The unsound approach

 

Mid November 2009 and a mass mailshot from Jez asks the question: "anyone want to go to Myanmar to count SBS?", clearly everyone did, but in the event real life gets in the way of many of the best opportunities. However, Rob and Alex took a long hard look at their commitments and jumped on the bandwagon. For various logistical reasons Myanmar evolved into Bangladesh and in the preceding months plans were drawn, funds were raised and Jez and Alex proceeded to pin-ball between different conservation NGOs. We made contact with a number of in-country ornithologists - chiefly Sayam Chowdhury and Enam Ul Haque and tried to work out where we should, and could, get to. We outlined the justification for the expedition on Birdguides here and subsequently presented the trip diaries part one and part two online there too. Our findings will be detailed in Forktail, Birding Asia and other journals which leaves the small question of a proper description of the blood sweat and diarrhoea. Therefore the following represents an expanded account of the Birdguides diaries with some new pics.... happy expedition-organising....      

SBS, Russia, summer 2007 (JG)

 

06/03/10

Etihad and Kuwait Airways delivered us (Alex and Jez) safely, soundly and in varying degrees of comfort and punctuality to Zia International Airport, Dhaka, Bangladesh where we were met by Abu Yousuf, who kindly volunteered to get up at 4.30am. Rob was due to follow on a couple of weeks later... We checked into a hotel and spent the rest of the day meeting and greeting and sorting out logistics such that by... 

 

07/03/10

....day two and we were on route to the field! Sayam Chowdhury arrived fresh from trapping ducks at an avian influenza training workshop in the north, sliced smoothly through the usual bureaucracy and logistical nightmares that confront birders off the beaten track and within 24 hours had us out of the capital and waiting in Cox’s Bazar in the south-east to catch a boat next morning. The bus journey was for want of a better word, mental. Traffic and road safety in Bangladesh has got to be the worst any of us have ever experienced, anywhere. We were glad to finally check into our uber-minging hotel room late that night.

 

08/03/10

After planes, bus, cycle rickshaw and row-boat we left Cox’s Bazar in a Chinese-Junk-style (minus the sails) motorboat with Pallas’s Gulls along the shoreline and Whiskered Terns fishing off the stern. By late morning we were ankle deep in mud at Tajiakata, a mudflat opposite Sonadia Island working through the first of many flocks of wintering waders that we were to count over the coming weeks. This first stop was revisiting a site where Sayam had already recorded two Spoon-billed Sandpipers in January, It was therefore disappointing to draw a blank while searching through Curlew Sandpipers, Greater and Lesser Sandplovers, Broad-billed Sandpipers and Red-necked Stints, as well as a much needed reality check on the challenges this trip will bring. The Horsehoe Crabs here were pretty cool though! In the afternoon we meandered through tidal creeks banked by mangrove, getting an impression of the mosaic of sand-spits, tidal mudflats, mangrove, saltpans, shrimp farms and fishing villages that dominate this section of coastline. Heading to the north end of the island we moored for the night at Belekat’dia, a sand-spit that hosts a high-tide wader roost where Sayam recorded five individuals in January. This evening was a different story and the slate remained clean until a Peregrine came and flushed the roost. Reality check-mate.

 

Pallas's, Brown-headed and Heuglin's Gulls (AL)

Team inspecting the local fishermen's catch, they were pretty proud of a couple of crabs and some tiddlers, no wonder people are forced to eat waders... (AL)

Irrawaddy Dolphin (AL)

Hoopoe, miraculously avoiding the clutches of a pair of Peregrines (AL)

same Hoope lying low later on (AL)

 

09/03/10

After checking the nearby mudflat for no further reward, we readied ourselves to head off. Unfortunately the boat didn’t. It had become grounded overnight on a falling tide, which to our sun-addled amateur boater minds didn’t really feel like rocket science. Plan B was flagging down the local equivalent of the Scilly gig-racers who made short work of the reach between Belekat’dia and Kaladia, an exposed mudflat and site of six Spoon-billed Sands in January. In the time it took to erect a scope a SBS had walked into the field of view; better. In the time it took to scan once, twice, thrice we had counts of 8, 9 and 10 individuals; much, much better! Full coverage of the site produced a final minimum count of 20 birds in a single thorough scan, and the afternoon was capped off with four Nordmann’s Greenshank, an Endangered wader with only a handful of recent Bangladeshi records.

