Saving the Spoon Billed Sandpiper

Saving one of the world's rarest birds from extinction

Spring is on the way- for wild and captive Spoonies!

Fri, 11 Apr 2014 10:36:27 +0000
Dr Nigel Clark from the BTO came to visit the spoon-billed sandpiper breeding facility on Tuesday to check on the birds. He writes… Monday was a red letter day for the project with spoonie ‘Lime 8′ being seen in Taiwan on spring passage back to the breeding grounds. This is the first sighting of one of the nine headstarted spoonies from 2012, which was the first year we tried it. Furthermore it was starting to come into breeding plumage just like the other birds it was with, suggesting that hand-rearing had not affected its urge to breed. We also have 14 spoonies from the 20 eggs that were collected in 2012 at the WWT in Slimbridge. On Tuesday I made my monthly visit to see the captive birds. As I sat in endless queues of traffic on the M6 I wondered how their breeding plumage was developing and whether it was at the same stage as Lime 8. As I walked up towards the aviaries I could hear more spoonie chatter than on past visits. All the birds are together and able to move at will between five areas and as I looked in each area there were birds everywhere,  so I went into the new outside communal area and sat in one corner to observe their behaviour and asses the state of their breeding plumage. I was immediately struck by the increase in interactions between the birds. In the past they have tended to spend a lot of time in flocks but have normally not interacted very much.  Today they seemed much more aware of other birds presence and they seemed to be checking who was near them. Often this would result in a peck or even a chase. It was as if each was showing a different character may be as a result of their hormones changing? Scoring the plumage of 25 birds that are moving a lot proved much more difficult than two smaller groups and it took two hours to record the plumage of all of them. Just as we would expect the three year old birds were slightly ahead of the two year old birds that were attaining breeding plumage for the first time. What is more amazing is that the two year old birds were at exactly the same stage as the wild Lime 8! The captive birds have a way to go yet until they are in full breeding plumage but everything is looking encouraging. Lime 8 still has almost 6,000 km to fly to get to the breeding grounds, whereas the captive birds only need to migrate a few metres, so the next couple of months will be an exciting time. They will be split into a range of pairs and groups as we try different ways to encourage them to breed. Only time will tell which will work!

Starting 2014 on a high – Dr Nigel Clark

Sat, 15 Mar 2014 09:00:07 +0000
Dr Nigel Clark is Head of Projects at the BTO and Coordinator of the UK Spoon-billed Sandpiper Support Group. As a key advisor to the Spoon-billed Sandpiper conservation breeding programme he visited the Slimbridge flock earlier this week. He writes: Trying to save Spoon-billed Sandpipers from extinction is a roller coaster ride as each piece of news comes in. 2014 is definitely on a high at the moment. Last month we got the first definite picture of a headstarted bird (AA) on the wintering grounds. We all believed that headstarting is the right thing to do and that it will help bolster the wild population but there is nothing like proof that they are surviving to raise the spirits. The good thing about headstarting is that many of the pairs lay a replacement clutch and this was the case with AA’s parents. They also raised the second brood and some of the chicks were also marked. The ultimate happened on Tuesday we got a photo sent through of one of these chicks wintering in the bay of Martaban in Myanmar! The third great thing was on my monthly visit to record the plumage state of the captive birds. Over half of them have the first breeding plumage feathers appearing right on time. At the moment it is only one or two lines of breeding feathers on the back. But it is an unmistakable sign that they are on track for the breeding season to come. The WWT husbandry team have been working feverishly to get the breeding quarters ready. They will be a series of interlinked breeding units which the birds can be moved between so we have pairs or small groups in each unit. When we need to split them up we will be able to segregate them without catching them. This will enable us to react to behavioural changes quickly without stressing the birds. To start the birds getting used to these new facilities the two groups have been let out into the first breeding aviary on alternate days. As I arrived at the facility I could hear the flock calling as they were feeding in their new surroundings seemingly oblivious to the work going on around them to finish the other units. Their winter quarters have no vegetation in them as they would be on mudflats in the wild. Now for the first time they have access to turf that mimics the vegetation on the breeding grounds. As I watched the flock feeding in the shallow pool one came over to the turf and started feeding. Immediately the rest of the group rushed over and joined in chattering away just as wintering dunlin do on flooded fields. I marvelled that this came so naturally to them as they had not encountered this before! After a couple of minutes something disturbed them and the whole flock went for a fly round expertly avoiding the soft side and roof netting before returning to the pool to feed. Soon the whole group will be put together and we hope that they will pair up naturally, but that is a month or two away yet. It is now time to be patient and hope that four years of planning and hard work come to fruition. When we started out I hoped that we may get 10 birds to breeding age. To have 25 is beyond my wildest dreams and down to the dedication of the whole team. The breeding season cannot come soon enough now!

