Spoon-billed Sandpipers of Sonadia

In January i went to Bangladesh for the first time, and during the first part of the trip i spent 3 days wading the mudflats of Sonadia Island, off the coastal town of Cox’s Bazar, looking for shorebirds, and more particularly Spoon-billed Sandpipers.

This miniature but very distinctive wader has become an icon of conservation in Asia, when it was found a few years ago that no more than a few hundreds birds remained in the wild. Whereas the remote breeding grounds in far North-east Russia appeared to be safe, the collapse was mostly triggered by the disappearance of migratory staging grounds, especially in China and Korea, and by hunting and trapping on the wintering grounds, mostly in Myanmar and here, in Bangladesh.

A bold UK-based conservation project was launched, involving concrete actions to enhance protection on the migratory and wintering grounds, as well as an audacious captive breeding program. See http://www.saving-spoon-billed-sandpiper.com.

Sayam Chowdhury, who kindly helped organizing my trip and accompanied me, is the coordinator of the conservation project in Bangladesh. Thanks to the support of the project partners and benefactors, he was able to reach at the bird hunters around Cox’s Bazar and offer them grants so that they could abandon their activity and start some other business, fishing or farming for example. As of today, bird hunting has completely stopped in the area.

It takes approximately 45mins to reach the mudflats of Sonadia from Cox’s Bazar by speedboat, and from there it’s all walking in the mud ! Approximately 20 Spoon-billed Sandpipers winter in the area, and it does not take long to locate a few birds. I had a previous experience looking for the sandpiper during its spring migration in Rudong, China, where it was hard work to locate the few birds among thousands of Red-necked Stints. In Sonadia, the flock of stints (mostly Little Stints) is much less numerous, and having now the experience of watching Spoon-billed sandpipers and their distinctive feeding technique, i had no problems spotting them with only a pair of binoculars.

Getting closer, and being able to take good pictures, is more of a challenge however. There is nowhere to hide on the mudflats, and the birds won’t let you approach them directly. I found the best technique was to keep low, stay distant to the birds and hope for them to come in your direction. We were very lucky the first day, when at the end of the afternoon, at low tide, as other waders started to rest or go to roost, a small party of 4 Spoon-billed sandpipers got into a feeding frenzy and came within 10 meters of us, completely ignoring us, and allowing very nice pictures.

Some other rare birds also occur in the area, a Nordman’s Greenshank and an Asian Dowitcher were seen a few days before our visit but we failed to locate them. However, while scanning a flock of Brown-headed Gulls, we were surprised to find 2 Slender-billed Gulls, a first record for Bangladesh.

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