To be honest there is nothing terribly endearing about white-shouldered ibises. The guide books struggle to make it sound appealing with its naked head, dark brownish plumage and dull red legs.
Even its typical down-curved ibis bill is a dull grey. It has a small block of white where its neck joins its head and the white shoulders of its name are only really visible in flight. Its territorial calls are described as long, loud unearthly hoarse screams: ‘ERRRRRRH’ or ‘ERRRRRRRROH’.
Not much of a looker then.
The IUCN red list ranks them as critically endangered. This is a bird that’s on the brink – global extinction is a real possibility. But its passing would probably be noticed only by a handful of people. World populations are probably less than 1,000 (90% of them here in Cambodia) and declining. But among the mixed rice fields and scrubland along the rivers skirting the Mondulkiri Protected Forest, we have some of these birds – maybe even 50 of them.
We’ve just completed a quick recce of where we think they will roost and counted 12 birds at one site. We were told by villagers of at least three other roosts so, fingers crossed, we should find more.
Our landscape seems to offer what they are looking for – they favour the seasonally abandoned rice fields, bare patches in the grasslands and the pools in the forest during the dry season.
Amphibians form the majority of their diet, as well as mole-crickets, insect larvae and the occasional eel, snake, or leech – all of which are found at the water pools.
What I like about this bird, though, is that it has a story to tell. In this case it’s a story of interdependence. Throughout its dwindling range, white-shouldered ibis are associated with large hoofed animals – in our case the wild cattle species such as banteng and gaur that thrive here. These animals, through their trampling and scuffing, help to create and maintain the seasonal pools.
Rather than the pools themselves, the ibis hunt around the edges, searching for food on the bare muddy banks. Along the edge of the forests and along rivers where these wild cattle species have all but disappeared, the ibis are now found associated with domestic livestock and seasonal rice fields that mimic their preferred wild habitat.
Our target species in the Eastern Plains are the larger, better-known wildlife. But if we can ensure the security of the forests, and give protection to the banteng and gaur, then they, through their normal activities, create ideal conditions for the ibis.
In its own small way this is exactly what we mean when we talk about protecting ecosystems – if we can protect the critical elements, then everything else has a better chance of survival. The forests of the Eastern Plains are home to perhaps half the world’s population of banteng. By giving them protection and allowing them to flourish, the prospects for the white-shouldered ibis are much, much better.
They might not be pretty, but they belong here and are an integral part of the wider dry forest story.