Monday, 31 March 2014

Saving the Spoon-billed Sandpiper Part 1

What could be more important than seeing birds?

Saving birds…

I am proud to call myself a “Bangla Birder”. My Mum and her parents are from Sylhet District, Bangladesh. It’s a beautiful country sitting in the Ganges Delta, between India and Myanmar (Burma). I’ve been to Bangladesh quite a few times and have birded at Lawachara Forest and Baika Beel both near Srimangal. I’ve also birded around Dhaka and loved birding at Jahangirnagar University. We were really lucky to have Israt Jahan, an amazing Bangladeshi birder, show us around.

Birdgirl Mya-Rose Craig at Lalakal, Sylhet, 
Bangladesh, February 2011
Photograph taken by and copyright Helena Craig

Birdgirl Mya-Rose Craig at Lalakal, Sylhet, 
Bangladesh, February 2011
Photograph taken by and copyright Helena Craig

Birdgirl Mya-Rose Craig at Lalakal, Sylhet, 
Bangladesh, February 2011
Photograph taken by and copyright Helena Craig

In February 2011, Mum and I also met Sayam U Chowdhury in Dhaka. He was running the “Bangladesh Spoon-billed Sandpiper Conservation Project” and Dad had brought over a couple of telescopes and tripods from Birdlife International that had been donated by Viking for the project. We met at a fancy café in Gulshan, an up-market part of town. Sayam was bringing another birder, Shimanto Dipu, with him.  We were late arriving (is my mum ever not?) but I knew instantly who they were, because they just looked distinctly “birder-ish”.   

Dipu told us that he was off to Tangua Haor for 6 months, a huge wetland in Sunamgonj, on the northern border with India, that is important for wintering wildfowl. My Mum and Dad had visited there in 2000 with my big sister, Ayesha, and had seen the incredibly rare Baer’s Pochard. I really want to go there, especially as my Nanabhai’s cousin lives there.

Bangladesh is one of the countries that Spoon-billed Sandpiper migrate to in the winter from Russia. They are critically endangered and there were less than 100 pairs left in the world. The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust website is really interesting:

The website says that all the Spoon-billed Sandpiper together weigh less than a mute swan.

Spoon-billed Sandpiper in Bangladesh
Photograph taken by and copyright Baz Scampion

Spoon-billed Sandpiper in Bangladesh 
Photograph taken by and copyright Baz Scampion

In 2010, “Punk Birders” had helped Sayam carry out a survey in Southern Bangladesh, when they found 45 Spoon-billed Sandpiper. Their report from the trip is at:

I knew all about the survey and their finding so many Spoon-billed Sandpiper, but sitting in the café on that day was the first time that I had heard about the actual project. It sounded ambitious, but just what was needed to hopefully save the Spoon-billed Sandpiper. Dad had arranged to do survey work near Cox’s Bazaar with Sayam in March 2011 and was meeting him later in the week at Bangladesh Bird Club. Mum and I were really disappointed not to be going, but I had to be back in school. It was very exciting to hear about the plans. During Dad’s two day trip, they recorded 22 Spoon-billed Sandpiper and 1 Nordmann’s Greenshank.

Spoon-billed Sandpiper in Bangladesh
Photograph courtesy of Bangladesh Spoon-billed Sandpiper Conservation Project Facebook Page

Cox's Bazaar, Bangladesh, March 2011
Photograph taken by and copyright Chris Craig

Sayam U Chowdhury at Sonadia Island, Bangladesh, March 2011
Photograph taken by and copyright Chris Craig

Chris Craig and Sayam U Chowdhury with villagers on
Sonadia Island, Bangladesh, March 2011

Copyright Chris Craig

Bangladesh now has lots of younger birders, which is encouraging. A few of them are Sayam, Dipu, Israt, Samiul Mohsanin, Mohammed Foysal, Rajib Rashedul Kabir, Mushfiq Ahmed, Monirul Khan, Tania Khan, Onu Tareq and Monwar Hussain Tuhin. It is really important for the future of birds in Bangladesh that people are interested in them and their environment.

