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Pak Thale and Spoon-billed Sandpipers

Sometimes I question my sanity. Here I was, halfway around the world, standing next to fields of salt. I wasn’t lost, I intended on arriving here at some point. But did I really need to come to Thailand to feel desiccated?

The answer in this case was almost essentially yes. If you are a birder, enjoy shorebirds (by enjoy shorebirds I mean you have a masochistic side), and want to seek out rare birds, the coast south of Bangkok isn’t a bad spot. Among a multitude of species that winter here is the famed Spoon-billed Sandpiper (Eurynorhynchus pygmeus). This is largely what we were after. We had rented scooters and here we were at the Pak Thale Salt Pans 30km from Phetchaburi.

I would love to weave a yarn about how we toiled for hours to see a Spoon-billed. Soiling ourselves with exertion and impromptu romps across the the salt pans. But we didn’t. We’d hardly walked an hour before suddenly there one was.

I was doing the shorebird photographers squat, my butt flirtatiously dusting itself with mud and paying little attention to anything beyond a Common Redshank. I might not have noticed if not for Ryan’s calm, constant tone (a good counterbalance to my fly off the handle gurgling): “There’s a Spoon-billed.” This was one of the rarest birds I’d ever see in my life, probably the only time I might ever see one again (in some ways a sad thing as much exciting). But then another one flew in. They were probably 100 feet away, lit perfectly, and I took 300 photos.

Seeing one was plenty but two was fantastic. People come specifically to see them here and leave only with a silhouette, 1 mile away, and with half feral salt pan dogs hanging from their ankles. To put the numbers in perspective, in Myanmar someone had 18 birds in one spot and this was the biggest collection of this diminutive but strange bird that’s been found in recent years, (in 2009, 63 individuals were recorded for the entire winter in Myanmar)

Spoon-billed Sandpipers breed in extreme Northern Russia. Mature birds apparently spread all about the coasts of Southeast Asia and somewhere down the line people figured out Pak Thale was a good spot to see them regularly. When I say they are critically endangered, I mean that they are probably hovering at around 1000 individuals for the entire world population and could wink out in 20 years or less. With a sedentary species, this is an optimistic number because steps can sometimes be taken to stop further decline (be it saving remaining habitat or creating a breeding program). Spoon-billeds migrate and spread over a great deal of land, most bits of their wintering and stopover habitat is being reclaimed for industry. The added facts that Spoon-billeds are very specialized in where they breed (lagoon spits with low vegetation) and probably never had huge numbers doesn’t help.

In the next two days we say gobs of shorebirds and most of them were new for me. Birds people see somewhat regularly back in the states, like Bar-tailed Godwits to a bird I’d only seen once, when I skipped class to drive to Ocean Shores, a Temminck’s Stint. Some, birders would leave their dearest loved one on their death bed to see, like a Spotted Redshank.

What I find hilarious in all this is that when people typically see these birds, no matter how fascinating, elegant, and darn right tough they are: they are in their basic plumage. Basic as in winter, as in non-breeding, as in duller than shit to the unappreciative eye. People go into debt to see certain shorebirds when they show up in the wrong place in bland form! If ornithologists wanted to choose a flagship group of birds to induce panicked public donations for conservation, I’m sorry, it wouldn’t be even the Spoon-billed Sandpiper.

This is possibly why global warming awareness campaigns use a Polar Bear instead of a Red-necked Stint. Polar Bears are white all year round, have been swimming too much lately, and were in Coca-Cola commercials. Red-necked Stints just run off for half the year and chill on the beach in Thailand, Australia, or anywhere in between (take your pick). If you asked someone if they’d ever seen a Red-necked Stint on the street, you’d get an narrowing of eyes that people reserve for someone publicly soliciting sexual favors. If you asked them about Polar Bears, they’d happily tell you they saw them in a coke commercial in the 90s. To be clear I think it’s deplorable that the Coca-cola company, possibly a major contributor to global warming, has used this poor animal for ads.

But let’s face it, shorebirds are extraordinary. Bar-tailed Godwits are the record holders of the longest distance of sustained migration (between the Yellow Sea and New Zealand non-stops). Many shorebirds (or waders, if you are from anywhere else but ‘Merica) show reverse sexual dimorphism, meaning the female bird runs the show and often is the more colorful, striking plumage. They are little birds that may fly from Siberia to Australia and back again in a year. They deserve your admiration, even if you only know them as those little birds your screaming, naked, offspring chases after on the beach, or you avoid looking at in your bird book because they give you migraines.

What’s more, many are in solid decline. There are huge numbers of reasons. As I mentioned above, changes in the great land up North related to global warming have wrought problems for breeding birds. In the South things like shrimp farms and the ever spreading disease of beach side resorts hold responsibility. Pollution never helps, especially when many heavy industry is situated near significant estuaries, full of tidal mud flats shorebirds require for feeding at both ends and between. The challenges go on and on.

The bottom line for this post was that I came and conquered in Petchaburi Province. Another tick on the list right? Well, that got me the envy of many I know, but I think that’s about where it stops. I’d like people to think about these birds, their struggles of habitat loss at both ends of travel, and maybe do something about it. At least tell your screaming, naked, child as they let it all hang out in pursuit of a flock of startled Sanderlings.

And please, give some real coverage a look if you want more than my inanity on 10,00 birds!

(Quick travel update: I’ve seen 228 life birds so far on this trip, my person list for the trip is at 245.  Quite a few cool mammals, reptiles, and insects.  Internet access was limited and I visited another National Park, Kaen Krachan, between Pak Thale and this posting.  A general collection of the photos thus far here.  Next up? Sumatra!)

5 Comments

  1. Adam Sedgley

    SPOOOOOOOON-BILLLLLLED SANNNNDDPIPPPERRRR! WOO-HOO! While I regret that I can no longer hold this tick in my life list over your head, I am delighted, albeit morosely, that you can share in the excitement of seeing this species before they go extinct. Seeing one was truly a highlight of my life, birding and otherwise. Shorebirding down there is incredible: I didn’t want to leave. Any Nordmann’s Greenshanks.

    And don’t take this the wrong way, but you misspelled “Temminck’s”. Have a killer time in Sumatra!

    • Brendan

      No Greenshanks but I put in considerably less effort than Ryan. Yeah….oh well Typos happen, I will fix it. It was a truly awesome spot!

  2. Pingback: Update; Pak Thale, Thailand « The Spoon-billed Sandpiper World

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