Sandpiper, Spoon-billed

Calidris pygmea

I was very fortunate to see and photograph this very endangered small Sandpiper. It breeds in North-east Siberia and winters south from Korea on to Thailand, and perhaps Malaysia. Quite likely, due to habitat loss along its migratory route, there are only about 2000 birds left. My Guide, Par, found only two individuals amongst a large flock of Little Stints, Kentish Plovers and Lesser Sand Plovers. They were at least 70 yards apart and did not acknowledge each other. This bird can only be distinguished by its spatulate bill, and often from the side, it cannot be properly identified. When sleeping with bill tucked away, it looks like all the other Waders it tends to mix with. Apart from its bill, you will note that it has tiny eyes.

Photographically, this was a real challenge and I had to stack my two Teleconverters to obtain the necessary magnification. Bright light and luck played its part for me. I ended up spending over 4 hours lying on the salty mud-flat observing them, and when the one I was concentrating on stretched its wings and flew away, I truly felt sad and wished for its safety, realising all of a sudden that we may never see one again.

I was able to photograph two in 2008 but could not get close. However, in 2012 Bob Steele managed to crawl along the banks of the salt flats and get much closer than before. I copied his technique the following morning. This time there were three of them foraging at the break of dawn. Luckily for me, two of them did wander towards me as the sun rose. I spent a wonderful 2 hours or so watching them that morning.  Hopefully, this small increment of number I witnessed (2 to 3) augurs well for them.