Saving the Spoon Billed Sandpiper

Saving one of the world's rarest birds from extinction

2014 juvenile seen in Japan

Fri, 26 Sep 2014 14:10:49 +0000
A spoon-billed sandpiper that hatched in the wild this summer at Meinypilgyno has been spotted on migration in Japan. Japanese birder Kouhei Shinomiya photographed the bird on the Yoshino River in Tokushima Prefecture. The inscription J1 on its lime green leg flag is clear in the photograph. Roland Digby confirmed from records of this summers expedition that the bird was part of a replacement clutch – the second clutch that a pair will lay after the first clutch has been taken for headstarting. As such it was hatched and reared in the wild. It was one of a clutch of three that were fitted with leg flags on 18 July. The news helps shape a picture of the spoon-billed sandpiper migration. Adult birds set off from the breeding grounds before the juveniles and it seems most of the species moult at Rudong in China. The juveniles set off slightly later and records like this suggest that they stop over in Japan.  

Update from the Spoon-billed Sandpiper survey team in Rudong, China

Thu, 25 Sep 2014 14:49:24 +0000
A team lead by SBS in China and with five international wader experts: Nigel Clark from BTO, James Phillips from Natural England, Guy Anderson and Andy Schofield from RSPB and Rich Hearn from WWT, has come together to survey the autumn concentration of Spoon-billed Sandpiper on the Jiangsu coastline. The survey has been supported by the MBZ Species Conservation Fund, RSPB and the participants. We are now half way through our survey, having lost a day to the edge a typhoon. Each day we have split up so that we can cover the maximum length of coastline. It has been hard work but very rewarding as so far every team member has seen multiple Spoon-billed Sandpipers on every day! The intertidal flats are so vast at low tide that we would not have a hope of surveying, so we have surveyed just the upper mudflats in the last couple of hours before they are covered by the incoming tide. This is always a race against time but can be very effective as the birds are constantly being forced to move as the water approaches. Spoon-billed Sandpipers are remarkably difficult to spot amongst large flocks of roosting waders and we are trying to check the legs for colour marked birds – not easy when they are roosting on one leg! Once the tide has covered the flats we try and locate the Spoon-billed Sandpipers in the roosting flocks and make total counts of waders before following the birds back out to the flats on the falling tide. After about three hours the birds have dispersed too much and we are losing the ability to focus. It is then time to compare our notes and summarise the days data to ensure that we have everything recorded properly. At the end of the breeding season there were 19 adult birds that were individually marked and left the breeding grounds to migrate to their winter quarters. Looking for them several thousand miles away is really like looking for a needle in a haystack so we were not too hopeful. Remarkably, one was found on the first day but it wasn’t possible to read the inscription in the windy conditions. We decided to go back to the same site the next day to try and find it and to our surprise we did, and read the inscription. It was Lime 04 which was seen in the same place in the spring. Another team member came back from the other end of the site having seen a second. Alas they could not read it completely but we could be sure it was not Lime 04. At high tide we undertook a complete survey of the massive wader flocks and counted over 40,000 waders. This included some 830 Nordmann’s Greenshank – almost identical to the count at the same place last year, confirming that this site holds over half the known world population for the species. Unfortunately the area where these birds are concentrated is earmarked for reclamation so their future looks bleak. The next day’s survey was equally amazing as we found Lime 01, nicknamed the monument male, on the rising tide  then again on its roost and finally on the falling tide. Lime 01 was seen in the same place last autumn showing just how site faithful the species. Buoyed by the success so far we went to our third core site today not expecting to be able to do as well as the last couple of days. On the rising tide we had about 10,000 small waders on the mud in front of us. Luckily the tide did not completely cover the flats and the birds stayed in front of us for three hours. First we found a bird with a lime coloured flag on its right leg. This means that it was marked as a chick. It was roosting on one leg – the wrong one for us – so we watched it for the next 45 minutes for it to show its flag. Disaster! A gull flew low over the flock and it was gone. Next we found a flagged bird with the flag on the left leg. Same problem, but this time four of us watched it for a glimpse of the flag. An hour later the whole flock lifted off and we lost it. It was not going to be our day! Disheartened we searched the flock in its new roosting site and eventually located one with a flag on the left leg. The only problem was that it was too far away and there were several thousand waders between us and it! We slowly edged forward and after what seemed like an age we were in range but it was feeding frenetically in pools and shallow creaks. Then it stopped for a second the first digit was a 1 but what was the second? It stopped again – it’s a 5! came the call from all of us at the same moment as it suddenly gave a clear view. Adding the totals together for the three sites we have now seen a minimum of 183 Spoon-billed Sandpipers, clearly showing that virtually the whole population goes through its annual wing moult on this piece of coastline. Let’s hope that there will still be intertidal flats for our children to see this unique bird. Without the flats they will not survive. Tomorrow the weather looks good and we have high hopes – time will tell.