There have been two expeditions to Russia to start a breeding programme. They surveyed the breeding area looking for nests, collected the eggs, then brought most of them back to WWT Slimbridge Head Quarters, UK to hatch. The population at Slimbridge is mainly there just in case the species becomes extinct in the wild. It has also eased the immediate worries about their survival, leaving time to sort the things that are so bad for the Spoon-billed Sandpiper population. Now a small flock of Spoon-billed Sandpiper are living in a specially built aviary in WWT's Slimbridge head Quarters. This summer, they plan to breed the captive birds, take the eggs back to Russia and release the young chicks.

Spoon-billed Sandpiper in Summer plumage, Russia 
Photograph courtesy of Bangladesh Spoon-billed Sandpiper 
Conservation Project Facebook Page

Illegal hunting in Spoon-billed Sandpiper’s wintering grounds were killing young birds before they bred. Now they have talked to the people in the villages who were just trying to catch the bigger birds to eat but were catching Spoon-billed Sandpiper by accident. The project therefore gave the villagers money so that they could buy boats and nets as long as they agreed to stop hunting birds. But then sometimes people came from other villages to hunt, so the people in the main village had to enforce their hunting ban. This part of the project was called “Hunting Mitigation” and included educating the villagers and children.

Meeting with local villagers to educate on hunting mitigation
Photograph courtesy of Bangladesh Spoon-billed 
Sandpiper Conservation Project Facebook Page

Working with local children to educate them about Spoon-billed Sandpiper
Photograph courtesy of Bangladesh Spoon-billed Sandpiper 
Conservation Project Facebook page

In October 2012, Sayam came over to Britain and stayed with us. He is now my Mama, which means mum’s brother. Sayam was invited to visit WWT Slimbridge to meet the team he had worked with in Russia over the summer of 2012. He was also invited to see the Spoon-billed Sandpiper chicks and was kind enough to take me in with him. It was amazing to see these young birds, knowing that they were a high proportion of the entire world’s population. Hopefully, this summer some will have chicks that make it into the wild.

Spoon-billed Sandpiper chick at WWT Slimbridge
Photograph courtesy of WWT Slimbridge

Spoon-billed Sandpiper chicks at WWT Slimbridge, Gloucestershire, UK (without a flash)
Photograph taken by and copyright Young Birder Birdgirl Mya-Rose Craig

Spoon-billed Sandpiper chicks at WWT Slimbridge, Gloucestershire, UK (without a flash)
Photograph taken by and copyright Young Birder Birdgirl Mya-Rose Craig

Spoon-billed Sandpiper chicks at WWT Slimbridge, Gloucestershire, UK (without a flash)
Photograph taken by and copyright Young Birder Birdgirl Mya-Rose Craig

Spoon-billed Sandpiper chicks at WWT Slimbridge, Gloucestershire, UK (without a flash)
Photograph taken by and copyright Young Birder Birdgirl Mya-Rose Craig

Spoon-billed Sandpiper chicks at WWT Slimbridge, Gloucestershire, UK (without a flash)
Photograph taken by and copyright Young Birder Birdgirl Mya-Rose Craig

We had a great day at Slimbridge meeting Nigel Jarrett, Roland Digby, Martin McGill and Baz Scampion.

Martin McGill in Russia
Photograph courtesy of WWT

Roland Digby in Russia
Photograph courtesy of WWT

Nigel Jarrett, Helena Craig, Sayam U Chowdhury with Birdgirl Mya-Rose Craig, WWT Slimbridge, 
Gloucestershire, UK, October 2012
Photograph taken by and copyright Chris Craig

In the next 5-10 years, the Spoon-billed Sandpiper could still be extinct if we don’t help.

I have interviewed two people to explain their input in the “Saving the Spoon-billed Sandpiper” project, Nigel Jarrett and Sayam U Chowdhury.

Interview with Nigel Jarrett, World Wildfowl Trust’s Head of Conservation Breeding

Nigel Jarett in Russia
Photograph courtesy of WWT

Why did WWT choose Spoon-billed Sandpiper to save, above other endangered species?