Slimbridge spoonies successfully migrate 30 centimetres… to ‘China’!

Fri, 14 Mar 2014 09:49:14 +0000
The captive spoon-billed sandpiper flock at Slimbridge last week made the first stage of their ‘journey’ towards breeding successfully. Months of preparation have gone into creating open air aviaries for the birds, which will mimic their summer breeding grounds, as well as being divisible to give pairs their own territories. The first stage is to move them from the largely indoor wintering aviaries, where they have been for the first years of their lives, to an outdoor interim area. Their wintering aviaries are designed to mimic the environment of tropical Asian estuarine mudflats, with heat and light artificially set throughout winter. Their new area is designed to feel like the coastal saltpan pools of eastern china and the yellow sea, where they stage on migration. Within a few weeks they will be moved to a tundra area that will be planted with short, salt-resistant grass, sedums and tufted grass. WWT Head of Conservation Breeding Nigel Jarrett oversaw the whole process. He said: “It’s a big day for the birds and a tense one for us. We’re essentially ‘migrating’ the birds north, albeit about a foot through a pop hole in the side of their aviary. “This is the first stage, to ‘China’. For them it’s a much bigger space with far more direct sunlight. It’s the big outdoors and we had no idea how jumpy that would make them. “But it went really well. We left the pop hole open and that piqued their curiosity and pretty soon they were all in there. Within minutes they were bathing in the new pool, which is a sure sign that they’re comfortable, and tucking into some bloodworms. “The next few weeks are going to be fascinating. No one has ever before witnessed birds like this pairing up. It’s completely unknown behaviour, but we suspect that we’re going to see the effect of a surge of hormones that’ll make the birds less sociable and possibly bring out some aggression, particularly around the food that we give them. This would all actually be good behaviour that will hopefully lead to them getting territorial and falling in love!”

Spoon-billed sandpiper still boldly going: hand-reared bird from Russia seen in Thailand