First contact (AL)

SBS and Kaladia (AL)

               

At high tide most of the shorebirds left the roost heading inland so we followed by boat to the coastal saltpans. Thai wintering SBS feed predominantly on saltpans and although there are few records from Bangladesh and Myanmar, suggesting this may be suboptimal habitat, the available area is vast and probably offers a good high tide feeding/roosting area. Dusk prevented a search in the evening, but did bring welcome comforts like a wash at the local well.

 

10/03/10

The morning high tide beat the dawn and a neap tide meant most birds had left the saltpans before we checked them. The 100 or so Temminck’s Stints left on the pans feed further inland than most of the coastal waders and probably spend a greater proportion of their time on the pans. The first of our stops today was at a mudflat island between the coastal saltpans and Kaladia. Here we clocked an impressive 260 Great Knot, presumably the same as a flock of 270 recorded in January. Having checked by now the known sites that have received survey effort in recent years it was time to head off the radar. Extensive searching of Google Earth pre-departure with members of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper Recovery Team had helped identify a few promising areas. Hasher Char to the north of Sonadia was eventful for other reasons today though as we became stuck for the second day in succession. A frustrating afternoon looking at thigh deep impassable mud covered in distant wader flocks turned into a similarly frustrating evening unable to find a suitable campsite for the night owing to reported piracy issues in the area. Eventually we found an idyllic spot on the sandspit of Khoir Char to plan for a more productive day on the 11th and watch two Irrawady River Dolphins offshore (this species is listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List and records from this survey were passed to a cetacean monitoring programme being run by the Wildlife Conservation Society in Bangladesh).

 

Jez finding the mud at Hasher Char difficult going (AL)

Whiskered Tern (AL) these beauties trailed our boat continuously

 

 

all hands on deck (AL)

 

Giash, our guide at Sonadia (who works for a local NGO) with optics donated by the RSPB

Openbill Storks and Shovelers (AL)

 

11/03/10

Better prepared and with a small fishing boat in tow to access the mudflats we headed back up to Hasher Char and spent a full morning around this productive area. The site contained expansive areas of very deep soft mud, which held the largest wader concentrations encountered to date. Amongst these flocks we recorded an additional 170+ Great Knot and an unprecedented 24 Nordmann’s Greenshank; these records provide valuable input into our understanding of the winter distributions of these species and in themselves warrant further study. Despite looking extremely promising we were unable to add to our totals of SBS at this site. We also had a minor pirate incident here. Over the course of the last few days we had been frequently regailed with stories of how dangerous these waters were but by and large we interpreted this as fishermen speak for "we're aren't going anywhere new", this being problematic when the average fisherman's home range is extremely small. So, whilst we were out on the mud our boat was 'attacked' by a boatload of 10 'nasty-looking' folk, fortuitously Yousuf was still on the boat clad in dark blue clothes and surrounded by our gear so the quick-thinking crew declared that he was in the Navy, this served as enough of a deterent; certainly they didn't want to spark off an international incident as these pirates are far from the mould of the Somali types....

9 Nordmann's Greenshanks! (AL)

Great Knots (AL)

Eurasian Curlews ssp orientalis. (AL) EC is now listed as near-threatened, there's no room for complacency in Numenius conservation

Great Knot (AL)

 

Having covered the main areas identified prior to the trip we had a day and a half to get back to Cox’s Bazar, but were leaving areas around Katubdia Island and inland from Cox’s Bazar unsurveyed. On the return journey we stopped briefly at Kaladia and nearby Halodia and recorded a total of 25 SBS. This represents the largest count in the country since 1997. Great news for SBS and an early signal that the importance of Bangladesh for SBS may have been overlooked in recent years since the discovery of sizeable wintering concentrations in Myanmar (73 were counted in the Bay of Martaban in January 2010 with an estimated 150-200 individuals all told). The shadow looming over this discovery is that the survey area is all either within or adjacent to the proposed site of a deep-water port development currently under negotiation. Further work to understand the seasonal importance of Sonadia and its component mudflats for Spoon-billed Sandpiper should form an essential component of an environmental impact assessment for this project, but any positive steps in this direction are likely to require further advocacy work in the future.