Well, as you know there are many critically endangered water birds and all need urgent conservation measures to ensure their survival. In 2010, the Spoon-billed Sandpiper was heading towards extinction rapidly... the population was declining at a rate of 27% each year. At the time, it seemed that low survival of young birds through hunting, as well as habitat loss on its wintering sites (in Mynamar and Bangladesh) and stop-over sites along its migration routes to the shores of these countries was driving the decline and so it seemed that extinction would occur with in a few years.

We knew there was a good chance we could reduce hunting pressure by helping hunters find alternative food sources and that wintering and staging sites could be protected. We just needed time (a few years) to implement measures. However, time was short and we needed to buy time for Spoon-billed Sandpiper to ensure survival. To ensure that extinction was not an option during the period of time needed to protect the species and its habitat, we established a Conservation Breeding Programme.

At the beginning of 2014, the captive population comprised 25 birds living in specially-designed biosecure aviaries in Slimbridge. We hope and beginning this year that through a carefully managed breeding programme, the size of the flock will be built up to the point where some eggs can be transported to the Russian Far East, to be hatched, reared and released on the breeding grounds.

We were so successful at hatching eggs and rearing chicks on the tundra in 2011 that in 2012 we started a 'head-starting' initiative in-situ, in Russia. Head-starting involved hatching Spoon-billed Sandpiper eggs in incubators and raising chicks in brooders in Meinypil’gyno. Young birds were then marked with uniquely coded leg-flags and placed in a large predator-proof aviary on the tundra, before releasing them when they could fly at approximately 23 days. Head-starting was attempted because high levels of predation are known to result in each pair of Spoon-billed Sandpiper producing only 0.6 young per year. We demonstrated in 2011, that we could raise an average of 3 young, reared per clutch, of 4 eggs. Furthermore, by collecting 1st clutches for head-starting, aviculturists expected overall productivity to be increased by chicks raised by parents, laying replacement clutches.

Head-starting was also considered worthwhile because hunting mitigation in Myanmar and Bangladesh was beginning to show significant progress by the beginning of 2012. The East Asian-Australasian Flyway Partnership Spoon-billed Sandpiper Task Force estimated that as many as 80-90% of hunters in the Bay of Martaban, Myanmar (the most important wintering site in the world for Spoon-billed Sandpiper) had signed an agreement to stop hunting and surrendered their trapping equipment in return for small grants to buy fishing equipment. Reduced hunting could be expected to improve juvenile survival over a short time and by increasing the number of fledglings in the population, recovery would be quicker. In 2012, 9 chicks and in 2013, 18 chicks were head-started and in both years, post-release monitoring showed the birds migrated without problems. In November 2013, three sightings of head-started birds were received from stop-over and wintering sites in Asia. One bird was seen on consecutive days on a salt pan near Bangkok in Thailand, and another bird was seen on a fish pond in Fucheng, southern China. An adult male bird, known to have produced a total of 6 chicks in 2013 (3 chicks that were ‘head-started’ and another 3 from a second brood) was seen on a disused salt-pan at Khok Kham on the Inner Gulf of Thailand. Head-starting shows great potential to boost the wild population!! Fingers crossed!

What has been your involvement in the Spoon-billed Sandpiper project as WWT’s Head of Conservation Breeding?

My involvement has been to devise, implement and improve all the methods to establish the conservation breeding population at Slimbridge and the Head-starting work in Russia, including buying all the gear needed, overseeing the building of aviaries etc and recruiting and training the avicultural team to do the work. I came up with the idea to 'head-start' Spoon-billed Sandpiper in 2011 after hatching all 19 viable eggs we collected, in less than ideal conditions. I had to convince others it made sense to do this though - not everyone immediately saw it was a fast-track way to increase Spoon-billed Sandpiper numbers (i.e. it could do what a Conservation Breeding Programme could only aspire to do in 3-5 years). I went to Russia in 2011 and 2012 to collect eggs and raise chicks. Right now, I and others are preparing breeding aviaries at Slimbridge and for the 2014 trip to Russia.

Interview with Sayam U Chowdhury, who runs the Bangladesh Spoon-billed Sandpiper Conservation Project

Sayam U Chowdhury in Russia
Photograph courtesy of WWT

How did you get involved with the Spoon-billed Sandpiper Project?

I did my undergraduate thesis on the status and distribution of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper in Bangladesh in 2009 with a very small grant from the Explorers Club.

