04/12/2003
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Spoon-billed Sandpiper surprise

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Dave Parmenter's recent article on BirdGuides regarding his experience with Spoon-billed Sandpiper in Korea prompted me to document the circumstances of my own fateful encounter with one of the world's most extraordinary birds.

I was in Thailand in December/January 1988/89. I was 21 years of age and it was my first extended trip abroad. I had secured enough leave with my then employers, the British Civil Service, to allow me a holiday in what is still, for me, one of the most genuinely exotic locations in the world that I have visited. My companions on the trip were Pete Morris and Alan Lewis, friends from my student days at the University of East Anglia. Pete and Alan were beginning what for them was to be an ambitious six-month tour of Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. I only had one month. My two friends were at the start of their own overseas birding ventures and on their way to developing a reputation on the 'World Scene' as 'Robobirders!'

Indomitable, enthusiastic, knowledgeable, my two friends left me for dead at every turn. Wherever they went they always seemed to be one step ahead of me in the field; on one particular occasion I remember thinking they were just around the corner from me and I looked out to see them already half-a-mile away, disappearing into the distance across a baking hot paddyfield, ticking off the Citrine Wagtails and Lanceolated Warblers long before I got there!

For a week or two I struggled to find my own pace in the new environment. Although an avid birder and twitcher myself I was more used to chewing slowly over my birds and rather than keep pace with these two I opted out of the race and decided to skulk around more and look for my own 'quality' species.

Although I was slow on some of the resident, native Thai species I was pretty well versed in the Oriental migrants a lot of us go to Thailand for in the first place. While Pete and Alan burned off through the forest I would sometimes have a White's Thrush or a Dark-sided Thrush staked out for them when they got back, and with this I was pleased. Eventually, in the latter stages of the trip, we arrived at the northern Thai mountain of Doi Inthanon. I spent a great week there, getting to grips with some exciting phylloscs, Red-flanked Bluetails, several rare Asian thrushes, and a number of wonderful little birds by the names of White-browed Shortwing, Chestnut-headed Tesia, River Chat, and so on.

Pete and Alan, with their extended itineraries, decided to stop and take things easy at Doi Inthanon. With only three and a half days left at the end of my trip, I had to leave and break off on my own.

I can tell you now, for a 21-year-old still a bit wet behind the ears, the idea of travelling the length of Thailand on my own was a daunting one. I was particularly afraid of Bangkok and decided to make every effort to avoid it. (It seems silly now as I went back years later and 'hung out' for several weeks in Thailand's capital and found it a remarkable place.) Obviously it was the spur of birds that led me on — and one group of birds in particular, the waders. Long before the trip had got off the ground, in my reading up beforehand, seeing hundreds of sand plovers, Red-necked Stints, Long-toed Stints and Pacific Golden Plovers was high on my agenda. The best site to get a fill of these it seemed was Khao Sam Roi Yot — a National Park about three hours' drive south of Bangkok, part way down the Thai peninsula. Rumour had it (there was no internet caf├ęs in those days to surf the web for the latest gen!) that an English birder had found a Spoon-billed Sandpiper there a few years back and though I had no illusions I would see one, it had at least led to some exciting fantasies in dark nights in the rainforest!

I arranged a bus journey to take me south from Doi Inthanon, straight through Bangkok and dropping me off within 15 miles' hitching distance of the last place I would visit before returning to England. Khao Sam Roi Yot was hot and sticky when I arrived late afternoon, the most humid spot I had visited in a month of what up until now had been a fairly dry heat. There is little of event to record from the first evening. Exhausted from 36 hours' continuous travelling, I borrowed a tent from the park headquarters and set up camp in a small, forested area, zipped up well against mosquitoes, and crashed.

Apart from this little patch of forest (which I later found had a few phylloscs I hadn't already seen and an unspeakably brilliant Forest Wagtail), Khao Sam Roi Yot was open country birding: marshes, salt pans and beach, a stimulating change from the hill forest and heavily degraded mountain ridges I'd birded so far. Here, the mosquitoes only came out at night; by day I could wander freely with the minimum of baggage, wearing simply shorts and T-shirt, with bins, telescope and tripod slung over my shoulder — an English birder's dream of 'abroad'!

I did the salt pans first and 'ticked off' a few bits and pieces. I studied some sand plovers closely, and then looked out at a shimmering sandbar way off in the distance at what I could only think were a party of seven Great Knot. These weren't in the 'gen and I thought to myself that this would be a real coup if I could pull this one off...