 

Alex making his way back to the boat (AY)

 

12/03/10

The final day journeying back to Cox’s Bazar left little time to explore new sites but did allow the team to gather data from local fishermen on the prevalence of shorebird hunting in the area.

 

arriving back at Cox's Bazar (AL)

 

13th March

Having arranged a minivan the previous evening, we headed north to pioneer the Shankara River mouth, in the end this proved to be rather anticlimactic as the site hosted relatively few shorebirds, with none of the species of conservation concern. Avian highlights included the first Pacific Golden Plovers of the trip but the show was stolen by a breaching Ganges River Dolphin.

 

Black-eared Kite with dog dinner (AL)

 

14th-15th March 2010

After hearing Jez, Sayam and Alex’s successes around Sonadia in the south-east of Bangladesh during the first week of the expedition, Rob finally got to join the ever-so-slightly gloating team. It was a smooth journey, except for that bit at Delhi airport when the cockpit window flew open during take-off. An emergency stop in a 737 put paid to any thought of snoozing into Dhaka. Having packed light, apart from two telescopes, tripods and binoculars all destined for the Bangladesh Bird Club from the excellent RSPB second-hand binocular scheme, a trip to the market for some expendable survey clothes was necessary. While the light shorts that Alex and Rob chose proved to more or less self-destructing in the field, Jez is unlikely to ever be parted from his classic white singlet.

Now we were ready for the next phase, into the Lower Meghna Delta. Unfortunately this time the logistical difficulty of securing a known and reliable boat with crew and local guide was proving testing. Sayam Chowdhury, the great fixer of the team was tied up with his efforts to obtain a visa to fulfil an invitation to the Student Conference on Conservation Science in Cambridge. Rob was wondering if he’d ever get out of Dhaka. But after a couple of days rattling around the city, bouncing from cycle-rickshaw to moto-taxi, we met up with our next hero, Enam Ul Haque, the distinguished Chairman of the Bangladesh Bird Club, and the man who can make these things happen. We would first go to the Feni River mouth with Sayam, a previously unsurveyed area in the north-east corner of the Delta and explore as much as possible from shore and local boat for three days. In the meantime a boat would be sought for the final leg of the trip, touring around the shifting mosaic of islands and water that makes up the Delta for as long as possible.

 

16th March 2010

Ronnie the driver sped us out of Dhaka in his minivan at half-six through the verdant green paddyfields and innumerable brick kiln chimneys that comprise the Bangladeshi countryside. A tomato market induced traffic jam added an eternity to the journey, but by two o’clock we were seated in a small fishing boat being rowed towards a high tide roost opposite the village of Sangarkan. None of the big prizes here though, the roost contained 315 Kentish Plover, 193 Avocet, a few Little Stint and sandplovers. We couldn’t persuade the boatmen to go further downstream as the tide began to recede, the first hint of a recurring problem we would have with boats and their crew. A return to shore-based scanning mostly resulted in the accumulation of the entire village to observe the foreigners. A distant Pied Harrier and Steppe Eagles briefly distracted us, but then we were engulfed by the crowd and played the ‘who wants to look through my telescope?’ game until we could extricate ourselves from the melée.

 

outreach (AL)

 

17th March 2010

Some decidedly medium-rare chicken at a restaurant last night left Rob largely out of the picture today, though an early sighting of distant ‘peeps from the shore still saw him wading through waist- deep glutinous mud to get a closer view with the others, despite looking (and feeling) near death. The ‘peeps were Little Stints, and further searches to the south west at Char Fakura by Alex and Jez disappointingly failed to produce any of the target waders (whilst Rob attempted to recover in the van). The most notable sighting of the day was the discovery of two Red-throated Pipits by Alex on the return walk. This species is decidedly rare across most of the subcontinent and there are only four published Bangladeshi records.   