Roland’s first grand-chick!

Tue, 23 Sep 2014 23:01:22 +0000
Media Release issued on behalf of WWT, RSPB, Birds Russia, Moscow Zoo, BTO, BirdLife International, ArcCona Consulting and the Spoon-billed Sandpiper Task Force This little fellow is the first ever spoon-billed sandpiper chick to be hatched in the wild by a hand-reared bird. Spoon-billed sandpipers are critically endangered and the news confirms to conservationists that the birds they hand-rear go on to breed naturally once released. Two years ago, WWT aviculturist Roland Digby hatched this chick’s mother in northeast Russia and fed and protected her for her first three weeks, before releasing her to migrate 5,000 miles to southern Asia alongside wild wading birds. The initiative is intended to boost the number of spoon-billed sandpipers while their habitat is protected and illegal trapping is stamped out.  Until now it wasn’t known whether the birds would return to breed themselves. Roland Digby said: “I guess I’m a granddad of sorts now! I’m incredibly proud of this little bird, who has flown half-way round the world on just her instincts, managing to find the few safe refuges and dodge illegal trappers. “Hand-rearing isn’t something we decided on lightly. No one could say for sure how the birds would behave, but the situation was so dire that we had to risk it to buy time for the species. “Considering all that, the fact that she made it at all is cause for celebration. That she’s hatched a chick of her own represents real hope for the spoon-billed sandpiper.” Fewer than 100 pairs of spoon-billed sandpiper are believed to be left in the wild, rearing just 60 young between them each year on average. For the last three summers, conservationists have taken eggs from a few clutches and hand-reared the chicks in a protected enclosure. The natural parents are used to losing eggs to predators and lay a second clutch if they do. Using this method, conservationists have increased the number of fledglings from the Chukotka breeding ground year on year. This summer 24 hand-reared spoon-billed sandpipers set off on migration, boosting the number of fledglings by 40 per cent. The news is hopeful but the species is still vulnerable to the threats of illegal trapping and the loss of wetland along the Asia Pacific coast. Conservation organisations around the world are working together to secure protection of wetland nature reserves and tackle the causes of the illegal trapping. In addition a reserve flock of spoon-billed sandpipers is being prepared for breeding in a special facility at WWT Slimbridge Wetland Centre in Gloucestershire, as a backup in case the species goes extinct in the wild. The spoon-billed sandpiper conservation breeding programme is a collaboration between WWT, Birds Russia, Moscow Zoo and the RSPB working with colleagues from the BTO, BirdLife International, ArcCona and the Spoon-billed Sandpiper Task Force.

