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 email@example.com) 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.
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 http://www.eaaflyway.net/spoon-billed-sandpiper.php. To follow the progress of the spoon-billed sandpiper conservation breeding programme visit http://www.saving-spoon-billed-sandpiper.com/
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.”
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.
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 http://www.eaaflyway.net/spoon-billed-sandpiper.php. To follow the progress of the spoon-billed sandpiper conservation breeding programme visit http://www.saving-spoon-billed-sandpiper.com/
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 www.saving-spoon-billed-sandpiper.com. 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.
Roland and Nicky returned from Russia last week, after a successful expedition headstarting spoon-billed sandpipers. They’re taking some well-earned time off now, but Roland still kindly gave us a debrief: From my perspective this year was so much better. We learned a lot last year because this had never been done before. Last year there was a lot of conversations between me, Pavel, Nikolay, and Christoph where we’d be saying “Well, this is what we think might happen…”, but we didn’t know. For instance, this year we built the rearing aviary down by the marsh, which is the ideal release site. This was great for the birds and it meant that they could get onto a diet of purely wild food pretty much straight away after the release. I have to say, though the number of mosquitoes was good for the birds, it was not good for aviculturists. There was one feed, during the middle of the day when it wasn’t too painful, but at dusk and dawn it was hell going out to check on the chicks and put down the food. Obviously we couldn’t wear any sort of repellent because we couldn’t risk getting that on the food. And any sort of mesh or headgear would have restricted our sight, and stepping back on a bird doesn’t bear thinking about. Interestingly, it was also a popular spot with the bears – they seemed to patrol the shoreline of the lake. I was spending most nights down at the release pen, sleeping in the tracked vehicle the Russian’s call a Vezdia Hode (translates as ‘goes anywhere’). We had to be very strict about any food eaten down there and the tins it came in. We even had to take left over bird seed well away from the pen, just in case. Nicky and I did turn up on the quad bike one day to find a young and rather naive bear attempting to break into the aviary. Nicky just drove straight at it, beeping the horn and flashing the lights. It got the message and turned tail. We followed it for several hundred metres, Nicky beeping the horn every time it slowed down, till it was well away. I did have a worse encounter when I was down there on my own one day. Normally the bears are very wary of humans but this one fully grown bear started coming towards me. It was worrying but I did what the Russians had told me to. I didn’t run because that just triggers a predator-prey instinct that overrides any common sense that bears might have. I stood still and made myself look as large as possible. It stopped about eighty metres away thankfully, so I didn’t have to get the bear spray out. Apparently bear spray will stop a charging bear nine out of ten times, whereas a gun will only work six times out of ten. Not odds I ever want to put to the test. We were also fortunate to have a spoon-billed sandpiper nest just nearby, so we were able to watch the progress of the chicks. This was a nest that we had collected eggs from shortly after they were laid. We always try to collect the eggs as soon after they have been laid as possible, to avoid them being taken by a gull or a ground squirrel, but also because, if done within about a week, it prompts the pair to lay a second clutch, which they then raise themselves with the result that any chicks we rear are in addition to the natural wild population. So we watched and listened to the dad (mum migrates as soon as she’s finished incubating, leaving dad to rear the chicks) and his clutch of three just a few hundred metres away from where we were rearing our own clutches. Though we couldn’t see the chicks on the nest, we knew by the dad’s alarm calls that he still had chicks alive. Then, the day before I left to return home, three chicks fledged. This was incredible because the average number of fledglings per nest is just 0.6. It may well have been in part due to our presence nearby keeping predators away, but added to the three birds that we fledged from his nest, that is six young spoon-billed sandpipers from one pair – ten times the average! Just as I was leaving they were joining the eighteen young birds that we released onto the marsh. They were a few days younger because they were from a later clutch. After release, the hand reared birds lost interest in the food we left out for them within a day or two, which is perfect because it meant they were finding all the insects they needed. Each had been fitted with a leg flag but no radio tags so all our monitoring was done by eye. We were able to keep good track of them because we knew where they liked to feed and roost and when. They stuck to a strip of the marsh about a kilometre long by two to three hundred metres wide. Generally they’d be feeding around dawn and dusk and during the day they’d roost behind clumps of wild chervil, to keep out of the wind. We might not have seen all the birds on each sweep, but we’d tick off each bird over the course of a day. Two birds unfortunately got predated before they headed off on migration, one by a ground squirrel and one we never worked out by what exactly. Another bird just disappeared after a couple of days, but we never found any evidence that it had been taken. We don’t know whether it died or migrated. As the time for migration drew nearer, the marsh started filling up with red-necked stints, phalaropes, dunlin and western sandpipers, all coming from further north. Our birds became restless a few days beforehand, calling a lot at dusk and making lots [...]