 

Rob, feeling really bad (AL)

Richard's Pipit (AL)

Citrine (AL)

 

18th March 2010

Back up to full strength, almost, Jez, Alex and Rob walked out onto Char Chandia after Sayam headed back to Dhaka to try to obtain his visa. In scenes oddly reminiscent of Cyprus a year ago (the last time we three had been in the field together) large flocks of ‘flava’ wagtails coated the tightly cropped agricultural plain by the coast, and amongst them were at least 15 Red-throated Pipit and 80 Greater Short-toed Lark. The latter is considered a rare visitor to Bangladesh and, as noted above, the former is very rare. It seems entirely possible that there is a regular passage of migrants moving north from wintering grounds in Myanmar and further southeast and following a route along the Bangladesh coast before heading north/northwest to their high latitude breeding grounds. As for the waders it was another disappointing day, with only relatively small numbers of sandplover, Whimbrel, Curlew, Redshank, Greenshank, Terek, Common and Curlew Sandpiper, Little and Temminck Stint and a couple of Oriental Pratincole but a complete absence of our target. We did add another IUCN Red List species for the trip however, with at least 4 Greater Spotted Eagle along the river. Without any prospect of getting further out towards the mouth of the river and just the drive back to Dhaka to look forward to we made the decision to check a nearby large freshwater wetland at Banskhali. No Baer’s Pochard or Baikal Teal, but a pleasant selection of regular Asian waterbirds including 15 of the Near Threatened Ferruginous Duck, numerous Cotton Pygmy Goose, Pheasant-tailed and Bronze-winged Jacanas and a brief view of Yellow Bittern. We were welcomed back into the hazy embrace of Dhaka about eight, one of those uncomfortably long welcomes that held us fast in hot, sticky traffic for four hours before finally getting back to Sayam’s house. Alex had now taken over the mantle of 'the sick one’ and Jez fell out of a cycle rickshaw. Not the best end to the excursion.

 

19th March 2010

News back in Dhaka was not entirely encouraging. Sayam hadn’t heard anything regarding the visa and a boat was still proving elusive. Then a breakthrough, Enam had managed to engage MA Muhit’s services in organising a boat out of Bhola from 23rd onwards, and had even forwarded payment in order to secure the vessel. Not that Muhit could join us for the trip, as he was rather preoccupied with preparations for an attempt to become the first Bangladeshi to conquer Everest! The efforts of Enam and MA Muhit on our behalf were well beyond the call of duty, and now we had a reliable boat, a starting point and seven days in the Delta. However, we also had nowhere to go for two days, so quickly arranged a self-funded side trip to visit Lawachara National Park for a change of scenery, some forest birds and the chance of seeing Hoolock Gibbons.

 

20th-21st March

 

Lawachara National Park is a remarkable for the remarkable diversity of wildlife that it retains within just 1250 hectares of secondary forest. Surrounded by a heavily exploited area of forest to the north, tea plantations to the west and deforested land south and east it is highly isolated. The star attraction is one of most reliable places to see Western Hoolock Gibbons in Bangladesh. Sitting under a tree with a family group in full territorial song, counter-calling to two neighbouring groups was an exhilarating experience, leavened by the bleak future this impressive primate appears to be facing. Another sighting was a reminder of a different conservation crisis on the subcontinent; a single high-flying White-rumped Vulture proved to be the only vulture seen during the entire expedition. From its status of abundant commensal (it was considered in 1985 to be possibly the most abundant large bird of prey in the world), this species is now Critically Endangered due to the effects of the anti-inflammatory drug diclofenac. The supporting avian cast included Blue-bearded Bee-eater, Red Jungle-Fowl, Orange-headed Ground Thrush, Asian Barred Owlet, Black and Jerdon’s Baza and Green-billed Malkoha. We were also treated to excellent views of troops of Phayre’s and Blond-bellied Capped Langurs, and Northern Pigtail Macaques and a brief Yellow-throated Marten.

Western Hoolock Gibbon (AL) great ape.