Mon, 10 Mar 2014 09:56:02 +0000
A spoon-billed sandpiper was snapped last week by birdwatcher Peter Ericsson on wetlands at Pak Thale in Thailand and identified as bird ‘AA’, which was hand-reared and released in Chukotka, Russia last summer as part of the effort to save the species from extinction. The spoon-billed sandpiper is one of the rarest birds in the world and consequently is one of the most difficult to find once it leaves its known breeding area for the winter months. This is the first time an individual hand-reared bird has been identified in the wild by the unique code on its plastic leg flag proving beyond doubt that this bird was Spoon-billed Sandpiper ‘AA’. Last autumn there were three sightings of spoon-billed sandpipers with white leg flags, indicating that they had been reared as part of the headstarting programme, but they were too distant for the codes to be read. WWT aviculturist Roland Digby, who reared bird AA and many others on the tundra in Russia over the last two years, first spotted Peter Ericsson’s sighting on a Facebook site. He said: “It was so exciting to see Peter’s message. We rear these birds for a few weeks till they’re ready to fledge and migrate, and then we have to let them go into a world where we know the odds are stacked against them. “This particular bird always had a strong character. Its flag is AA because it was the boldest and the first to be picked up. It was independent as soon as I’d released it , disappearing off during the day and only returning at night to feed on mosquitoes. “I last saw it on August 6th last year and never expected to hear of it again, but it’s wonderful to hear that it’s survived its first migration, found places to safely rest and feed and avoided the bird trappers’ nets.” Hand-rearing is part of a plan to artificially boost the number of spoon-billed sandpipers in the wild while conservationists protect coastal wetlands and stop bird trapping along Asia’s eastern and southern coasts. Also known as headstarting, last year it increased the number of fledglings leaving the birds’ only known breeding grounds by 25%. It also allows conservationists to fit leg flags to the birds. Reported sightings give a measure of the success of different tactics to save the species and could potentially reveal new information about the birds. Dr Nigel Clark of the BTO is a leading wader expert and has been at the centre of efforts to conserve the spoon-billed sandpiper. He said: “This sighting is a fantastic bit of news. It shows that headstarting the birds is working and they are successfully migrating and it’s starting to give us more clues that could be useful in future. This is the fifth sighting in Thailand of a bird from the Meinypil’gyno breeding grounds. Only time will tell if that’s a coincidence, so I urge anyone in the region to keep their eyes out for leg flagged birds and report them if they see one.” Birdwatchers in Asia are asked to particularly look out for and report (to these spoon-billed sandpipers with the following markings: Any of eight adults marked with light green flags inscribed with two alphanumeric characters on their left legs. These birds were caught and marked in 2013 as wild adults. Any of three juveniles with light green flags inscribed with two alphanumeric characters on their right legs. These birds were also caught and marked in 2013 as wild birds. Any of the 16 headstarted juveniles from 2013 which have white flags inscribed with two alphanumeric characters on their right leg Any of the 9 headstarted juveniles from 2012 which have light green flags with single alphanumeric character on their right leg Any Spoon-billed Sandpiper with any other marking. As there are a few survivors previous studies.

Hand-reared spoon-billed sandpiper spotted after flying quarter-way round the world

Wed, 20 Nov 2013 10:47:04 +0000
A rare hand-reared spoon-billed sandpiper has been spotted for the first time in the wild, more than 8,000km from where it was released. 25 of the critically endangered birds have been raised over two years by an Anglo-Russia conservation team on the Russian tundra, before being released to join their wild-born counterparts in migrating to South-East Asia. Until now it was unknown whether any would be spotted until they return to Russia to breed aged two years, but this month one has been seen in Thailand, on the coast near Bangkok, and another in southern China. WWT Head of Species Conservation Department, Baz Hughes said: “This is really exciting news! We now know that spoon-billed sandpipers, raised by our avicultural staff on the Russian tundra, can migrate with their wild counterparts to wintering areas a quarter of the way around the globe.” Conservationists take eggs from wild spoon-billed sandpiper nests, prompting the parent birds to lay a further clutch. The hand-reared chicks are safe from predators and, with the wild-raised chicks from the second clutch, it increases the total number of birds fledging by up to ten times. Mr Suchart Daengphayon from the Bird Conservation Society of Thailand saw the spoon-billed sandpiper at Samut Maneerat on 7 November. The hand-reared birds are all marked with small white plastic leg flags. Marking birds allows them to be identified later and helps reveal information about their movements and behaviour. Christoph Zöckler, Coordinator of the East Asian- Australasian Flyway Partnership’s Spoon-billed Sandpiper Task Force said: “We’ve learnt an enormous amount about spoon-billed sandpipers’ movements over the last few years but there are big gaps. While we still don’t know all the places they stop over on migration, we can’t protect them or address any threats they face there.” Wader expert Nigel Clark from the British Trust for Ornithology said: “Marking spoonies tells us many things. Studies in the early 2000s gave us some understanding of what was going wrong – not enough young were returning to breed. By marking birds now, we will be able to tell if what we are doing to conserve them is working”. Surviving predators on the breeding grounds is the first in a series of perils that have claimed most of the species. Coastal wetlands along their migration route have been reclaimed, leaving the birds without sanctuary or food, and illegal trapping in nets is widespread. Incredibly, within a week a second hand-reared spoon-billed sandpiper was spotted by Jonathan Martinez of the Hong Kong Birdwatching Society at Fucheng, in southern China. He also reported a vast number of illegal nets on the 500km coast north of Fucheng, which the bird had evidently avoided on its southward migration. Dr Rob Sheldon, RSPB’s Head of International Species Recovery, said “Just when we thought we’d solved the problem of illegal hunting in Bangladesh and Myanmar, it now appears that trapping of waders is a widespread problem in China too. BirdLife International and its new partner, the Chinese Ornithological Society, will be working hard to address this serious issue in future.” Evgeny Syroechkovskiy, Chair of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper Task Force said: “The plight of the spoon-billed sandpiper has rallied extraordinary levels of support from all around the world. But conservation is costly and the spoony needs this support to continue if it is to survive. We, as conservationists, are looking at every opportunity to focus our limited funds where they will make a difference.” Guidance on reporting spoon-billed sandpiper sightings is available from the East-Asian Australasian Flyway Partnership Spoon-billed Sandpiper Task Force To follow the progress of the spoon-billed sandpiper conservation breeding programme visit

