Geoff Hilton is Head of Research & Chief Scientist at the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust. The work of Geoff and his team supports the conservation of numerous species including spoon-billed sandpiper, Madagascar pochard, Greenland white-fronted geese, red-breasted geese and common scoter.

The Gulf of Mottama is the ideal place to count spoon-billed sandpipers if you want to work out how the population is doing. It is home to the single largest congregation of spoon-billed sandpipers in the world.

However, as we found out earlier this month, it’s not without its challenges.

This is the third year I’ve visited with colleagues from UK charities to join Burmese ornithologists to survey for spoonies. Last year we counted about 150, which was really encouraging as the global population is thought to be just a couple of hundred breeding pairs.

This year wasn’t the same. This year we found out that the Gulf of Mottama changes… a lot! It must be one of the most dynamic estuaries in the world (this is a good thing: the estuary is not constrained by human infrastructure so natural processes hold sway). The main channel is constantly shifting, but every now and again it switches in a snakelike fashion from one side of the estuary to the other. As it crosses it wipes out all the topography – saltmarsh disappears and the mud is redistributed around the estuary. Soon, new saltmarsh starts to form but not necessarily in the same place.

As before, we were staying on local traditional fishing boats where we ate and slept for the duration of the survey. During low tide the boats sit on the mudflats, waiting to be lifted by the rising tide so they move on to the next spot. The local boatmen are skilled navigators. They repeatedly got us to the exact point we’d requested, with no GPS help! But this year they were finding the estuary an increasingly unpredictable place with new channels and changing water flows.

One day we set off on foot to survey a huge mudflat that we’d spotted on a satellite image. It was about 5km by 500m wide and looked ideal for spoonies. After an hour of walking through very muddy marsh in the hot sun, we arrived exhausted. We were more than surprised to find that the mudflat had completely disappeared. All that was there was a steep cliff at the edge of the marsh that dropped straight into the main channel. The satellite image we’d referred to was only two weeks old, yet the whole lot had disappeared.

As you’d expect, all this change made it very difficult to recreate the survey we did last winter. We found lots of birds but they weren’t the same birds that we found last year. We counted around 100 spoon-billed sandpipers compared with over 150 last year. Last year we found none of the birds ringed on their breeding grounds in Meinypil’gyno but this year we saw six. And while we found far fewer spoonies, we found three times as many redshank and six times as many curlew.

So what does all this mean for our efforts to conserve the spoon-billed sandpiper and other waders or shorebirds using the East Asian-Australasian flyway? Well, it seems the situation in Myanmar is more complicated than we knew. It was only eight years ago that colleagues discovered spoonies there, and it remains their biggest known wintering site, but it is a fiendishly large and complex site to work at, and we are increasingly aware of important numbers in other parts of the wintering range.

Already this winter, we’ve had reports of really significant numbers in neighbouring Bangladesh and also in South China. Perhaps our counts at Mottama aren’t going to help us determine the overall size of the spoonie population with any certainty. For that, we think we’ll need to focus on the Jiangsu coast in China where, we suspect, the entire populations of spoonies and many other birds stop off each spring and autumn. Counts and capture and marking exercises there are likely to provide a better picture.

Mottama and Myanmar still remain incredibly important and the presence of one leg flagged bird – Lime 24 – who was caught and ringed as a chick in Meinypilg’yno, resighted in Jiangsu and then again in Mottama, just goes to show how vital it is that each step on the flyway is protected. A few years ago, when my colleagues first found spoonies here, few ornithologists had searched the estuary.

Most Burmese ornithological efforts were focused on the forests, which are globally important. But one thing that was wonderful this year was to be alongside a new generation of young Burmese ornithologists learning survey methods (unfortunately for them, under fairly challenging circumstances!).

Back then they also found that vast numbers of waders were being caught and sold as food, often for very little money. It transpired that the poorer villagers along the estuary shore resorted to catching birds when they couldn’t support their families any other way. It was immediately obvious that this could be the end for the already beleaguered spoon-billed sandpiper. So straight away they set about trying to help these people to earn their living in a more sustainable way.

They organised micro finance schemes to help people set up businesses and trained people to use and sell their bird tracking skills to interested visiting bird watchers and ornithologists. Instead of catching and killing birds, they started watching them. Wonderfully, it seems to be working and the high numbers we found of larger waders such as curlew could, in part, be due to less hunting pressure.

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