Asian Barred Owlet (AL)

 

With the late morning lull setting in we left the forest and made a quick visit to Baikka Beel, a large wetland reserve close to Srimongal, the closest town to Lawachara. And it was an awesome sight, half-a-dozen Pallas’ Fish Eagle constantly flushing 5,200 Fulvous Whistling Duck, 2,000 Garganey, 450 Lesser Whistling Duck, 86 Ferruginous Duck and a good selection of waders including our life Grey-headed Lapwings. An observation tower has been constructed here with help from MACH (Management of Aquatic Ecosystems through Community Husbandry), giving an excellent of view of the massed waterbirds and the resident Straited Grassbirds.

imm Pallas's Fish Eagle (AL)

adult Pallas's Fish Eagle worrying the Garganey (AL)

 

22nd March

 

Enam Ul Haque had graciously offered to accommodate us on our return to Dhaka in order to prepare for the next round of boats and dysentery. Situated in Banani district, his apartment is the base of the Bangladesh Bird Club and more conveniently located for accessing the launch terminal, for the overnight boats towards the delta.With a few hours to spare we accumulated some luxury items such as baked beans, coffee and powdered milk for the boat, then pinned down our planned route through discussions with Paul Thompson of the Flood Hazard Research Centre and collator of Bangladeshi bird information, and of course Enam himself. Of particular use was a fantastic hand-drawn Bangla-language map of the northern delta that Enam allowed us to take to improve communication with the crew. Although the launch terminal is only 8km from Enam’s house we were warned to allow 2 hours and so set off in a small taxi at 17:40 for a 20:30 departure. We noticed that the driver seemed somewhat agitated after only a short distance, then suddenly stopped and got out on a junction. We found out that he was running on empty, but there was an enormous parked queue for any LPG filling station. Somewhat annoyed by this turn of events we made our position clear, i.e. he shouldn’t have taken us if he didn’t have enough gas for 8 km. Inevitably, having agreed to carry on the taxi spluttered out about a kilometre away from our destination. No bother, a raft of cycle rickshaws assembled in seconds and after some negotiation with the slightly vexed taxi driver we grabbed our bags and were cycled off through the traffic, arriving with plenty of time to spare.

One element was still missing. Indranil Kishor, professional photographer who had cancelled a trip to Malaysia in order to be our translator and fixer for the boat journey. He appeared in a blur of activity and in moments we were settled in our cabins on the upper deck of the launch. Our time in the delta finally began serenely cruising past the flashing torches of the ship-breakers that work the rusty hulls lining the river.  

 

23rd March 2010

Our home for the next week was ready and waiting for us as the launch pulled in to the terminal at Bhola, and we were able to climb directly aboard. It was a striking vessel, an elegant 10 metre wooden boat with brightly coloured decoration around the low cabin and a gleaming white prow. The plan was to head east towards Sondeep, aiming to discover and survey as much suitable habitat in this area as possible. As the only boat that could be arranged was at Bhola, unfortunately we had to start there. This meant that today would be spent almost entirely travelling and we would only get to the first areas of habitat by afternoon tomorrow. So we headed back up the river, picking up a small boat to use for landing and accessing shallows and turned east around the north coast of Bhola island. The first mudflats were encountered along the eastern coast of Bhola Island as we headed south-east. Large numbers of Ruddy and Common Shelduck were obvious, but large flocks of waders were not apparent and so we kept travelling in order to get to into our targeted areas the next day. Whiskered Terns, Pallas’s and Brown-headed Gulls were our regular companions out on the river and four Ganges River Dolphins in the afternoon were noteworthy.

crew #2 (RM)

 

A small char (island) provided the first test of the little boat and its operator, a young teenager named Farouq. It did not go well. With the tide rising and a bit of a choppy sea it was immediately apparent that the boat was too small and the kid was pretty worried. There was a real danger of capsizing, which wouldn’t have gone down well with those of us with expensive cameras, even if the water was less than a metre deep. We aborted the attempted landing on the tiny island but could still see that all it held were 20 Greenshank, some Common Sandpiper and a couple of Terek Sandpiper. The crew wanted to stop at a town with a sheltered channel for a harbour on the east side of Bhola for the night for fear of pirates, but the appearance of foreigners caused a considerable amount of interest from the locals. We ended up mooring to the side of a cement barge just outside the harbour, but people still waded out to visit and film us on their mobile phones! Tomorrow. Wait for tomorrow....     

 

Dog day for House Crow (RM) Guessed that Birdguides wouldn't want this one...Can't wait for the shock stories in the Daily Mail when one reaches Felixtowe: 'Dog-eating Asian Crows invade!'