Record sightings of spoon-billed sandpipers and Nordmann’s greenshank in China

Wed, 30 Oct 2013 12:30:26 +0000
A record total of 140 spoon-billed sandpiper and 1,200 Nordmann’s greenshank have been surveyed on the coast north of Shanghai, China, strengthening the case to protect the intertidal wetlands there from development. Much coastal wetland along the East-Asian Australasian Flyway has already been lost to development, driving the decline of birds such as spoon-billed sandpiper and Nordmann’s greenshank, which rely on them for safety and food along their migration. Though the 120 kilometre coastline between Dongtai and Rudong now appears to have the highest concentration of these rare waders, many of the most important intertidal wetlands there are at risk from development for agriculture and industry. However, thanks to the efforts of the international survey team over the last three years, and the number of rare waders they have reported using the area, local authorities have announced new protected areas to protect spoon-billed sandpiper and shellfish. Jing Li, coordinator of SBS in China said: “Our surveys confirm the intertidal wetlands of Rudong as the most important remaining stopover site for the spoon-billed sandpiper during its entire 8,000km long migration route. Protecting these internationally important intertidal wetlands is vital for the sandpiper’s survival, and also for the maintenance of the shellfishery and other vital services provided by tidal-flats.” Dr Christoph Zöckler, coordinator of the SBS Task Force said: “This is a historic moment in the conservation of the species. For the first time since our efforts to conserve the species began in 2000, we can realistically hope to save the species from extinction.” Dr Debbie Pain, WWT’s Director of Conservation said: “The work of the survey team has been instrumental in building local protection for wetlands in Rudong. It is crucial that we keep up the momentum so that these areas get national protection and form the first link in a chain of protected areas to aid the recovery of these species.” Dr Nigel Clark from BTO said: “We believe the entire adult population of both Spoon-billed Sandpiper and Nordmannn’s Greenshank are staging at the highly productive intertidal flats on the coast of Rudong.” Dr Evgeny Syroechkovskiy of the Russian Ministry for Natural Resources, SBS Task Force Chair said: “I am very pleased to see so many spoon-billed sandpiper here in Rudong. I will encourage my ministry to include both, spoon-billed sandpiper and Nordmann’s greenshank, which breed exclusively in Russia, into the recently signed bilateral agreement on migratory bird conservation between China and Russia.”