What is happening to help Spoon-Billed Sandpiper?

Our attempt to save the critically endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper can be divided into two major parts - 1) Conservation breeding and head-starting in the breeding grounds ( and 2) Hunting mitigation, outreach and conservation of mudflats in the wintering and staging grounds, Bangladesh being an important part of that. 

How are the problems in the Spoon-billed Sandpiper wintering grounds being solved?

In 2010, we discovered a big flock of Spoon-billed Sandpiper on Sonadia Island in Southern Bangladesh. We also uncovered a significant problem with hunting of Spoon-billed Sandpiper by local villagers, which lead to the completion of the Hunting Mitigation Project. This provided alternative livelihoods to the hunters so that they could stop their hunting of waders. We are now conducting regular surveys in key Spoon-billed Sandpiper sites along with large scale awareness campaign in Bangladesh.

How long do you think we will have to support Spoon-billed Sandpiper for?

It is difficult to estimate a timescale. However, we will keep on doing what we are currently doing until the population starts to increase to a satisfactory level. Actually, it’s not just about the Spoon-billed Sandpiper but about all shorebird (wader) species along the East Asian-Australasian Flyway, which are now in danger. 

Why is it so important to help the Spoon-Billed Sandpiper?

Spoon-billed Sandpiper can be seen as a flagship species of inter-tidal wetlands. If we can save it, then we will be helping all the other species using the same flyway. This will bring harmony to the coastal wetland and will benefit us.

Spoon-billed Sandpiper in Bangladesh
Photograph courtesy of Bangladesh Spoon-billed Sandpiper Conservation Project Facebook Page

Mum, Dad and I are planning to go to Bangladesh in February 2015 to help Sayam with Spoon-billed Sandpiper survey work and also to visit the Sundarbans to try and see Masked Finfoot. If we have time, I would like to search for Baer’s Pochard at Tangua Haor.

There is a page on Facebook for the project, which conserves habitat, raises awareness and secures alternative incomes for former Spoon-billed Sandpiper hunters:

When I am old enough, if it’s still needed, I’d like to go and do head-starting work in Russia, but hopefully it will no longer be necessary by then and the Spoon-billed Sandpiper would have been already saved.

Friday, 21 March 2014

Birdgirl Mya-Rose Craig - My Bucket List

Well, the title says it all. I have to mention that it was an incredibly difficult task to narrow it down to the top 10 things, if I want to I can ramble on for days about stuff I want to do, but here it is anyway (Take note that it’s in no particular order):

  • See 5400 species of bird - A couple of years ago my goal was to see 3000 species of bird, but now, having achieved that, I decided to set my sights higher; 5400 species would be roughly half the species of birds in the world;

  • Visit Antarctica - It would be amazing to go to one of the only places in the world that’s practically untouched by humans, so it remains stunning and pristine. Imagine it… “Hey where did you go for Christmas?” “Oh, you know, I went to Antarctica.”  It also helps that it would be my last continent to visit, so I ‘need’ to go!;

Photograph taken by and copyright Dr Robert Lambert,
Lecturer in Environmental History and wildlife expert

Photograph taken by and copyright Dr Robert Lambert,
Lecturer in Environmental History and wildlife expert

Photograph taken by and copyright Dr Robert Lambert, 
Lecturer in Environmental History and wildlife expert

  • Go trekking in the Himalayas - There is spectacular wildlife like Snow Leopard and Snowcocks, but to be honest I think it would just be amazing generally, think of the view;

Snow Leopard, on Naturetrek's amazing "Ladakh - 
A Snow Leopard Quest" Tour
Photograph taken by and copyright Fritz Polking courtesy of Naturetrek,

My dad, Chris Craig, on his way to see Himalayan Monal,
Nepal, April 1996

Photograph taken by and copyright Dan Cole, Bird Artist

Chris Craig, on his way to see Himalayan Monal,
Nepal, April 1996

Photograph taken by and copyright Dan Cole, Bird Artist

Chris Craig, at site for Himalayan Snowcock, 
Nepal, April 1996 
Photograph taken by and copyright Dan Cole

