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Spotlight: Monitoring shows the importance of Myeik Archipelago, Myanmar

Shorebirds have been intensively studied in some parts of the world, but much less so in other areas. Take Myanmar, for example: this country in southeast Asia has a continuous coastline of almost 3,000 km. It is a place with abundant intertidal mudflats and mangroves, yet, the importance of this country’s coastal wetlands was not documented until 20141. Even after the significance of this coastline was known, few of the intertidal sites or mangroves had any formal protection, in part because the in-depth monitoring needed to describe the site for protection hadn’t yet been done.

Now, thanks to work by Zockler and colleagues2, published in this issue of Wader Study, we know enough about this incredible place – in particular the Myeik Archipelago in southern Myanmar – to recommend protection. Their surveys found over 35,000 birds representing 32 wader species as well as gulls, terns, egrets and herons. Importantly these species included four globally threatened and eight near-threatened species. These data show that the area qualifies as a Wetland of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention.

The landscape of the Myeik Archipelago and one of the boats used for fieldwork. (photo: Christoph Zöckler)

Why did it take so long for this area to be surveyed? There are numerous reasons, but two practical ones are that the area is remote and there was a lot of area to cover. The region surveyed by Zockler and colleagues covered 620,000 hectares. To give some context, a perfect square-shaped hectare is 100 metres on every side. The grassy area inside a 400-metre running track is typically just over a hectare. Now imagine 620,000 running tracks or an area about the size of the state of Delaware. Now take that area and stretch it out in a narrow 5–10 km band of mangrove and mudflat about 250 km long.

It took eight separate surveys, conducted from December 2013 to November 2017, to cover the area and some key areas were surveyed repeatedly. Much of the area is covered with mature mangrove forest and is largely untouched by human interference. It must have been beautiful to see, but some parts of it were difficult to access for study. The intertidal flats consist of deep mud that is impossible to walk on. Local people use wooden sledges to move around, but that was impractical for large scale surveys. Instead, the researchers used small boats, most about 9 meters in length. These boats were sturdy enough to cross larger areas of water, even during rough seas, but still small enough to access shallow areas with shallow water.

Four to six shorebird observers worked and slept on these study boats along with a boat operator. In areas too shallow for the 9-meter boats to enter, the researchers used 3-meter fishing boats, hired on site, which carried two observers plus a driver.

Beyond the boats, binoculars and spotting scopes were needed to survey and identify the birds to the species level. Digital cameras were also used to capture images that could be magnified to identify species. Finally, modern technology was used to tag bird records with GPS coordinates through a mobile phone application.

The researchers recorded more than 35,000 water birds and point out that the Myeik archipelago might support even higher numbers since they were not able to visit all sites suitable for water birds in the survey area. Still, the surveys were enough to show that certain areas of the site are particularly important. For example, Sakhan Thit in the north and Bokpyin in the south alone hosted over 25,000 water birds, including several globally near-threatened species. The Bokpyin area had the highest concentration of globally red-listed species, and all six globally threatened species occurred there – some in significant numbers. For example, up to 60 of the globally endangered Nordmann’s Greenshank Tringa guttifer were counted during the study period. The critically endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper Calidris pygmaea was found at two sites. One Far-Eastern Curlew Numenius madagascariensis was observed among a flock of almost 2,000 Eurasian Curlews in the Bokpyin area – the first record of this species for Myanmar. Finally, a Crab Plover Dromas ardeola was observed among a flock of over 100 Gull-billed Terns north of Bokpyin, only the second record for Myanmar.

The Myeik archipelago is clearly important, but it is also under threat. Coastal development is the biggest danger because the archipelago is close to the booming city of Myeik. The southern town of Bokpyin is likely to expand too, threatening intertidal mud and sandflats, as well as the mangroves north and south of town. Hunting is another potential threat. Villagers in the area report that hunters set up their traps whenever there are flocks of about 1000 water birds.

What is really needed is formal protection for the region. The authors propose the creation of Ramsar sites within the area and the results of their research justify this designation. According to the Ramsar convention, any wetland which meets at least one of the Criteria for Identifying Wetlands of International Importance can be designated by the appropriate national authority to be added to the Ramsar List3. The surveys show that the Myeik archipelago meets four of the nine Ramsar criteria.

  1. The area harbours rare species including six globally threatened and nine near-threatened water birds.
  2. The area supports critical life cycle stages of species such as the Lesser Adjutant Stork Leptoptilos javanicus, which nests in all five sections of the surveyed area.
  3. The area supports more than 20,000 water birds (numbers from all five survey sections amount to over 35,000 waders, gulls, terns, egrets and herons).
  4. Finally, the area supports more than 1% of a global flyway population for several species as outline in Table 4 of the paper.

However, the researchers point out that, though a Ramsar designation would protect the key areas for water birds in the region, it might not cover the adjacent mangroves and other coastal habitats. They therefore recommend the creation of an overarching UNESCO Biosphere Reserve which would encompass the Ramsar sites as core areas.

If the researchers are successful in their proposal for conservation of the site, then this research is an example of how impactful shorebird monitoring can be. The site will, of course, need further monitoring. The researchers point out that current funding levels will not allow for annual surveys of the entire area and recommend that key areas be surveyed regularly to provide insights into populations trends and species responses conservation measures and ongoing threats and pressures.

Zockler and colleagues aren’t the only authors whose work highlights the importance of surveys and monitoring of shorebirds. Also in this issue of Wader Study, Colwell and colleagues report on monitoring at the local level to confirm the importance of Humboldt Bay, California, as a site of Hemispheric importance under the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network (WHSRN). On a larger scale, Hope and colleagues synthesize data from monitoring at a national level to update information on the population sizes, trends and distributions of 52 shorebird taxa that regularly visit Canada. This type of assessment for conservation prioritization was last done in nearly 20 years ago during the development of the Canadian Shorebird Conservation Plan.

Basic ecological monitoring sometimes gets the short shrift in a world obsessed with “new and shiny things”. Studies in this issue of Wader Study remind us that effective conservation can’t happen without knowing what is important, where it lives, what it needs to thrive, and whether or not interventions are working. Good old fashion monitoring gives us this information and remains important for shorebird protection at local, regional and national levels.

Add page numbers before publishing.

1. Zöckler, C., T. Zaw Naing, S. Moses, R. Nou Soe & T. Htin Hla. 2014. The importance of the Myanmar Coast for waterbirds. Stilt 66: 37–51.

2. Zöckler, C., S. Moses & Thu Lwin, S. 2019. The importance of the Myeik mangroves and mudflats, Tanintharyi, Myanmar for migratory waders and other waterbirds. Wader Study 126(2): 129-141

3. Ramsar. 2019. Designating Ramsar Sites. Accessed 11 Aug 2019 at: https://www.ramsar.org/sites-countries/designating-ramsar-sites and https://www.ramsar.org/sites/default/files/documents/library/ramsarsites_criteria_eng.pdf

4. Colwell, M.A., E.J. Feucht & C. Polevy. 2019. Winter abundance of shorebirds on Humboldt Bay, California, USA. Wader Study 126(2): 116-124.

5. Hope, D.D, C. Pekarik, M.C. Drever, P.A. Smith, C. Gratto-Trevor, J. Paquet, Y. Aubry, G. Donaldson, C. Friis, K. Gurney, J. Rausch, A.E. McKellar & B. Andres. 2019. Shorebirds of conservation concern in Canada – 2019. Wader Study 126(2): 88-100.

PDF is available for download here: https://www.waderstudygroup.org/article/12952/