It took almost two hours to traverse the network of channels, creeks and saltpans before finding myself on the beach within decent 'scoping' distance of what turned out to be, just as I'd hoped, seven Great Knot. What a finish to the trip I thought! In all my pre-trip preparations I hadn't spoken to anyone who'd seen Great Knot in Thailand (they are actually quite a regular visitor, probably reasonably numerous in some places) and, as I say, they hadn't been included in any of the reports.

Back then I was the proud owner of a 20–60 zoom Bushnell Spacemaster. I'd usually locate a bird in the scope on 20× and then, almost immediately, crank it up to 60×. I was staring at the knots on 60 right then, when I looked across to my right. About a hundred yards away, reposing in the afternoon sun, was a flock of maybe a hundred or so Red-necked Stints. "Great. I'll go and get a nice look at them."

I halved the distance between myself and the stints ("Thinking nice thoughts," as Dave Cotteridge once put it, in order to get closer), and I turned the scope down to 20× to orientate myself with the group and then, homed in on 60×. Some of the notes I'd brought to Thailand with me included photocopied articles from various identification literature, including several pages from Frontiers of Bird Identification on Red-necked Stints, condensing what was known of the identification features at the time. Working from right to left I was looking at these birds in perfect light, at close range, on high magnification, wondering whether they really looked squarer-headed, thicker-billed than Little Stints: less eye-ring or more eye-ring? Bird number one: well, maybe... bird number two: hmmm... certainly don't think I'd be much good at picking up an out-of-range winter-plumaged bird from what I can see... bird three... bird four...

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I hope you're still with me here. Imagine again the setting, with perfect light, close range, high magnification... I gently eased my scope left at bird number five and... well, how can I say this; how can I describe a moment that will probably stay with me forever as the single most astonishing event of my life! Remember how focused I was on the fine tips of those Red-necked Stint bills, and imagine if you will how it felt to see, beaming back at me at 60× magnification, the huge (well, it looked huge at such close range on that magnification), spatulate, diamond bill flaps of a winter-plumaged Spoon-billed Sandpiper! Not only was there a bill, but there was also, the hitherto unconsidered impression of a bird much paler, Sanderling-like, than the brown Red-necked Stints, with a 'mask' — a fairly 'fierce'-looking little thing glaring back at me down the tube. Incredibly, the creature was nonchalantly preening without a thought for the ecstatic observer watching it. The dimensions of the bill were emphasised at times by being superimposed against the whiteness of the ruffled breast. With my recent deprivation of sleep, certainly lack of food and water (those things scarcely mattered back then!) and the heat, was I hallucinating?

Spoon-billed Sandpiper (Photo: Katsuyuki Kon)

This, you may remember from my account of the Sharp-tailed Sandpiper at Ballycotton, is something that always pushes its way into the mind of a 'single-observer-viewing-a-rare-bird'. Certainly, with an enigmatic bird of this magnitude that little voice of doubt was bound to creep up sooner or later. Adding to the overall hallucinatory aspect of the sighting was the fact that, after just five or ten minutes' viewing (how the hell do you expect me to remember!) the bird got up, with no 'assistance' from me, and flew off, and off, and off, and way off into the distance where (I think) as a tiny, tiny speck, it landed on the very, very last saltpans, never to be seen again! What I will be eternally glad of, though, was what the bird did in the moments before it vacated the scene. Just as it finished its ablutions, it took a few steps forward, and took a scythe at the four Red-necked Stints in its way with what I noticed at the time, and there's only one word that describes it adequately, was a distinctly retrousse bill. Again, at the time, I had no idea that this was a Spoon-billed feature, and it wasn't until about four or five years later that I saw an article by Tim Loseby showing just this fact, on some birds he photographed in Hong Kong.

Not that I had to wait five years to be sure of what I'd seen! It was a Spoon-billed Sandpiper there and then — take my word for it. I can't recall much about the rest of that afternoon, but I want to add two things, directly or indirectly related to the event, that happened in the aftermath. That evening I returned to camp, and I don't know what it was but, suddenly, irrationally, hours after the greatest moment of my life, I was struck down with the most intense feelings of loneliness and vulnerability I had ever before encountered. Only 21, remember, it hit me with an intense impact, how far I was from home, how much I 'missed' friends and family. I was keeping a pocket cassette recorder at the time and the playback from that night makes for some pretty intense listening! Marooned in my tent, suffocating from the humidity, unable to sleep, the buzzing of the tropical mosquitoes outside took on a sinister Blair Witch quality and the merest leaf fall on my roof carried imaginations of horrific murderous intent!