Dan Cole, talented Bird Artist, sketching the Himalayan Snowcock he had just seen for Birds of the Indian 
Subcontinent, Nepal, April 1996
Photograph taken by and copyright Chris Craig

Annapurna Range at Himalayan Snowcock site, 
Nepal, April 1996
Photograph taken by and copyright Chris Craig

Annapurna Range, Nepal, April 1996
Photograph taken by and copyright Chris Craig

  • “Finish” Australia - I have only been to Queensland. Well not ‘only’, but you know what I mean;

    Chris Craig at Sydney Harbour in 1993 
    (with funny looking dreadlocks!)
    Photograph taken by and copyright Marc Lee

    • Learn to dive – I have been snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef, which was fantastic. Whilst I was out there, people were diving and I wanted to be able to do it, but I was too young at the time. It would be brilliant to learn to dive and maybe I’ll even get a chance to in Borneo;

    Michaelmas Cay, Outer Great Barrier Reef,
    Queensland, Australia, July 2013
    Photograph taken by and copyright Helena Craig

    • Get a British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) ‘C’ licence for bird ringing (bird banding);

    Marsh Tit ringed in our garden, March 2014
    Photograph taken by and copyright Birdgirl Mya-Rose Craig

    • Go white-water rafting - I laugh at the image of mum falling off in my imagination, so think how funny it would be in real life;

    • See all the species of hummingbird in the world - One of my favourite families I have seen almost half of them so far, there are 337 species and I have seen 156;

    Rufous-crested Coquette, Amazonia Lodge, 
    Peru, July 2012
    Photo taken by and copyright Chris Craig

    • Go to the Galapagos - Think of all the amazing species there, and also I want to see the tortoises; and

    • Volunteer for an expedition to an ‘only just discovered’ island to help identify new species - Loads of really cool people like Steve Backshall have done this on TV.

    Photograph of Steve Backshall, chosen for my mum 
    Photograph courtesy of Steve Backshall website

    Monday, 10 March 2014

    A Day in the Life of Birdgirl Mya-Rose Craig...

    The only bad thing about the day was that I had to get up ridiculously early. Who gets up at 6 o’clock on a Saturday morning? Though to be honest, I wasn’t as tired as I was the weekend before when I was forced awake at 7 o’clock. I didn’t even fall asleep on the way to ringing this time. When we got there, Mike Bailey, whose house we were ringing at that day instead of the ringing station, had already put the nets up which was really nice of him. We waited for a while before we went out, but when we checked the nets I suspect my grin overlapped the edges of my face, to say it plainly, there were a lot of birds!

    We slowly and steadily worked through the masses of birds we had caught. While Mike was the scribe, Dad did the ringing and I was the one that let them go. One of the things I learnt was that Goldfinches are really hard to age and sex, you have to peer at their wings in dim light and examine their heads as they blink innocently, as if they have no idea how annoying they are. 

    Birdgirl Mya-Rose Craig with a Redwing at Chew Valley Ringing Station, January 2014
    Photograph taken by and copyright Chris Craig

    Birdgirl Mya-Rose Craig with a Redwing at 
    Chew Valley Ringing Station, January 2014
    Photograph taken by and copyright Chris Craig

    By the time we had finished dealing with the first round, half an hour had passed and it was time for round two. Amazingly, somehow, we had caught even more birds! By this time Dad and Mike had decided it was time for me to play scribe, deciding to ignore my warnings of messy, illegible handwriting. Someone who has never had to write the correct things in rows and columns while having different things shouted at them and people sometimes missing things out, can have no idea how hard it is. Also certain people (Dad *nudge*) mumble incorrect things when they’re trying to figure out what it really is, probably for the main purpose of frustrating the scribe e.g. muttering ‘6-male’ when actually they mean ‘4-female’. 

    People who have never held a garden bird probably imagine that their small, dainty bills can’t hurt at all, even if they did bite/peck/try to pull your finger off. Well, I feel it is my duty to tell you that this is false information and that I have no idea where this lie hatched from. Blue Tits and Great Tits are the worst, they have a bad habit of finding the tender bits on your fingers and are also extremely aggressive for a bird of their size. Or a bird of any size actually. (On Birdgirl’s sliding scale of bird aggressiveness levels they get 11/10). I bite my nails so my fingers are always quite soft and sore, making them the perfect target for the little monsters. Sometime birds are so intent on biting you that they don’t notice when you let them go for several seconds. A perfect example of a Great Tit’s violent and intelligent personality was when I let one go; just as it was about to fly away, it turned around and gave me a good long bite before gliding smugly away.