The monumental tale of the Monument male, ‘Lime 01’

Wed, 17 Sep 2014 09:16:40 +0000
On the 4th September 2014 Chinese birders spotted a leg-flagged Spoon-billed Sandpiper at Rudong, an important staging post for this critically endangered wader. A flurry of emails soon revealed that this tiny bird was in fact Lime 01, also known as the Monument male because his breeding territory is near a monument in Chukotka, Russia. Lime 01 staged at Rudong last year as well and stayed for the duration of his moult. It is likely he’ll do the same again this year. Lime 01 was banded and received his ID flag 01 in 2013. We can only guess that in former years it was the very same male breeding in the locality of the Monument. If so, he has been successfully hatching chicks with his partner since at least 2010. In 2012, the field team collected some of their eggs for conservation breeding at WWT, Slimbridge. In 2013, the team took Lime 01’s first clutch into captivity for headstarting. Three of the young from that clutch fledged successfully and subsequently migrated. Added to that, Lime 01 and his partner laid a replacement clutch and reared a further three chicks to fledging. In June 2014, the team again took Lime 01’s first clutch for headstarting, successfully rearing and releasing two chicks, M9 and P9. They were last observed in Meinypilgyno at the beginning of August. We know that Lime 01 and his partner reared at least two additional chicks, with a possibility of a third, but as only one chick was fitted with a metal ring we can’t be completely sure. On average, wild Spoon-billed Sandpipers only rear 0.6 chicks per nesting attempt, so this bird has produced significantly more offspring than the average! The Monument male has become a familiar sight for the headstarting team, this year he reared his replacement brood just a few hundred meters from where the majority of headstarted chicks flocked after being released from the rearing aviary. His presence may well help those headstarted birds adapt to natural conditions. Director of Birds Russia Evgeny Syroechkovskiy said: “In a way “Lime 01″ could be seen as a mentor of all headstarted birds and as having contributed to his species’ survival much more widely than just with his own chicks”. Lime 01’s contribution to the headstarting programme has been phenomenal and to see him on yet another migration has been welcome news to all the teams involved with Spoon-billed Sandpiper conservation. Evgeny Syroechkovskiy continued: “Let’s wish him safe travels and long life and for now, a comfortable stay in Rudong”.

Spoon-billed sandpiper gets renewed commitment from Leica Camera AG

Tue, 12 Aug 2014 15:02:55 +0000
The Critically Endangered spoon-billed sandpiper has received renewed support from German optics company, Leica Camera AG. The miniature wader is the focus of an intense international conservation bid to save it from extinction, that’s included starting a conservation breeding programme from scratch and hand-rearing chicks in the Russian Far East. Leica stepped in last year with substantial support, including the loan of optical equipment so that fieldworkers could monitor the remaining individuals in their remote breeding grounds. They also championed the plight of the spoon-billed sandpiper to their customers, which helped to encourage birdwatchers to log record numbers of sightings along the spoon-billed sandpiper’s Asia Pacific flyway. Leica has now announced it will renew its support for another year. Dr Debbie Pain, WWT Director of Conservation said: “Leica and WWT are kindred spirits when it comes to the incredible spoon-billed sandpiper. Leica are passionate about the mission to bring it back from the brink of extinction and we’re delighted that they’re going to continue supporting the project and spreading the word.” Leica’s stand at Birdfair 2014 on the 15th, 16th and 17th August will again be dedicated to spoon-billed sandpiper conservation and Dr Debbie Pain will be on the stand for an hour each afternoon. Stephan Albrecht, Director of Sport Optics Division at Leica Camera AG said: “Leica puts a particular focus on long-term and sustainable support of selected nature conservation projects. It was, therefore, a logical decision for us to continue with our support for the WWT project to save the endangered spoon-billed sandpiper from extinction. Our binoculars, spotting scopes and cameras are the perfect tools for the fieldworkers who monitor the sensitive breeding grounds from a distance without disturbing this amazing wader.”

