Sarawak wetland a vital habitat for Asia’s endangered migratory birds

For a number of reasons, Bako-Buntal Bay and certain parts of Sejingkat have gained importance as breeding ground for migrating shorebirds

KUCHING : Shorebird researchers are urging the Sarawak government to protect Bako-Buntal Bay (BBB) and certain parts of Sejingkat as these are important roosting sites for migratory shorebirds.

These sites are part of the East Asian-Australasian Flyway, one of the world’s great flyways, for migratory waterbirds. It is also the first and only Flyway Network Site in Malaysia.

Annual surveys or bird counts carried out by the Malaysian Nature Society Kuching Branch (MNSKB) over the years showed an increase in the number of shorebirds, especially the threatened species, Far Eastern Curlew Numenius madagascariensis (EN) and Great Knot Calidris tenuirostris (EN). Besides that, two other threatened species that can be found at the sites include the Nordmann’s Greenshank Tringa guttifer (EN), and Chinese Egret Egretta eulophotes (VU).

All of these birds are categorised as Endangered (EN) under the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), while the Chinese Egret is considered as Vulnerable (VU).

Sarawak wetland a vital habitat for Asia’s endangered migratory birds
Great Knots in flight. – Pic by Ng Jia Jie

MNSKB Chairperson Rose Au said the branch has been carrying out annual bird counts since 2005. Today it is very proud to have helped in publishing a research paper entitled, Long-term count data demonstrate the regional significance of Bako-Buntal Bay, Malaysian Borneo, for wintering shorebird conservation, in the international research journal, ‘Wader Study’ recently.

 Great Knots with black over yellow flags, engraved 'AVF' (top), 'PH' (bottom) from Kamchatka, Russia. – Batrisyia Teepol
Great Knots with black over yellow flags, engraved ‘AVF’ (top), ‘PH’ (bottom) from Kamchatka, Russia. – Batrisyia Teepol

‘Wader Study’ is a renowned forum for wader related news, notices, advances in study techniques, expedition reports as well as comment and debate concerning shorebird research and conservation. Au said the Paper was the first ever published on conservation of shorebirds in Borneo.

(L to R) MNSKB vice chairperson Batrisyia Teepol, MNSKB Chairperson Rose Au, and Dr Yong Ding Li. – Pics courtesy of MNSKB
(L to R) MNSKB vice chairperson Batrisyia Teepol, MNSKB Chairperson Rose Au, and Dr Yong Ding Li. – Pics courtesy of MNSKB

Newly elected branch vice chairperson, Batrisyia Teepol led the paper with support from Dr Yong Ding Li, Flyways Coordinator at BirdLife International (Asia Secretariat) and branch members Daniel Kong, Ng Jia Jie, Jason Teo Jia Hong Teo and Au herself.

In 2018, Batrisyia received a funding award from the Conservation Leadership Programme and took the opportunity to use the grant to understand the importance of Bako-Buntal Bay for migratory shorebirds and to improve the conservation and management of Bako-Buntal Bay, as well as to promote the recognition of the area as an important migratory waterbird area. The study area also covered man-made ponds in Sejingkat.

Besides the groundwork along with support from birders from the branch, she also gathered data from the annual Asian Waterbird Census (AWC) Malaysia dating from 2005. In Sarawak, the AWC counts have been carried out annually by citizen scientists from MNS Kuching and Miri Branches. Waterbird counts under the AWC surveys are typically land-based and on foot, using telescopes and binoculars.

Batrisyia said the study pointed to the urgent need to give formal protection to the coastline along Sejingkat and Bako-Buntal Bay. “We need to ensure that there is a place for migratory shorebirds to feed and to rest,” she said.

Far Eastern Curlews in flight. – Pic by Hans Hazebroek
Far Eastern Curlews in flight. – Pic by Hans Hazebroek

“We need to organize and continue our engagement with local stakeholders ranging from the private sector to communities to establish long-term plans to manage these areas. At the same time, we need to forge collaborations with other countries where these birds normally breed or what we call as sister-site twinning to build capacity for migratory species conservation,” she explained.

Batrisyia explained that Bako-Buntal Bay is one of the best surveyed coastal wetlands for shorebirds in Borneo, but still little is known on the trends of wintering shorebirds, or within-season changes in shorebirds abundance.

The branch started carrying out birdwatching along the Bay back in the late 1990s as one of its recreational activities for members, she said. From then on, as more interest and realization on the importance of the site grew, the Branch started to do annual counts and document the visiting birds.

From the data gathered, she noticed that endangered species like the Far Eastern Curlew and Great Knot seeking refuge in Bako Buntal Bay and Sejingkat are on the rise although globally, their population is in decline. Another star bird is the Chinese Egret which is among the rarest egrets in Asia, and Bako-Buntal Bay supports 1.14% of its global flyway population.

Watching shorebirds next to a Chinese Egret. – Pic by Ng Jia Jie
Watching shorebirds next to a Chinese Egret. – Pic by Ng Jia Jie

“We can’t exactly explain what happened but possibly other areas along the flyway are losing their coastal areas and therefore, these birds have a stronger presence at Bako-Buntal Bay and Sejingkat today,” said Batrisyia.

Another possibility is double counting, she said adding that more research needs to be done at local and international levels to better determine the birds’ populations, migratory trends, threats and conservation opportunities.

Batrisyia said another interesting finding from the study was the sighting of flagged birds. This means birds with coloured-coded identity tags were flagged according to the countries where they were tagged, e.g. birds from China, Russia, Japan and Indonesia were seen at Bako-Buntal Bay.

Yeap Chin Aik, MNS Senior Conservation Officer with the MNS Secretariat. – Pic courtesy of MNS

“Bako-Buntal Bay is without doubt the most important wintering and staging site for many waterbird species, some of which are highly threatened. MNS and BirdLife International have recognized this site as an Important Bird & Biodiversity Area (IBA) for Malaysia. With this recognition, we hope that more conservation work and resources be ‘invested’ in the Bay to maintain its natural characteristics. We also hope that this IBA can bring together stakeholders from the State government to the local communities to safeguard this Sarawakian natural heritage,” said Yeap Chin Aik, MNS Senior Conservation Officer with the MNS Secretariat.

BirdLife’s Dr Yong Ding Li, who provided technical support to the project noted that the study confirmed Bako-Buntal’s Bay place in the Flyway. “MNSKB’s work confirmed our suspicions that the Bay is among Malaysia’s top sites for migratory shorebirds, and also stands out clearly in all Southeast Asia.”

Batrisyia thanked her mentors and supervisors, fellow birders from MNS, BirdLife International, Conservation Leadership Programme, Universiti Malaysia Sarawak, Sarawak Energy Berhad and Sarawak Forestry Corporation for their support in making the study possible.

Au also said credits go to the past MNS Kuching Branch chairmen and committee members for their passion and commitment in promoting bird watching among members and carrying out the annual shorebird count, which led to more interests in protecting the coastal sites which the birds depend on.

THE VIBES

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