Eighty-four spoon-billed sandpipers have been discovered in a coastal stretch of Myanmar, offering hope for saving the endangered birds, a conservation group said Thursday.
The discovery in early February comes only months after Russian researchers reported that numbers of the tiny birds — with speckled brow feathers and a distinctive spoon-shaped bill — had dropped 70 percent in the past few years in their breeding sites in Siberia and none had been seen this year in their traditional wintering sites in Bangladesh, Britain-based conservation group BirdLife International said.
The World Conservation Union lists the bird as endangered with only 200 to 300 pairs left in the wild.
The discovery of 84 birds wintering in Myanmar — only one of which appears to have come from Siberia — raises the prospect of breeding grounds elsewhere, BirdLife said. The birds' migration route takes them from Siberia down through Japan, North Korea, South Korea, mainland China and Taiwan, to their main wintering grounds in South Asia.
"This is an important piece of the jigsaw," Simba Chan, senior conservation manager at BirdLife's Asia Division, said in a statement. "If present trends continue, the spoon-billed sandpiper faces extinction in the next few years. If we are to save the species, we need to identify and conserve not only its breeding sites, but its migration stopover sites and wintering grounds too."
Spoon-billed sandpipers face a myriad of threats because of their complicated migration routes, from expanding shrimp farms and salt pans in Bangladesh to coastal development in China and South Korea. Their eggs are often eaten by foraging dogs and foxes in Russia.
Armed with historical records, satellite data and reports of sightings, researchers set out three years ago to search for other winter grounds for the shorebird in South Asia.
After finding nothing in India and only a handful of birds in Bangladesh, they turned to Myanmar, where they found the birds at Arakan in the Bay of Bengal, and Martaban Bay near the Thai border.
"It was a big relief that we finally have come close to solving the mystery of the wintering sandpipers," said Christopher Zockler, part of the international survey team that also included Thai, Japanese and Russian bird experts.
Zockler said spoon-billed sandpipers are just one of a string of rare birds found recently in Myanmar, putting it on the map of birders worldwide. Two years ago, experts found the only other known population of Gurney's Pitta outside of Thailand in Myanmar.
"Its coastlines have the potential for many more surprises," Zockler said, adding that his team talked with the government about designating protected areas where the spoon-billed sandpipers were found. "It hasn't been surveyed at all before and it's less developed. It's the last oasis in a very fast developing region."