See spoonies in Myanmar and support their conservation

Thu, 12 Sep 2013 11:02:14 +0000
As a reader of this blog you might be considering booking a holiday this winter to go and see spoon-billed sandpipers for yourself. Well, we’re pleased to tell you that there is the opportunity to do both that AND help support the spoon-billed sandpiper conservation breeding programme at the same time. Bird Holidays are taking a tour to Myanmar in January 2014, taking in a search for spoon-billed sandpipers at the Gulf of Martaban. Full details of the tour are available on their website. For each person who books on the tour Bird Holidays will donate US$50 to BANCA, the local charity working with the fishing villages to protect spoon-billed sandpipers. They will also donate a minimum of £50 for each person to the spoon-billed sandpiper conservation breeding programme, but Bird Holidays will increase this to £200 if you mention this blog when booking.   Just five years ago, conservationists uncovered the largest, previously-unknown concentration of the birds in the Gulf of Martaban in Myanmar. Almost immediately it became obvious that bird hunting, carried out by the poorest sections of society, could be a major factor behind the recent drastic decline in numbers. The Spoon-billed Sandpiper Task Force and BANCA have made great progress working with villagers to find alternatives to bird trapping, by helping provide fishing equipment and access to other livelihoods. Ecotourism is playing its own part in helping to save this wonderful bird. Christoph Zockler and Phil Palmer of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper Task Force will lead the tour. Both Christoph and Phil are closely involved with spoon-billed sandpiper conservation and have contributed to this blog whilst on expeditions in Chukotka. In the Bay of Martaban, the group will be guided by former bird hunters who will use their knowledge of the mudflats to help track down spoon-billed sandpipers and other waders. For further details visit the Bird Holidays website or call 0113 3910 510. Please don’t forget to mention this blog.

Rare sighting of marked spoon-billed sandpiper on migration

Thu, 05 Sep 2013 09:01:04 +0000
A rare sighting of a marked spoon-billed sandpiper on migration was reported last weekend from Rudong mudflats north of Shanghai. The critically endangered bird was identified by a lime green plastic flag on its leg marked ‘01’ that was attached by scientists from Birds Russia on its breeding grounds this summer. Conservationists know that this bird ‘Lime 01’ fathered six fledglings this summer – three that were hand-reared by conservationists and three that he raised himself – which is 10 times the average for the species. In all, this summer sixteen hand-reared spoon-billed sandpiper fledglings and eight adults were marked with uniquely inscribed plastic leg flags. Birdwatchers are being asked to report all sightings of spoon-billed sandpipers. Coordinator of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper Task Force, Christoph Zöckler said: “The Rudong mudflats are an extremely important stop over site for the spoon-billed sandpiper to rest and feed and it is very exciting news that our Russian breeding birds have been sighted there. Unfortunately these mudflats, like much coastal wetland along the East Asian-Australasian Flyway, are threatened by the development. Alongside illegal trapping and hunting, it has pushed these birds to the edge.” WWT Head of Species Conservation Department, Baz Hughes said: “This is why we’re taking extreme measures to prevent its extinction: hand-rearing chicks to boost numbers, but spoon-billed sandpipers rely on the help of so many people. Reports like this are only possible thanks to the support of birdwatchers throughout Asia and are an invaluable part of its conservation.” Rudong mudflats are the most significant known staging post in China for spoon-billed sandpipers where 106 individuals were counted last year in October. Demand for land is high in the region, which is only 150km from Shanghai, and land has already been reclaimed from the marshes at Dongling to the southern end. Pavel Tomkovich of Birds Russia, who caught and marked the bird with Nikolai Yakushev, said: “When I marked “Lime 01” I wondered if anybody would ever see it on its travels, almost a quarter of the way round the world, as looking for spoon-billed sandpipers can be like looking for a needle in a haystack. Looking for marked birds is even more difficult as we were only able to mark eight adult birds with these unique flags. Thanks to the reports of local birdwatchers, we’re learning their stopover points.” ‘Lime 01’ was seen leaving the breeding grounds on 4 August and was seen 5,000km away at Rudong on 31 August. Spoon-billed sandpipers can cover as much as 1,000km per day, leaving around three weeks during which it may have been staging elsewhere. BTO Head of Projects, Nigel Clark, said: “We’ve known for a few years that they stop at Rudong mudflats and we hope to be able to protect it. But our calculations indicate that ‘Lime 01’ probably stopped somewhere else for up to three weeks before reaching Rudong. We want to find out where that is in case it is under threat.” Zhang Lin of the “Spoon-billed Sandpiper in China” Team said: “The first Spoon-billed Sandpiper arrived at Rudong about two weeks ago since when I have been regularly scanning the increasing numbers of waders at the high tide roost at Rudong. When I glimpsed a bird on 31 August that looked like it had a lime green leg flag I knew something exciting was in front of me. On closer inspection it turned out to be ‘Lime 01’. I was over the moon as this is the first time that one of the birds marked in 2013 has been seen in China. “It is amazing to see how these little but critically endangered birds are connecting our key sites along the flyway between Russia and China. They are very important as they allow us to track whether efforts to save the species are working.” Guidance on reporting spoon-billed sandpiper sightings is available from the East-Asian Australasian Flyway Partnership Spoon-billed Sandpiper Task Force To follow the progress of the spoon-billed sandpiper conservation breeding programme visit

