“WADER QUEST: stage in Thailand and UAE”

Rick & Elis are two compromised birders who have decided to devote their lives to the birds and now have embarked on a new project “Wader Quest” dedicated to raise awareness about the necessity of protect waders worldwide. In this report we explain in detail … Support them!!

© Rick & Elis Simpson

In your Facebook profile you make the comment that everything you do is related to birds in one way or another. For how long have you felt this dedication to birds and birding?

–    Rick: In my case I have been birding all my life, as long as I can remember. The intensity and influence birding has had on my life has grown as I have got older.
–    Elis: I have always had an interest in nature and especially plants. To be honest, when I first met Rick I thought he was a little crazy, a bit over the top with his birding. Don’t misunderstand me, I loved birds, but they didn’t organise my life for me. However, Rick’s enthusiasm is infectious and in the end I have become as dedicated to leading a birding lifestyle as he is.

What is Wader Quest and what was the idea behind promoting a project dedicated to waders?

–    Wader Quest itself started purely as an attempt to see as many of the world’s waders as we could in a year. It evolved from there to become what it is today, a rather more outward looking project concerned with raising the profile of waders in the eyes of the world and highlighting the threats and challenges that many of them face today throughout the world.

Why do you think that waders are such an incredible group of birds?

–    It is a combination of factors; they can be a challenge to identify, they occupy a niche that is often overlooked and often thought of as being simply waste land but to us these habitats are exciting and evocative; moorlands, intertidal coastlines, inland marshes, even deserts, they are all exciting places to be. Many of them make long and hazardous migrations, and one of the amazing things about them is that the adult birds in many species leave their juveniles on the breeding grounds to fend for themselves and then migrate unaided, incredible! These tough little birds are survivors and deserve our admiration and respect.

The fascinating phenomenon of wader migration involves passing through several countries: How does this affect the conservation of their populations?

–    Each country has its own attitude towards wildlife and conservation, and this will obviously be reflected in the treatment that wild places and the birds that inhabit them receive. The spoon-billed sandpiper makes a good example of the problems that can be faced. It breeds in the remote Siberian tundra were it is relatively unmolested by mankind. It winters down in Bangladesh, Myanmar and Thailand. In Thailand they are also relatively safe, more due to apathy than any particular conservation effort; however in Myanmar and Bangladesh they will often be hunted for the pot. This is not targeted hunting, but they can be caught along with many other more common birds such as red-necked stint for example. This problem can be solved to a large degree with a bit of effort and is being addressed. But, let’s assume that the birds are safe in both their wintering and breeding grounds, none of this will mean anything if their stop over points along the flyway are destroyed. They will not survive the migration if they have nowhere to rest and recoup their energy levels. In the case of the spoon-billed sandpiper a huge part of their flyway is in China, and the Chinese government is committed to a strong development programme which involves the land claim of intertidal zones. This is critical to the survival of the spoon-billed sandpiper and any successes in the breeding and wintering grounds will be worthless if these zones are lost.

In your project you travel through several countries around the world. How are these trips financed? What are your plans to develop the project?

–    At present all costs for the project are being met by us. We did hope that we may find a business that supported what we are doing who may want to sponsor us, or some wealthy philanthropist, but to be honest we have been unsuccessful so far. If we were to attract a significant backer then the project would take on a whole new perspective in relation to the travelling, if we are to pay for it all, then there will obviously be a limit to what we can achieve.
–    Once the actual quest is over after the year is up we hope that the name Wader Quest will continue to be associated with promoting waders and we will try to find other projects in which we can be involved in some way.

How are you organising the project in the countries you are visiting?

–    We have tried to recruit volunteer national co-ordinators and in the case of large countries regional ones too. We have asked these people, who have good contacts and working knowledge of their country and its foibles, to help us try to develop the awareness raising side of the project. To be honest, so far we have had mixed success. In Thailand we were unable to find a volunteer to help us and the general advice we received was that we were wasting our time anyway. Except for two people, none of the contacts we were given even responded to our emails. We have had much the same reaction from The Gambia. On the other hand, in Australia and New Zealand where we will be visiting in January and February, in the USA where we go next, in South America which we will visit at the end of the quest and also in the UAE where we were recently we have received tremendous support. In South Africa they have gone one better, they have created a facebook page called the Waderquest Watch South Africa that follows our every move. It is tremendously humbling to have this support and a bit of a responsibility too.

Part of your campaign is focused on funding the captive breeding programme of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper, an endangered bird. What is the current status and conservation of wild populations?