News from the field

Wed, 23 Jul 2014 09:51:07 +0000
Our indefatigable aviculturist in the field, Roland Digby, has been run off his feet but he’s managed to send a few short emails. I’m sure you’ll appreciate the news he has… ROLAND (29/06/2014 18:13): The 2011 head-started bird (lime green 8), has laid eggs!! We’re sure this is her second breeding attempt of the year as it is now late and in the season, and the nest contained three eggs: two fertile and one infertile. The hatch date is expected between the 16th-17th July. . ROLAND (05/07/2014 17:50): We have 9 chicks and 16 eggs hatching. ROLAND (09/07/2014 08:00): We have 20 chicks to ‘head-start’ ROLAND (09/07/2014 22:19): We have 25 chicks to ‘head-start’ ROLAND (13/07/07 2014 00:30): We are raising 27 chicks to ‘head-start’. Twenty-six of these are doing really well.  One of the chicks is quite weak. It was unable to hatch on its own and needed assistance. I fed a small amount of ‘critical care’ through a pipette a few times before it started walking around properly and feeding itself. It is self-feeding quite happily now and putting on weight every day, so time will tell if it’s going to make it. I have somewhere around 1,000 photos, Nature and scenery stuff and plots lots of spoonies, including lime green 8 and her mate. Not much luck with digi-scoping, firstly with the fog and then when the weather was good, the heat haze! I will keep trying once we are at the release pen and during the post-release monitoring period, to see if I can improve with that. We hope to be moving chicks out today, just the last couple of finishing touches needed on the release pen. We’ll be moving the first two broods out around 5-6pm today, once the weather cools down a bit, yes that’s right, cools down a bit! It’s been roasting here for the last three days, but I’m sure the weather will return to its usual foggy self soon. ROLAND (16/07/14 22:27): The weak chick is now a whopping 14.6g! This is very pleasing as it is a day before it’s due to go out to the release pen. The last eight chicks will be transferred from the indoor rearing set-up tomorrow, so this will finally make things a little easier, not being split between two places. I am knackered, but so far very happy with how things are going. First release planned for 27th, 2nd for 30th. ROLAND (17/07/2014 00:48): Just spoke with Nikolai. Lime Green (08) has a chick that looks strong and healthy. ROLAND (21/07/14 O8:00): All going largely ok. All birds in release pen now, which makes life a lot easier for all concerned. 25 of the 27 doing really well This is wonderful news I’m sure you agree. The 2014 team are recording results beyond all expectation. Well done Roland and team. Well done!

The current state of play in Meinypilgyno

Tue, 01 Jul 2014 10:04:58 +0000
Here’s an update from Roland Digby regarding the current state of play in Meinypilgyno. The extensive flooding made for a trying start to the 2014 breeding season. However, it appears that the Spoon-billed Sandpiper population in Meinypilgyno may have stabilised at around 12 pairs, the same as last year, although more birds are breeding in higher areas because of the flood water. Compared to last year, we have not been able to cover anywhere like the same amount of ground. Many areas are still only accessible by foot and some areas to the north and west will not be accessible for some time yet. As of 13th June, the river mouth was re-opened after being closed by winter storms. It was due to be dredged, but the local fishermen decided to dig out a channel themselves and let the force of the backed up river do the rest. The flooding across the region has now started to subside. Egg collection also began on the 13th June. Incubators are working well, a portable AC unit has really helped to stabilise them and the sun has even been shining! In total we’ve collected 32 eggs, seven first clutches and two replacement clutches. Of the collected eggs, 28 have been candled and of these: one was infertile and two were dead, the embryos having died around 9-10 days old. There was one other egg that didn’t look quite right and this will be checked again in a few days to see the outcome. We expect our first clutch of eggs to hatch somewhere around the 5th July. We should also add that Nikolai was able, after a lot of searching, to find the nest of the spoonie Lime 8 (see previous blog post for details of this extraordinary bird) and her mate, now fitted with the leg-flag 21. As we have been collecting eggs, Pavel and Egor have been trapping the adults and fitting leg-flags. This has been done for all of the nests we’ve collected from (bar one) including one other that wasn’t collected but the adults were still caught and flagged.