PHOTOS: Giving spoon-billed sandpipers a helping hand

Fri, 23 Aug 2013 14:11:24 +0000
Here is a gallery of images from this year’s expedition to headstart spoon-billed sandpipers in Chukotka. Enjoy!

Spoon-billed sandpiper numbers boosted by conservationists

Fri, 23 Aug 2013 00:01:40 +0000
Critically endangered spoon-billed sandpipers fledglings have increased in number by a quarter in 2013, after conservationists intervened to hand rear chicks. As few as 100 breeding pairs remain in the wild, rearing just 60 young between them each year on average. The 16 additional hand-reared young are a significant boost for the species, which is on the verge of extinction. WWT Conservation Breeding Officer Roland Digby said: “The breeding season in Russia is short and brutal for spoon-billed sandpipers. Each pair is lucky to get even a single chick as far as fledging. Normally, that’s life, but right now the spoon-billed sandpiper needs a lifeline to keep them from going under.” Experts from WWT worked with Russian scientists to source eggs from breeding pairs soon after being laid. Taking the eggs prompted each breeding pair to lay a further clutch, which they were left to rear themselves. One pair produced a total of 6 fledglings this year – ten times the average. The tiny fledglings now face their first 8,000km migration to Myanmar and Bangladesh. Along the way they will struggle to find undeveloped coastal mudflats to rest and feed, and on arrival they risk being trapped in nets. Birdwatchers in Asia are being asked to report any sightings of spoon-billed sandpipers. All hand reared birds have a tiny coloured flag attached to one leg. Intervening to increase breeding productivity in wildlife like this is known as headstarting. It is a short-term strategy. Tim Stowe, RSPB Director of International Operations said: “Having been part of an expedition to look for additional spoon-billed sandpiper breeding sites, I can appreciate that giving these amazing birds a helping hand through headstarting will help deliver short-term conservation benefits.” Conservationists are tackling the problems of illegal trapping and habitat loss along the spoon-billed sandpiper’s flyway. It is calculated that headstarting spoon-billed sandpipers will increase the number returning to breed as problems are addressed, allowing the population to stabilise and recover more quickly. Jean-Christophe Vié, Director SOS – Save Our Species welcomed the news of the continued project success: “At SOS – Save Our Species we are delighted to support this project. The headstarting programme had already delivered meaningful results in 2012 and the news of the impact of this additional batch of hatchlings in Chukotka fortifies hope for the Spoon-billed Sandpiper’s future. It is rewarding news not just for the experienced team out there but for all the unsung heroes of who strive – often in remote corners of the world – to save our threatened species.” For a fuller account of the expedition to Chukotka and for details of how to support spoon-billed sandpiper conservation, visit 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.

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