–    The spoon-billed sandpiper is classed by the IUCN as critically endangered. Much study has been made of the population of the spoon-billed sandpiper. It is estimated that there may be as many as 400 individuals, but that the breeding population is less than 100 pairs. The captive breeding programme is designed as a safety net, should the bird become extinct in the wild at least there will be a captive population that could potentially, should conditions be favourable, be reintroduced into the wild. No captive breeding has yet taken place, we are still holding our breath to see what ratio of males to females are in the captive stock, this year should be very interesting and I expect the team running the project at Slimbridge must be very anxious to make the project a great success, we wish them well of course.
–    At the same time, in Russia, they are taking eggs from wild nests and hatching them in incubators. The success rate of a wild nest is less than one chick per nesting attempt, the incubated eggs have a survival rate of around 85%. These young birds are then raised in large aviaries in the tundra and released into the wild in time for them to migrate south, bolstering the wild population.
–    In south Asia the work is continuing to stop the hunting through contact with the local hunters and their chiefs in the coastal villages and some success has already been achieved, particularly in Myanmar.
–    The problem of China and the flyway protection is another story, and international efforts are in place to try and persuade the Chinese government of the importance of their involvement in the saving of this species.

What efforts are being made through your project and the captive breeding programme to save the species from extinction and where can donations be made?

–    The conservation effort to save the spoon-billed sandpiper we have outlined above and our project is not involved in the captive breeding programme directly. We are simply trying to raise money to help finance it. We may not in the end raise a significant amount of money, so far we are a little disappointed by the response, many hundreds of people have voiced their support for the project, but so far we have had less than 20 donations. We are not asking for a lot of money from any one person, just a little from everyone who cares about the spoon-billed sandpiper. Anyone who wishes to contribute to the saving of this enigmatic bird can do so via our website http://www.waderquest.org by clicking on the button ‘click here to donate and help to save a spoonie’ (top right). We would like to emphasise that every penny or cent donated (donations can be made in a variety of currencies including British Pounds, Euros and US dollars among others) will go to the captive breeding programme and none will be used to pay for our trips or other expenses.

How important is eco-tourism to local economies and the conservation of birds?

–    We believe it is very important. we always carry our binoculars when we are travelling (except in places where it is unsafe to do so) so that the local people know that we are there to see birds. Hopefully they’ll make the connection between us paying them for a meal or other services and the presence of the birds and this will lead to them keeping an eye on the birds to make sure they remain unmolested so that more people come to see them and in turn spend their money.
–    Some bird tour companies have a healthy attitude towards conservation, others not so much but it is up to the clients to decide whether this is important to them or not, it is not our place to preach, just persuade.

In this report you show us pictures of your last trip to Thailand and UAE. Tell us more about it …

–    Where do you start? Thailand was such a fascinating place, we loved it. Of course it was very important for us to see the spoon-billed sandpipers which we did, but we were not expecting it to arouse such emotion in us. We had one defining moment when we were sat on a dyke by a saltpan and a spoon-billed sandpiper came and sat not 15m from us. We didn’t dare breathe what a privilege to be so close to such a bird. As if that wasn’t enough a second bird came and joined it and as we were filming them a third ran across the dyke, even closer to us, but it didn’t stay long. That moment will live with us forever. Of course Thailand has much more to offer the wader lover and we saw 36 species of them in the time we were there. Apart from the spoon-billed sandpiper other highlights were seeing Nordman’s greenshank an endangered species and grey-headed lapwing; Vanellus plovers are truly lovely, elegant birds. It will be hard to beat the experience of birding the sand spit at Lampakbia by boat and seeing four species of Charadrius plover in the binoculars simultaneously, Kentish, Malaysian, white-faced and lesser sandplover, the white–faced of course being probably the most interesting due to its taxonomic history and recent rediscovery.
–    It was Vanellus plovers that were again to prove significant in the UAE, with both the white-tailed lapwing and the critically endangered sociable lapwing being seen, but as a spectacle the flock of crab plovers we encountered was truly memorable.

To finish, a question on behalf of our photographer readers: What equipment do you use, and what message would you give to the photographers of birds?

–   It is Elis that takes our photographs so she should answer this one.
–   Elis: I use a Canon 50D with a stabilised 100–400mm f4.5-5.6 lens. I am a recent newcomer to the world of bird photography, so I am not sure I can offer any useful hints or tips, indeed your readers may well be able to give me some, but my message would be this. Try not to let your photography become competitive, enjoy it and learn as you develop. The important thing is the birds, that is why we are there, so enjoy the bird, enjoy the moment and when you see photographs vastly superior to your own, celebrate the other person`s success and enjoy the image that they have had the good fortune to produce and ultimately share with you, be inspired by it, but do not envy the person that took it.

Interview by. J. M. Escarabajal (Birding Murcia)


The images that appear in this article are the property of Rick-Elis Simpson is necessary to request permission to the author for publication or any other use of the same.