Vital habitats for endangered birds: Society calls for protection of Bako-Buntal Bay, Sejingkat coastline

Watching shorebirds next to a Chinese Egret — a vulnerable bird species. Photo credit: Ng Jia Jia

KUCHING, Sept 23: Shorebird researchers are urging the Sarawak government to protect the Bako-Buntal Bay and certain parts of Sejingkat as these are important roosting sites for migratory shorebirds.

Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) Kuching Branch pointed out that 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 Society 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).

According to the Society, all 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).

The Great Knots in flight at Bako-Buntal Bay. Photo credit: Ng Jia Jia

MNS Kuching Branch chairperson Rose Au said that the Branch has been carrying out annual bird counts since 2005 and today, they are very proud to have helped in publishing a research paper titled: ‘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.

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.

“The Paper was the first ever published on conservation of shorebirds in Borneo,” she said in a media release today.

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 2 and took the opportunity to use the grant to understand the importance of Bako-Buntal Bay for migratory shorebirds, to improve the conservation and management of the 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 revealed that 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. We need to organise 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.

The Far Eastern Curlew Numenius madagascariensis are among the threatened shorebird species spotted in Sarawak. Photo credit: Hans Hazebroek

Batrisyia emphasised 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 bird-watching along the Bay back in the late 1990s as one of its recreational activities for members.

From then on, as more interest and realisation on the importance of the site grew, the Branch started to do annual counts and document the visiting birds.

From the data gathered, Batrisyia 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 per cent of its global flyway population.

“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,” she added.

Another possibility is double counting, she said, but 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 which are birds with colour-coded identity tags according to the countries where they were tagged, such as birds from China, Russia, Japan and Indonesia had been spotted at Bako-Buntal Bay.

The Great Knot with a tag on its leg came all the way to Sarawak from Kamchatka, Russia where it was flagged. Photo credit: Batrisyia Teepol

MNS senior conservation officer Yeap Chin Aik highlighted that Bako-Buntal Bay is without a doubt the most important wintering and staging site for many waterbird species, some of which are highly threatened.

“MNS and BirdLife International have recognised this site as an Important Bird and Biodiversity Area (IBA) for Malaysia. With this recognition, we hope that more conservation work and resources will 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,” he said.

Dr Yong, 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 added that credit should also 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 interest in protecting the coastal sites which the birds depend on. — DayakDaily

(Clockwise from top left) Batrisyia, Au, Dr Yong and Yeap calling for protection of the coastline along Sejingkat and Bako-Buntal Bay as the flyway for migratory shorebirds.