    Birdgirl Mya-Rose Craig with a baby Blue Tit 
    at Chew Valley Ringing, May 2014
    Photograph taken by and copyright Chris Craig

    Anyway, back to the subject. By only the third round we were exhausted, Mike and Dad were probably about to collapse from lack of caffeine, even if they didn’t show any outward signs. I was nearly glad when Mum came to pick me up to take me to a birding workshop for Young Wardens at Avalon Marshes Centre on the Somerset Levels.

    In typical Mum style, we were late. I knew absolutely no-one and (though my friends and family deny it) I can be extremely shy. The workshop was led by Stephen Moss, who I suspect has been to our house to visit a friend housesitting, that or one of his books in our house was mysteriously signed by the ghost of a Dodo. First we did bird calls and songs (S.M. must be a mind reader because they are my Achilles heel).  He helped us by showing clips from ‘Birding with Bill Oddie’, explaining it was basically the predecessor to ‘Springwatch’. S.M. tried to describe Bill, by saying that if David Attenborough was a concert pianist then Bill Oddie was a jazz musician. David goes along with the script, does everything perfectly and thousands of people watch him, while Bill kinda makes it up as he goes along, sometimes making funny mistakes. I could never choose between the two, they’re both awesome.

    Stephen Moss

    After that we went on a walk, with S.M. pointing out birds and wildlife of interest. Bill Urwin came along as well and pointed out interesting fungi and beetles. As we walked, we watched and listened out for any wildlife. At one point we heard a Great-Spotted Woodpecker drumming and spent ages trying to work out where it was, before realising it was just on the back of a tree. As everyone strolled along, they chatted about everything from world birding to the fungi Bill had just shown them. We had lunch in a hide whilst watching the water for birds. We were lucky enough to spot Great-Crested Grebes starting to dance their dance before drifting off into the reeds.  We also we managed to get our bins onto a kingfisher as it whizzed away.  Just as we were finishing our lunch, another one flew past, perching briefly before flying away to find food.

    On the way back, Bill and S.M. picked up a Bittern booming over our over-loud chatting. It was lovely to hear after listening to the less distinctive and more confusing warbler calls.

    When we all got back to the centre, S.M. decided that we should do a quiz with 10 bird calls. Before I tell you my score, remember:
    a) Bird calls are my Achilles heel;
    b) S.M. actually said after the first 3, that they weren’t the greatest recordings.

    So my score was… *drum roll*

    Actually, I’ve decided not to tell 

    So anyway, after that we watched more clips from ‘Birding with Bill Oddie’.  My favourite clip was where Bill was looking for a Corncrake.  I liked it so much that I’m putting the link below (but skip to the last bit at 2 minutes 50 seconds):

    From Birding with Bill Oddie

    After that it was time to go home and Mum and S.M. had a nice long chat in a grannyish kind of way (yes she is a granny). When Mum and I got home she was slightly concerned that Dad wasn’t home yet.  It turned out that there had been so many birds whilst ringing at Mike’s house that he hadn’t left until late afternoon!

    I didn’t do any more birdy stuff, but in the evening I did go to see the school play ‘Much ado about nothing’.  It was really funny but they talked about cows, bulls and horns too much for my liking.  (I know it has nothing to do with birds, but figured you’d want a full account of my day).  Because of the play, I went to bed later than usual.  The next morning, I had to get up ridiculously early.  Who gets up at 3 o’clock on a Sunday morning?  Even if it is to twitch a Chinese Pond Heron…

    Birdgirl Mya-Rose Craig with a teal at Chew Valley 
    Ringing Station, with a Teal, September 2011
    Photograph taken by and copyright Chris Craig

    Birdgirl Mya-Rose Craig with a Long-tailed Tit at 
    Chew Valley Ringing Station, October 2011
    Photograph taken by and copyright Chris Craig