First hand-reared spoon-billed sandpiper returns to breed

Wed, 25 Jun 2014 00:01:51 +0000
The first hand-reared spoon-billed sandpiper has returned to breed in Chukotka, Russia, where it was hatched two years ago. The spoon-billed sandpiper is unique in the animal kingdom for being born with a spoon-shaped beak. Numbers have declined by a quarter year on year and it is likely that fewer than 100 pairs remain in the wild. WWT aviculturist Roland Digby has reared 24 spoon-billed sandpipers over the last two summers on their breeding grounds in north eastern Russia, giving them a head start to ensure they survived their crucial first days of life. Once released, the birds migrated 5,000 miles to south Asia, facing exhaustion, starvation and illegal hunting along the way. There has been a two year wait to see if any will survive to return to breed. Now one of the group has been seen back at its birthplace by researchers from Birds Russia, Pavel Tomkovich and Egor Loktionov. They reported that the bird is looking heavy, indicating that she is a female carrying eggs and ready to breed for the first time. After two years she could become the first hand-reared spoon-billed sandpiper to produce offspring in the wild and add to the species’ fragile population. WWT aviculturist Roland Digby said: “The incredible spoon-billed sandpiper is no bigger than a sparrow, yet it flies almost half way round the world before it’s even old enough to breed. Sadly, very few make it. There are probably fewer than 100 breeding pairs left in the wild, so every bird that reaches maturity represents new hope for the species”. The hand-rearing is an attempt to stabilise the species’ population before it becomes extinct. Rearing and releasing birds on the breeding grounds increases the number of young birds in the wild in autumn by about 25%. Meanwhile conservationists are tackling the illegal hunting and habitat loss that is behind the decline. Pavel Tomkovich of Birds Russia said: “Two years ago I attached a tiny plastic leg flag to this bird, so that we’d recognise it if it was ever seen again. The odds were severely stacked against that happening, but amazingly she was spotted, first by birdwatchers in Taiwan in April and then we see her here at her birthplace ready to have young of her own.” The bird hatched on 14 July 2012 from an egg of a clutch collected for artificial incubation on 22 June. After fledging it was released on 10 August and was last seen on the Russian breeding grounds on 17 August 2012. The next sighting was on 7 April 2014 by Chung-Yu Chiang and Chin-Shi Hsu at Kinmen Island, Taiwan, on the edge of the tropics. She was subsequently seen by Pavel Tomkovich and Egor Loktionov near Meinypilgyno, on the edge of the Arctic Circle on 18 June. Norbert Schäffer, the RSPB’s head of international species recovery, said: 
 “It’s great to see parts of the plan to protect this precious species coming together, but it’s a long road and there is still a lot more to do in terms of tackling the problems on the flyway. This is a huge international effort involving many different partners and with everyone doing their bit.” Dr Nigel Clark of BTO and the UK Spoon-billed Sandpiper Support Team said: “This is the first proof that hand-rearing works and that these birds behave and migrate normally. We had predicted that it would work, based on studies on other migratory waders, but we couldn’t be sure that spoon-billed sandpipers would behave the same way. Over the next few years these individually marked birds will help us to understand how best to bring the species back from the brink of extinction.” The project is part of a multi-pronged international attempt to save the spoon-billed sandpiper. In case the birds in the wild suffer further losses, the only reserve flock in the world is being reared in a biosecure facility at WWT Slimbridge Wetland Centre. In the near future, eggs from the Slimbridge flock could be flown to Russia to be hatched and released as an insurance against the species falling into extinction quicker than it can be saved in the wild.   The spoon-billed sandpiper conservation breeding programme is a collaboration between WWT, Birds Russia, Moscow Zoo and the RSPB working with colleagues from the BTO, BirdLife International, ArcCona and the Spoon-billed Sandpiper Task Force.