 

24th March 2010

Our allegedly ‘brand new’ engine was drinking a lot more oil than it should and one of the crew had to go ashore to source a further barrel. So at seven o’clock rather than six o’clock start, but at least we all got the chance to use the cement barges’ 'toilet', one mod con our ship did not possess! A few more small chars were passed once we got underway, but still only small numbers of waders were encountered. Whimbrel were clearly on the move through the area, with 145 counted on one small char. Conditions on the water had become more choppy, with the boat pitching considerably by late morning in the channel north of Hatiya Island. It was one thing for our little boat to sink but this was a lot hairier; almost as hairy as Rob... We could see on the horizon the beginnings of what looked like large, interesting mudflats. Finally, time to get surveying. Well, almost. The boat crew were not happy with the situation, in unfamiliar waters and worried that a storm may spring up on the back of the wind. After all, it doesn’t take a great deal to capsize a small wooden boat. We tried using recent satellite images to demonstrate the presence of a large channel just further east in which we would be quite sheltered from any potential problems but, despite Kishor’s best efforts the crew were dead set against getting any closer to the open Bay of Bengal.

The decision was made that if we could not get across there today it would be pointless waiting on the off chance that the wind would drop. It was forecast to be the same all week, so we had to write-off our plans and implement plan B. This was heading for Nijhum Deep and surrounding islands and thoroughly survey areas where small numbers of Spoon-billed Sandpiper have been recorded previously. We couldn’t now hope to trawl many new sites; our best bet was to find one big glowing pile of SbS.  Still, the disappointment was tangible on the boat. We felt sick, and not from the pitching and yawing. These areas in the triangle between Sondeep, Hatiya and the Noakhali coast have still to be surveyed, and must contain both suitable habitat and large numbers of wading birds. It is a top priority for future survey.       

 

 

Rob, with improvised head gear, shortly after he lost Alex's favourite hat... (AL) Note how the west side of Hatiya is falling into the sea...

 

To lighten the mood a brace of visibly migrating Blue-tailed Bee-eaters buzzed the boat low over the water heading south towards Moulivier Char, our next destination and a couple of White-winged Terns also passed over amongst the Whiskered, a scarce winter visitor to this part of the world.

In somewhat calmer waters the small boat safely allowed us to disembark and check mudflats along the north-west edge of Moulivier Char, but once again diversity and abundance of waders was poor. Still worried about the wind the crew decided to head the boat up a small creek for the night, so Jez and Rob pitched tents on the shore for a night leaving Alex to the unforgiving hard floor of the cabin roof. 

Our little boat, which was, well, rubbish (RM)

 

Jez, having a great time (AL)

 

25th March 2010

 

Jez took a turn for the worse last night. The sound of rats eating immediately outside his tent wouldn’t have been so bad, if they hadn’t been eating his own vomit.... Still, we had plenty of time for a lie-in, with the channel predictably devoid of water when we wanted to get moving. Further frustration coupled with increasing discomfort were telling on the team members, with Alex severely fatigued and lacking any appetite for more rice and dhal, Jez now ill and Rob still yet to see any significant flocks of waders. The water lifted us clear at 09:00 and we began chugging south past Mouliveir Char, Monpura then along the west coast of Hatiya Island to Nijhum Deep. A flock of 200 Pacific Golden Plover and a couple of roosting groups of Greenshank were not enough to persuade us to make any stops en route and the forests of the north-western Nijhum Dwip came into view about 15:00. A Smooth-coated Otter was the highlight as we explored the channel between Hatiya Island and Nijhum Deep, and well over 150 Spotted Deer (introduced to the island) spilled out of the forest at dusk. A water buffalo corpse was sadly only attended by House Crows and feral dogs, though a couple White-bellied Fish Eagle patrolled high above the channel. The west coast of Nijhum Deep was muddy, and finally we could check some flocks of waders. 300 Black-tailed Godwit, 145 Whimbrel and 400 Pacific Golden Plover had the feel of migrating groups, though the 86 Black-headed Ibis and 150 Great Egret were more likely to be resident.

We went up the channel to the main village in the south of Nijhum Deep and took advantage of the guesthouse, owned by the landlord of another Bangladesh Bird Club member, Ronald Halder. Ronald had been able to arrange his own trip to the island and we would meet him tomorrow. In the meantime we took advantage of the brief spell of generator electricity and comfortable beds to prepare for the final stage of the trip.

