machine) shops. Ex- hunters who cultivated watermelon earned almost double the amount they made by trapping birds. Village Conservation Groups (VCG) of the five villages in and around Sonadia are now monitoring activities. Hunters repay a small percentage of the income generated by the alternative livelihood to their VCG, which uses this money for hunting mitigation and shorebird conservation. This is monitored by the Bangladesh Spoon-billed Sandpiper Conservation Project. I was on an expedition to the Russian Chukotka to collect the eggs of these birds as very few chicks are currently surviving to adulthood. Taking a small number of eggs from the wild would not greatly impact adult breeding populations. These eggs will be hatched and reared in a special conservation breeding facility at the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT) in the UK. The captive population (25 or more birds collected in two seasons) will allow us to better understand the bird’s ecology. These birds will also supplement the wild population if numbers fall below sustainable levels. They could also be used to reintroduce the species in the event of extinction. Hopefully, this will never be necessary!

Sayam U Chowdhury
Sayam U Chowdhury is a freelance researcher and Executive Editor of Nature Quest Bangladesh (of The Daily Star), working on wildlife research onservation, with a special focus on globally threatened species in Bangladesh, and a principal investigator on the Spoon-billed Sandpiper. A widely published field ornithologist, he has been conducting the Asian Waterbird Census since 2005 and is skilled in bird-banding, satellite telemetry and associated technologies.


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