Graham Chisholm and the Spoon-billed Sandpiper

In October last year I posted a series on the Critically Endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper. Part Two of the series featured an interview with Christoph Zockler of ArcCona Consulting in which he asked that if anyone wishing to go on a planned shorebird survey in Myanmar should contact him.

Graham Chisholm, the Executive Director of Audubon California, read the interview and decided (pretty much there and then, so he told me at the time) to contact Christoph and fly out to Myanmar. I’m absolutely thrilled to say that Graham has written a short report for me which is posted below (and check out the extraordinary and probably unique photo he sent!)

The plight of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper – I think it’s fair to say – has not been widely highlighted outside Europe and Asia in the past, but having someone of Graham’s stature and reach involved with protecting this charismatic and severely threatened species is fantastic news. It’s certainly not for me to suggest how Graham or Audubon should continue this involvement, but having worked to spread awareness of the very immediate threats to this and many other shorebirds in East Asia for many years I am just genuinely very excited that there is an opportunity now for birders across North America to understand just how serious the situation facing this beautiful bird really is…



Spoon-billed Sandpiper Survey
Graham Chisholm, Executive Director, Audubon California


In late January an international expedition organized under the auspices of BirdLife International surveyed for Spoon-billed Sandpipers in Myanmar (Burma). The group of Burmese, Europeans and Americans survey portions of coastal Myanmar in the Gulf of Martaban seeking to document the wintering locations for this ultra-rare sandpiper.

I joined the expedition’s last four days when we surveyed a small offshore island in the northern end of the Gulf of Martaban just off the communities of Bilin and Kyaikto. Over the course of these two days, we spotted at least 71 Spoon-billed Sandpipers among more than 35,000 shorebirds. The site is extraordinary. Each morning we would arrive when the salt marsh and mud flat island was still under the high tides, and as the tide dropped large numbers of shorebirds would show up including Greater and Lesser Sand Plovers, Pacific Golden and Kentish Plovers, Curlew Sandpipers, Marsh Sandpipers, Greenshanks, Redshanks, Rufous-necked Stints along with many other species.

These surveys were part of a coordinated effort to survey Myanmar for the third winter. Over the course of several weeks other sites in Myanmar were also surveyed, and 89 Spoon-billed Sandpipers were observed.

The global population of this Arctic-nesting sandpiper is now estimated to have dwindled to an estimated 120-250 pairs. The bird’s extraordinary population drop set off warning bells following a 2005 survey that estimated the total population as under 1,000 – dramatically down from an estimated 6,000 in the 1970s.

BirdLife International has been sponsoring a series of surveys on the breeding and wintering grounds, including three years of surveys in Myanmar which has emerged as holding the most wintering birds. Dr. Christoph Zöckler with ArcCona Ecological Consulting, and organizer of the surveys, estimates that the Gulf of Martaban alone, may hold 150-200 birds or 50% of the world’s population. Small numbers of Spoon-billed Sandpipers winter in Bangladesh (15 were observed in early 2010), Thailand (a minimum of six were observed in early 2010), Vietnam and China.

Confirming the wintering locations will allow conservationists an opportunity to take action to seek to protect the aggregation sites and work to reduce identified threats, particularly bird trapping.


hunter releasing spoon-billed sandpiper
Photograph copyright Rob Robinson/BTO. Used with permission.


The surveys were also able to confirm that bird trapping is a significant threat in the Gulf of Martaban. The team encountered a hunter who had just caught a Spoon-billed Sandpiper and was holding it in a small cage. Fortunately the hunter agreed to allow the survey team and local children to release the bird!

The recent success on Nan Thar island in the Arakhan region in Myanmar where conservationists were able to acquire the hunting rights for one season for under $400USD is an example of the types of agreements that will need to reached with local communities. A social economic survey team covered the same area and will provide important information to help craft strategies to provide alternative sources of income that will reduce trapping of shorebirds in key Spoon-billed Sandpiper wintering sites.

The Gulf of Martaban survey in Myanmar also spotted two colored banded Spoon-billed Sandpipers that had been banded on the breeding grounds in the South Chukotka region of Russia, the adult bird was at least nine years old.

The international survey team that conducted this survey was part of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper Recovery Team with members of ArcCona Consulting, Cambridge and the British Trust for Ornithology, UK, from Birds Russia, and participants from Germany, Canada and U.S., teamed with and well looked after in Myanmar by local BirdLife partner BANCA.


How you can help the Spoon-billed Sandpiper? Please email Graham Chisholm, Executive Director, Audubon California at to learn more.



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About the author

Passionate about animal welfare and conservation, veggie and dairy-free, I live in the Wiltshire (UK) countryside. I co-founded Birders Against Wildlife Crime and Birds Korea. Trustee of the League against Cruel Sports On Twitter @charliemoores

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