Wednesday, October 23

Preserving the wintering sites of migratory birds

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A flock of mixed waders at
Bako-Buntal Bay.

THERE are more than 10,000 species of birds around the world, covering almost every continent, with different forms and functions, habitat types, behaviours and appearances.

While the diversity of birds has displayed some of the most incredible abilities in adapting to the Earth’s most extreme environments, it has also proven its importance to the natural ecosystem.

Bako-Buntal Bay, about 40km from Kuching city, is known as one of the most important wintering sites for migratory waterbirds. It was designated as an Important Bird Area (IBA) in 2007 and nominated by the Sarawak government in 2013 as an East Asian-Australasian (EAA) Flyway Network site under the East Asian-Australasian Flyway Partnership (EAAFP).

On Aug 23, 2013, the bay was officially listed as the first EAA Flyway Network site in Sarawak and managed by the Sarawak Forestry Corporation (SFC).

With an area of over 2,800ha, the site which excludes two national parks and part of the remaining brackish forest reserves, stretching from the tip of the Santubong peninsula to the mouth of Sadong River, has been recognised as a significant sanctuary for migratory birds.

The presence of a large number of winged migrants – some globally threatened – has been recorded there.

Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) volunteer Batrisyia Teepol did a one-year internship under the Conservation Leadership Programme (CLP), researching and documenting migratory shorebirds at Bako-Buntal Bay to shed light on issues concerning transient water birds and the possible threats they face.

Capturing the landscape on camera to identify the shorebirds at Buntal – Photos courtesy of Daniel Kong

The zoology graduate from Miri told thesundaypost her survey site comprised Buntal Bay (an area under Sector 5 on the west coast of Sarawak) and Sejingkat Ash Pond (under Sector 7) – two areas with the highest density of migratory bird species.

“From the documented data, the total counts of birds were 17,481 in Sector 5 and 12,083 in Section 7. The numbers more than double the total sectors’ at other key sites. This clearly shows both Sectors (5 and 7) have proven to be important for supporting more water birds compared to the other sectors,” she said.

The Chinese Egret, Lesser Sand Plover, Nordmann’s Greenshank, Common Redshank, Whimbrel, and Terek Sandpiper have been spotted at Sector 5 while the Lesser Sand Plover, Bar-tailed Godwit, Far Eastern Curlew, Whimbrel, Eurasian Curlew, and Terek Sandpiper have been sighted at Section 7.

Batrisyia said it was crucial that the species, adopting the bay as a migratory site, had been listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as either as vulnerable or near threatened or endangered.

Batrisyia with pupils from SK Bako.

Based on the IUCN’s Red List, the Nordmann’s Greenshank (Tringa guttifer) and the Far Eastern Curlew are two of the endangered migratory species, while the Bar-tailed Godwit and the Eurasian Curlew are near threatened, and the Chinese Egret deemed vulnerable.

 

Endangered species

The Nordmann’s Greenshank is also known as Spotted Greenshank. Similar to the Chinese Egret, it has a small population and usually breeds in Eastern Russia and possibly the western part of Kamchatka.

Its non-breeding ground range has been recorded to be in the passages of China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea, while it winters in Bangladesh, Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Malaysia.

According to BirdLife International (2019), data collected from the species’ breeding grounds show the population is declining rapidly with the number of mature individuals estimated between 600 and 1,300.

Research also shows the species has been greatly affected by the reclamation of tidal mudflats and estuaries for industrial, aquaculture, and infrastructure development purposes.

The Far Eastern Curlew (Numenius madagascariensis) is listed as endangered by BirdLife International. New information suggests its population is fast declining due to habitat loss in the Yellow Sea region between mainland China and the Korean peninsula.

The species is known to breed in Eastern Russia – from the upper part of the Nizhnyaya Tunguska River through the Verknoyarsk mountains to Kamchatka and south to Primorye and north-eastern Mongolia.

Batrisyia (front third left) with teachers and pupils of SK Bako.

Its wintering grounds include Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, New Zealand, and China. Among its recorded passages of migration are Brunei, Bangladesh, Japan, Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Singapore.

The Chinese Egret (Egretta eulophotes) is vulnerable, according to the IUCN Red List. Based on BirdLife International estimates, the number of mature individuals ranges between 2,500 and 9,999.