Courtship in Chukotka and Slimbridge

Thu, 19 Jun 2014 09:16:14 +0000
Roland Digby has been in Chukotka, at the spoon-billed sandpipers’ breeding ground for the last two summers, hatching and hand-rearing chicks in what is known as “headstarting”. It helps stabilise the declining spoon-billed sandpiper population and he’s back there for a third time this summer. Despite heavy snow and flooding, he has been able to take several clutches of eggs into safety. Meanwhile, the rest of WWT’s conservation breeding unit is at Slimbridge preparing the world’s only captive flock of spoon-billed sandpipers for what could be the first ever breeding season. Earlier this year, the birds were moved into communal outdoor areas and socialised as a single group for the first time. Recently they have been moved into special breeding aviaries that replicate the tundra habitat of their breeding grounds in Chukotka. The move seemed to get several of the male birds in the mood for love. Two in particular were seen fighting and so were separated and sectioned off with females. They showed classic spoon-billed sandpiper courtship behaviour, singing and hovering in the air and even making nest scrapes. The behaviour was short lived though, and soon they were enjoying a much less flirtatious relationship and being more companionable than anything else. Concerned by this apparent dampening of ardour, the team back home contacted Roland to ask how this compared with the behaviour of the birds in the wild. This is what he said: “Yes, the birds become much quieter once they have a mate. The frantic singing only comes from unpaired males. Even then, older males that are waiting for their mate to return don’t sing as frantically as young males that have never paired up before. “A couple of days ago Ivan and I were returning from surveying the area known as The Cross and we stopped at The Monument for our lunch. The pair there is very tame and carries on with their business whether people are there or not. During the hour we were there, we only heard the male call three or four times and then only very quietly and for a couple of seconds at most with no display flights or singing. “The as yet unpaired birds in the moraine hills sing almost constantly and much louder. Their song flights generally last for more than 5 minutes and are very regular, with only five to ten minutes in between for feeding before taking off again to make another song flight. But once the male attracts a mate, the song flights stop and he becomes much quieter.” So, there’s hope that we may still have the world’s first captive bred spoon-billed sandpiper chicks this summer, but as the days pass by with no signs of mating, anxiety within the team rises.

First birds arrive late to breeding grounds

Thu, 05 Jun 2014 15:43:35 +0000
Roland Digby has again joined the annual expedition to Chukotka to ‘headstart’ a new generation of spoon-billed sandpiper fledglings on the breeding grounds. He has sent his first report: The large amount of winter snow and late spring meant the spoon-billed sandpipers arrived late this year. Last year the first sightings were on 30th May, but this year they were not seen until 2nd June. So far, there are three single males singing in the moraine hills around the area known as the Corral. Two of the three birds that are here already are marked with green leg-flags showing that they’ve been caught and ringed here in previous years. The other is un-ringed. A further pair was seen in the area yesterday but headed for further north. On the 3rd June, the “Monument” pair arrived. Named after the area in which they nest, this pair has been very productive in past years and are the biological parents of several birds that have either been ‘headstarted’ or are in the Slimbridge breeding flock. They are still a bit unsettled, which is normal for birds just after they return, but Nikolai and Nastia were able to get some photos of them yesterday. As yet no birds have been seen to the east in Angavie, although this is expected as they normally arrive four days or so later than the other birds. Of the pairs that breed over there, two pairs have been caught and colour marked in past years, so in a couple of days we shall see if they’re back or not. The conditions are similar to 2011. The river mouth is closed and the heavy snow is melting, so there is a lot of flooding which makes it pretty difficult to get around. It also means the low lying marshes, where birds have bred for the last two years, are either flooded or soon to be flooded. It will be interesting to see where the Angavie birds breed. The tracks along the shore of Pikulneiskoe are still blocked with snow, so Ivan and Roland are facing a 25km hike through the moraine hills to The Cross, to see if that pair have returned yet.

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