A Guest Blog by: Sayam U. Chowdhury
The thin lines of melted water found their way to the sea by carving the thick white blanket of the Arctic ice, resembling an enormous atlas of a thousand crystal-like veins. The comb-shaped high hills at the horizon still had splits of snow at each depression between the rigid slopes, separating the dark-green and dull-brown mountain into blocks of newly emerged life.
The half frozen meandering rivers were gradually coming back to life in the presence of numerous ducks, mergansers, eiders and loons after the silent winter. These ancient inhabitants have faithfully returned to the tundra summer after summer to make love and reproduce. This lifetime view from the fully open window of the helicopter flying from Anadyr to Meinypil’gyno had unfolded a world of true wilderness that I have always craved to witness. It was not just a ride, it was much more – a quest to fulfill my dreams to contribute to saving a species, the one that I have been stalking for years back home thousands of miles away. After a 12-hours flight from Moscow to Anadyr and a 3-hours helicopter ride, I finally arrived at Meinypil’gyno in early June 2012. Meinypil’gyno is one of the remotest villages in the world, a small settlement on a long shingle of 50km spit in Chukotka peninsular at about 66° N 172° W, in Far East Russia.
As the helicopter landed in the heart of Meinypil’gyno, the snow that covered the village drifted up around the small houses. The whole village turned up, they say it’s a matter of great joy when a helicopter visits from the outside world, which can only fly in during the few and rare shiny days of spring and summer. Our Russian friends warmly greeted us with salted salmon and native drinks. Soon after, we sorted ourselves into small temperature-controlled cottages on the eastern side of the village, adjoining a firmly frozen river.
It was spring in the tundra, concealed under the snow for months – the dwarf Crowberry shrubs finally found a way to thrive over the harsh winter and suddenly there was sign of life everywhere. Fog-free days unveiled the mist over the mountain and the miasma over the ocean, enabling us to look for the browsing Brown Bear on the mountain slope and the spouting Grey Whale at the estuary. We got to see both while sitting on the gravel spit or with a cup of tea idling at the wooden balcony, taking advantage of the 24- hours daylight. The migration was at its peak, thousands of migratory waterbirds were flying over the tundra touching the ocean; we carefully checked for the odd American ones heading to Alaska.
A few of our team members had already seen the first Spoon-billed Sandpiper, feeding vigorously along the newly exposed mud of the Third river after travelling around 5,000 miles from Bangladesh or Myanmar via China or South Korea. Not seeing the bird at the first place, did not gripe me much as I was already overwhelmed with everything happening around us – the tough life of the Chukchess, the sincere wilderness, the magical land by the sea and the mountain; and our dedicated team fighting to save a species from extinction. As the spring slipped by, the sky and sea turned bright blue, the tundra turned into a carpet of flawless colors and the mountain at the distance turned into an aloft giant green monument.
By then, most of the Spoon-billed Sandpipers had arrived; we were keenly waiting for them to begin marking their territories, and establish pairs. Our days started at dawn with a brief breakfast and then walking along the tundra to find the singing and displaying Spoon-billed Sandpipers. We walked around 10 to 12 kms a day in the bitter cold and howling wind to locate their territories, we did take breaks in between, sometimes to catch our breath or to flee from a passerby bear and sometimes to have lunch with Russian chocolates sitting beside the blue-watered lake or on the pink dome of the mountain-dwelling wildflower called the Moss Campion.
After a few full days of constant search over the flat and bent tundra, I was finally able to see a pair of Spoon-billed Sandpiper just a few feet away! They looked different, the pale brownish-grey body now replaced with brilliant rusty reddish colorations, as if they reformed their outfits into a bright bridal appearance to attract each other just like us! After being close to these brilliant birds in Bangladesh, Myanmar and now in Russia, it felt like I have finally completed a great journey in my life and found the unicorn that I have always yearned for.
This expedition to the Russian Chukotka was one of the most challenging missions to collect a few of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper eggs as very few chicks are currently surviving to adulthood, taking a small number of eggs from the wild will not have a great impact on the adult breeding population. These collected eggs will be hatched and reared in a special Spoon-billed Sandpiper conservation breeding facility, located in the UK.
The captive population, of around 30 or more birds collected in two seasons, will allow us to better understand the ecology of the species and how to conserve it in the wild. These birds will also be used to supplement the wild population if numbers fall too low to be sustainable. Equally they could be used to reintroduce the species if it goes extinct in the wild. Hopefully this will never be necessary!
For this sacred ambition we worked day and night, knowing the menace of being eaten by a bear or getting lost in the taciturn tundra – we repeatedly looked for the Spoon-billed Sandpipers and their eggs with profound passion. While searching for them, I saw the Sandhill Crane dancing over the golden hill, the Artic Hare feeding gracefully on ripe crowberries under the crimson sky, the Artic Fox cunningly intruding in the Vega Gull’s nesting colony utilizing the faint evening light and the Brown Bear preying on Salmon along the snow-melting stream. We did manage to collect several eggs and carried them back to Moscow in an incubator and then straight to the UK, where they are now spending their winter and summer days.
And thus our expedition to save a species ended with an enteral beginning. I then returned to Bangladesh with different dreams, hopes for a new era and a worn blue stone from the tundra. The imprints of the unfathomable wilderness will endure in me endlessly. Some say being close to unbroken-nature makes us stronger, enlightens us with the truth and others say it’s a pathway for self-discovery. I reckon, it’s a legacy towards freedom and we need to keep on fighting to save it for ourselves.
Meet my guest blogger, Sayam U. Chowdhury 🙂
Assistant Coordinator – Spoon-billed Sandpiper Task Force, Birdlife International & Principal Investigator – Bangladesh Spoon-billed Sandpiper Conservation Project
Sayam is one of the best friends a Spoon-billed Sandpiper could ever have. Through the years, his dedication as a person and a conservation biologist to make a difference and save this amazing species is truly admirable. I got acquainted with Sayam through LinkedIn and later contacted him via Facebook. This is when I started my discovery of his work, his writing and beautiful nature photographs that simply capture the essence of the natural world. I feel very fortunate that he has kindly shared this special piece of writing with us. My sincere thanks!
Watch this video to learn more about the Bangladesh Spoon-billed Sandpiper Conservation Project or LIKE them on Facebook
Photo Credits: Sayam U. Chowdhury