[Guy Anderson continues telling us about the February expedition to train colleagues in Myanmar and survey spoon-billed sandpipers on their wintering grounds]

A bleary start after experiencing the ‘peace’ of the Burmese countryside overnight – loudspeaker Buddhist prayers, barking dogs, snoring of my compatriots, the owlet in the trees overhead that just wouldn’t shut up, and then at 4am? A train. We had no idea there was a railway anyway near here. But oh yes, there is! Finally the morning wake-up gong from the local temple convinces me that closed eyelids were no longer an option. A welcome cup of real coffee delivered by the BANCA staff at 6am (hmm, almost like they knew we’d need it….) before taking our trainees out for a few hours of bird identification and telescope use training around the village and surrounding rice paddies.

Telescope training (Guy Anderson)

Stonechats, red-breasted Flycatchers, yellow-browed warblers, dusky warblers, and yellow-breasted buntings hop about in the fields and bushes, and remind some of a dream day’s birding on the east coast of Britain in September. However, red-vented bulbuls and overflying red-breasted parakeets reminded us we are not at Flamborough Head. Back for a late breakfast, then we spend some time recording video footage of the BANCA livelihoods project base, and teaching two of our trainees how to do the same. We watch fishing nets being expertly made by project staff, for distribution to former hunters.

Fishing nets (Guy Anderson)

A short pillion ride takes us to meet one of these former hunters that BANCA has worked with. He now lives on a reasonably sized plot of his own land, having been helped to learn how to become a fisherman instead of a hunter. This was not easy – it has taken him nearly 2 years to learn, but life is looking up for him and his wife. He proudly shows us the plot of land on which they have a house and the 3 bicycles they now own between them – material evidence of a new successful way of making a living. He now fishes in wet season out in the gulf, and then works in local paddy fields in the dry season. His wife sells the fish that both he and other fisherman catch in local markets. Fishing in the wet season in the Gulf of Mottama is apparently much more worthwhile than during the dry winter and spring. Huge quantities of fresh water from monsoon rains enter the top end of the Gulf from the Sittang River. These lower the salinity of the water so that large numbers of freshwater fish survive and can be caught there for a few months.

Then we pack up our camp, while some of us swap vocabulary with the village kids and entertain each other by swapping face-pulling techniques. Their parents WILL be pleased. We walk down to the creek next to the village at dusk and board our flotilla of 5 small wooden fishing boats and set out at high tide down the creeks towards the main bay – we really have no visual clues as to where we are going, but the GPS tells us we are heading down a significant channel that weaves SW through the marshes. 

Getting read to go (Viv Booth)

The flat-bottomed small boats we are travelling in are pretty wobbly for untrained western legs, so we are politely asked to stay sitting on the deck of the boat with a small bamboo canopy overhead. The full moon makes lots of tiny holes in the canopy looked like stars in an inky sky when viewed from inside. But the tide was not as high as we first thought and our boat gets stuck on a sand bank. Solution chosen by our boat’s skipper? Abandon 5 large water drums and one crew member in the middle of nowhere with a sleeping bag! Hopefully to be picked up tomorrow. We moor in a creek further downstream overnight with the full moon lighting everything. We feel the first touch of Mottama mud on the feet as the tide falls away from under us and the boat is beached by 7pm.

Later, a minor surgical procedure is performed on Andy – who had managed to share his sleeping bag the previous night with a vicious ant which made a meal of one of his legs and caused huge swollen yellow blisters to emerge. The expert care of our expedition doctor and some ‘encouragement’ from his colleagues sees him through, and we think he’ll live.

Cup of coffee and a pack of biscuits before bed. What will tomorrow bring? Fell asleep to numerous oriental skylarks singing over the adjacent moonlit marshes and paddy fields, crickets chirruping in the saltmarsh grass and the occasional call of a wader, prompting thoughts of ‘was that a spoonie?!’