High Street, Nijum, we had dinner at the restaurant one night and 60 people turned up to watch, that was until the owner went mental at them... (AL)

 

26th March 2010

Rob departed at 06:00 to check that our boat had actually managed to leave the channel as planned to meet Ronald at the southern end of Hatiya Island. It had, and the forest around the channel was filled with resident and migrant birds, including many Greenish and Yellow-browed Warblers, mingling with Fulvous-breasted Woodpeckers and White-throated Fantails. Jez needed more recovery time so Alex and Rob searched the southern half of Nijhum Deep for mudflats and waders for the rest of the morning, though with little success. It was an interesting area for migrants however, with Forest Wagtail, Brown and Long-tailed Shrikes, Blyth’s Reed and Clamorous Reed Warbler, ‘leucopsis’ White Wagtail, and many Yellow and Citrine Wagtail. After some restorative bananas Jez was strong enough to join the team as Ronald arrived and we all moved out to walk the mudflats we sailed past yesterday evening. A more detailed assessment of the birds present was carried out, but this added little new; a single Wood Sandpiper and Grey Plover, while numbers of both Black-tailed Godwit and Pacific Golden Plover were lower.

 

27th March 2010

Well, with only two full days of survey time available to the team the time in the delta had been hugely frustrating. Finally, today we were going to an area we knew would have suitable habitat and that has held Spoon-billed Sandpiper in the recent past. Dama Char is a small island east of Nijhum Deep and we’d put all everything on there being a mass of waders, and hopefully a flock of SbS. Three Irrawaddy River Dolphin feeding together as we chugged round Nijhum was a pleasant start, and as we arrived on the west side of Dama Char things looked promising. About 3000 Black-tailed Godwit were ankle-deep in the rising water, and just beyond them 250 Indian Skimmer were roosting. Within minutes Rob pulled out an Asian Dowitcher, making Ronald’s trip, as this was his target species to photograph for his forthcoming book. A minimum of 12 of this Near Threatened Asia-Pacific flyway speciality were mixed in with the, but these were quickly moving off to the south. We knew there was a roost somewhere on the island. Looking in the direction the godwits were taking a vast cloud of waders were circling. Leaving Ronald with the dowitchers we waded channels, flagged down a passing boat and ripped our feet to shreds on needle-sharp marsh grass to get to the birds. Small roosts of Temminck’s Stint and Greenshank flew up, a dawdling family of Bar-headed Geese lounged on the shore and a single dainty Small Pratincole swept past.

Asian Dowitcher (R. Halder)

 

Indian Skimmers (AL)

 

Indian Skimmer (RM)

Bar-headed Geese (AL)

High Tide roost Dama Char (AL)

 

The roost was pretty big, but lay on another small island cut off from Dama Char at high tide. Approximately 15,000 sandplover (mostly Lesser) and 9,000 Black-tailed Godwit made up the bulk of the dark mass of bodies, though many other wader species were just about discernable in the haze. Jez tried to wade across but soon found a deep channel so we were forced to watch from distance until the tide dropped and birds began leaving the roost. We split up along the shore and studied different sections. It wasn’t long before the first mud was exposed, and we set about grilling waders. More Asiatic Dowitcher appeared, and soon 34 were visible at once, feeding and preening amongst Black-tailed and Bar-tailed Godwit. 5 Nordmann’s Greenshank were feeding along channels on deep, soft areas of mud. 26 Great Knot were counted, everything was here. Except… “Spoon-billed Sandpiper”. To everyone’s relief Alex found one, over an hour after we began searching. As at Kaladia, the SbS was feeding on a relatively hard sand/mud mix that retained shallow pools of water as the tide receded. Concentrating our efforts in this substrate we continually scanned, and the count kept going up. Eventually 19 birds were visible at one time, feeding constantly, pushing through the mud with their incredible bills.