I don't remember whether or not I slept that night at all. It doesn't matter. The trip was not to end on such a nightmarish incident. Next morning I took a look at the Khao Sam Roi Yot marshes (loads of Red-throated Pipits, a Pallas's Grasshopper Warbler, an Oriental Pratincole and Black-shouldered Kites) and then sauntered out, very relaxed, to The Beach. There was no-one in sight. None of the local villagers seemed to stray out to this spot, certainly not this afternoon. It was my last full day in Thailand, the end of my first trip abroad. There were very few birds in sight, with none of yesterday's stints or knot. A few sand plovers, a Terek Sandpiper — that was all. I was at the spot where yesterday's 'miracle' had occurred. I realised I had barely showered in all that time in Thailand. No-one about? I stripped off and offered my body to the Gulf of Thailand to wash away four weeks of dirt before getting on the plane the following day.

Already on this trip I'd experienced an occasion where, you know, when you've got a song in your head and you just can't let it go? There was a time at Doi Inthanon when I'd taken too many wrong turns down a forested ravine to try to locate a White-crowned Forktail and, as I plunged deeper and deeper into crisis, I felt, not only in my head, but in my whole body, the throbbing, pulsing baseline of one of my favourite songs of the time, by a band called The Cure. 'A Forest' — a hugely popular song with the group's fans, lasting about four and a half minutes in the original recording and 15 minutes, at least, during a live show I saw them perform in Birmingham. "The Cure play the hypnotic 'Forest' within and against a hallucinatory backdrop of verdant green," said the music press.

I hear her voice (the White-crowned Forktail!)
Calling my name
Sound is deep
In the dark
I hear her voice
Start to run
Into the trees
Into the trees

More throbbing bassline, and then:

Suddenly I stop
But I know it's too late
Lost in the Forest
All alone
The girl (the White-crowned Forktail) was never there
It's always the same
I'm running towards nothing
Again and again and again

Throbbing bassline to fade.

I got out of 'the Forest' after an hour's panic, when I found a road (several miles from where I had entered the trees) thanks to the sound of a distant, passing motorbike.

The Spoon-billed Sandpiper after-effects were, suitably, more euphoric. Another favourite band of mine at the time, Echo and the Bunnymen, four amiable scousers, had a tune called 'The Killing Moon', which is still, to this day, one of my all-time classics.

Under a blue moon I saw you
Your lips a magic world
Your sky all hung with jewels

I'll leave you to re-word this to fit the current moment. There I am, floating in the warm waters of the Gulf of Thailand — quite the warmest seawater I've ever experienced in my life — there's nobody else here. To my right and left, two huge limestone outcrops of the sort familiar to James Bond fans (one of his movies was filmed near here, but I can't remember which one: Man With the Golden Gun?), enclosing me in an amphitheatre, a world of my own. Sun, sand, sea, sky. And now, I don't care what people say they've experienced during classical music, the gorgeous, cascading guitar chords of the Bunnymen rising up and lifting me out of my body and high, high, above the Gulf of Thailand, such that I was that music, was that moment.

Next day I went home.

And so there it is... my Spoon-billed Sandpiper experience! I suppose I can finish by remarking on the incredible thing that was the British grapevine in the days before computers. Obviously I was full of myself when I got back, having 'found' what, as far as I knew, was only the second or third Spoon-billed Sandpiper for Thailand (there may have been more, I don't know, but it's what I thought at the time anyway). A genuine 'once-in-a-lifetime' event that holiday companies and showbiz advertisers are always trying to lull the gullible into. But I only told my local friends. It's not like I got on the telephone to brag about it. A week later, standing in the freezing cold at the famous Tesco's car park Golden-winged Warbler in Kent, I was approached by two different birders from different parts of the country who said to me: "You're that bloke who had the Spoon-billed Sand in Thailand, aren't you?"

Yep, it was me alright!

Supporting campaigns such as Saemangeum in South Korea will ensure that birders in years to come can live out their dreams as Graham did in Thailand. For more details about the campaign, go to http://www.wbkenglish.com/saemref.asp and to sign the online petition go to http://www.wbkenglish.com/petition01.asp.
Written by: Graham Gordon