The species’ breeding grounds include the east coast of Russia, South Korea, North Korea, and China while its non-breeding grounds range from Taiwan, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Japan, Peninsular Malaysia, Sarawak, Singapore, Indonesia, and Brunei.

The reclamation of estuarine habitats, tidal mudflats and offshore breeding islands for development has affected the roosting areas of the Chinese Egret, causing its population to decline.

Possible threats

Despite being listed as the EAA Flyway Network site, the Bako-Buntal Bay is not legally protected from any development, as Batrisyia has discovered.

“The mangrove forest around the site comes under the Sarawak Mangrove Forest Reserve. As for the Bako National Park, it was gazetted in 1957, covering the whole northern part of the Muara Tebas peninsula.

“The Sejingkat Pond, on the other hand, is a rectangular pond used for dumping coal-ash by the Sejingkat Power Station. The ash pond is under the jurisdiction of a private entity.

“Once the pond is filled and no longer maintained, it becomes overgrown and the birds can no longer roost in the area.

“The main threats at the ash pond area include noise pollution from the nearby power station, creating disturbance to the much needed peaceful environment for the birds. As for Buntal Bay, offshore trawl-fishing can have an impact on the ecosystem,” Batrisyia explained.

A Chinese Egret seeks food in the wetlands.

Observations

According to her, the concept of global shorebirds migration can be broken down into two elements – extraordinary amount of distance to travel and abundance of food.

Shorebirds migration is often due to cold weather and the passage of migrating southwards is mainly to look for a food source.

While it’s too cold in the northern part, food is usually in abundance in the southern part.

“The birds usually have to fly thousands of kilometres just to get to their non-breeding grounds. And along the way, they’ll have to stop for food and to recharge their energy. One of the stopover sites will be Malaysia,” she said.

The increase in human activities stems from the expansion of the human population. Activities such as deforestation, land reclamation, illegal logging and poaching are threatening wildlife, and worst can affect the human population as well. Sadly, there is a slim chance of seeing the end to these activities.

Batrisyia said based on Wetlands International (2019), severe degradation and loss of wetlands due to rapid economic development had resulted in the loss of safe feeding and roosting grounds for migratory shorebirds.

“Ultimately, as a naturalist and author Scott Weidensaul wrote in his article – ‘Losing ground: What’s behind the worldwide decline of shorebirds’ – in September last year, removing the food source will hit the whole shorebirds migratory system and cause it to collapse.

“If the shorebirds face extinction, it can only mean we have lost our coastal areas which are an important food source. The chain reaction will be the disruptions of the Russian Tundra ecosystem and the Southeast Asian mudflats. The latter will hurt the population of crustaceans such as shells, prawns, mussels and crabs.”

 

Education is key

Batrisyia feels it’s important to educate the local communities to protect migratory birds by conserving the environment, particularly the non-breeding grounds.

She said the uniqueness of migratory birds was that they migrated twice a year – first to the non-breeding grounds, then the breeding grounds, adding that they had to travel great distances to seek food and refuge from the cold weather.

“Thus, it’s crucial for the countries within the migratory flyway to make an effort to protect these birds.

“I had chosen several villages within the vicinity of the Bako-Buntal Bay to communicate with the locals and help them understand the situation from the correct perspective.

“It wasn’t easy but fruitful to have been able to educate the villagers, especially the young ones, on the importance of these birds to the ecosystem. It’s good for them to learn about the birds’ existence and ecology.”

During her internship, Batrisyia gave a talk on shorebirds awareness to 38 Primary 6 pupils of SK Bako, helped organise bird-watching workshops, and followed up on visits to Kampung Goebilt and SK Goebilt to hold community awareness talks.

Her internship focused on shorebirds in the Bako-Buntal Bay area and their migratory sites during the non-breeding season.

Apart from identifying shorebirds and conducting roosting surveys, guided by Daniel Kong, an experienced birder and MNS Kuching member, she was attached to BirdLife Asia in Singapore under Dr Yong Ding Li, the policy and advocacy manager.

Batrisyia said the amount of knowledge he acquired through observation and discussion with Yong was “beyond what I could have learnt from books – and it’s really precious”.

What she learned made her appreciate the importance of conservation and the role of conservationists, saying the work done was very important to preserving the environment and the species of migratory birds.

“It’s also a reminder that humans and all the animals should co-exist in a good way, making the Earth a better place,” she added.