SBS (RM)

SBS (AL) 

We returned towards the boat just as the light was beginning to fade. We needn’t have rushed. The boat looked like it had been dumped in the middle of a field! The crew, ‘to do us a favour’ had brought it right up one of the minor channels we charged across earlier. OK, so we didn’t have to walk through a kilometre of thigh deep mud, but the boat was stranded for the next four hours. The tide duly arrived, well after dark, but this just brought more problems. An almost full moon meant the tides were almost the largest of the year. The shallow channel we were in quickly disappeared under the flooding water, and a strong south-easterly made the boat difficult to control. With a thud and some creaking we hit a submerged mudbank, and were pinned on it by the wind for over two hours. Eventually we limped back to Nijhum after midnight, and a silvery lining appeared in the form of a Brown Fish Owl and several Large-tailed Nightjars in the bright moonlight.  

 

 

28th March 2010

Despite the success of yesterday’s visit to Dama Char, we felt that we had only managed to effectively cover a small percentage of the potential habitat and that we should return today. Ideally we would have stayed on Dama Char overnight, but we had all left bags at the guesthouse on Nijhum. Once again we were at the mercy of the tides and despite an early start couldn’t get over to Dama Char until the tide was too high to cross to the roost. Do or die as some say, Rob fancied the odds and packed his scope and bins into Alex’s holey (not holy) dry-bag for the swim across. An exhilarating experience, but the tide was already ebbing and the godwits on the move. Several Asian Dowitcher passed over his head mid-channel, but the task was to find Spoonies in the roost. Having to take utmost care not to flush the lot, Rob got to a good ‘scoping viewpoint for a majority of the sandplover and found a group of Sanderling, Curlew Sandpiper and Red-necked Stint just off to the side of them. A couple of birds feeding; Sanderling, Spoon-billed Sandpiper! But this was the only individual found out here, with most small waders already making their way towards the mud. A more accurate count from a better vantage point resulted in a maximum of 24,000 sandplover (mostly Lesser) and 8,500 Black-tailed Godwit. Alex was dispatched out further east and found more large areas of mudflat, on to which many of the godwit were landing. He returned counts of a dozen Asian Dowitcher with godwits and a roost of 14 Nordmann’s Greenshank. Having eaten virtually nothing for the last six days he was beginning to suffer, and couldn’t pioneer across the channels and onward across the deep mud for long. Jez headed back to the site of yesterday’s SbS and began counting, eventually Alex and Rob returned and joined the effort. A co-ordinated count led to the minimum number of Spoon-billed Sandpiper feeding at this location being increased to 23, though without managing to get around the circumference of the island there remains the possibility of further individuals being present undetected.  With the sun setting and us shuffling around on our knees watching several individuals of one of the most endangered birds on the planet gently pushing mud and sucking inverts all around us there was a tremendous feeling of pleasure. Right here, at this precise moment, all is right in this shorebird Mecca. A sobering thought then, that the minimum of 48 Spoon-billed Sandpiper we recorded this month represent by some estimates about ten percent of this unique species’ entire population.

The crew had learnt their lesson last night and stayed out in the safety of deeper water, so of course we had to walk that kilometre of thigh-deep mud we were so dismissive of yesterday. We’d given it our all, but this is a beginning rather than any kind of milestone.

Indian River Tern (AL)

waders (AL)

return of the Rob (AL)

 

Nordmann's (RM)

 

29th-30th March 2010

All that was left was to get to Tamruddin, on Hatiya Island, to connect with the launch to take us back to Dhaka overnight. Despite Jez and Rob spending several hours on the bridge foredeck not a single cetacean was seen.

Ferry terminal on Hatiya (AL)

 

We were welcomed back into Enam’s house at 08:30 on the 30th, with both Alex and Rob having planes to catch early the next morning. We rushed off into town to eat some pizza. Unfortunatley we could only manage to eat about one slice each before feeling really sick... pass the rice... There was just enough time to call a special meeting of the Bangladesh Bird Club, where we were able to rush together a quick selection of photographs to explain what we’ve been doing and why Spoon-billed Sandpiper needs coordinated conservation action right now. And just as importantly, to thank all those that went so far out of their way to help us out and made the trip possible, in particular Enam Ul Haque, Sayam Chowdhury, Indranil Kishor, Paul Thompson, MA Muhit, Farhad A. Pavel and M. Abu Yousuf.

 

sole team photo, morale was good, honest... (IK)