The critically endangered spoon-billed sandpiper has been given desperately needed financial help by German optics company, Leica Camera AG. The Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust and their partners are attempting to stabilise the spoon-billed sandpiper population, which numbers fewer than 100 pairs in the wild, but working on the birds’ remote Russian breeding grounds and undertaking conservation breeding is expensive. As well as financial help, Leica are providing optical equipment to help field workers locate the breeding spoon-billed sandpipers and record their behaviour. WWT Director of Conservation Dr Debbie Pain said: “WWT is delighted that Leica has chosen to support the spoon-billed sandpiper. We’re desperately trying to secure a future for this charismatic and unique bird, and tackle the problems it faces from trapping and the loss of wetlands.” Leica will showcase the spoon-billed sandpiper and the efforts to save it at their stand at the Birdfair in Rutland between 16 and 18 August. Mr. Stephan Albrecht, Division Manager Sport Optics of the Leica Camera AG “Leica binoculars and telescopes offer incomparable viewing experiences of nature. Time and time again we experience how fragile and endangered nature is. That is why the Leica Camera AG chooses to take part in selected conservation projects – WWT’s mission to save the spoon-billed sandpiper from extinction is one such project. In addition to the protection of this incredible bird the people living in its wintering grounds are being supported. People acting together for nature on a long-term and sustainable basis is important for us, because passion you can only share together.” To support conservation of the spoon-billed sandpiper visit www.wwt.org.uk/sbs
Roland, Nicky and the team have been without internet for the best part of a week, but last night Roland sent some notes on what’s been happening. All the eggs hatched okay in the end. One chick was badly positioned in the egg and needed assistance once it became apparent that it was not going to be able to hatch on its own. However, it went on to hatch and began feeding and drinking without problem and is still doing well. Another chick hatched with bent toes but the toes straightened as it grew and now the foot looks completely normal and it has made a full recovery. There have been no problems whatsoever with the chicks feeding and drinking. The period when we were rearing them indoors went like clockwork. The close hatching dates and having one more staff member than last year (Nicky) meant we were able to provide a supply of fresh live food every three hours around the clock, which helped the growth of the chicks and their development. Putting travel towels down for them to walk on helped prevent foot conditions, and once the chicks were three days old, we wetted a strip of non-slip matting and placed this at the far end of the coops away from the heat source. This year we decided to situate the outdoor aviary and release pen much further from the village. Because of the potential security issue of it being out of sight, our Russian colleagues suggested we didn’t actually construct it until three days before the birds were first due to move. I was a bit worried that we would not be able to get it built in time but, given that Russians have a way of always managing to get everything sorted on time, I went with their request. We did however, get as much of the pen put together at Roman and Sveta’s and likewise the foundations were dug beforehand. When the day came, it was simply a case of transporting the pieces to the site on Roman’s flatbed truck and bolting them together. It was a real piece of team work and the whole structure was completed in one and a half days. Roman supplied some larger, stronger batteries for the electric fence and that is working better than ever. Of the potential ground predators, stoat numbers are very low, like last year, and red and arctic fox numbers have gone down since we first arrived. There is also a permanent human presence at the pen because of the round the clock feeding, so I am confident that ground predators will not be a problem this year. We moved the chicks to the pen in four batches between 10 and 16 July. All the birds are doing extremely well because, with Nicky here as well, we are able to provide much greater quantities of natural live food, especially from the pools, which are full of all manner of invertebrate life. The birds are growing very quickly and we expect to start releasing next week. Provided there is an internet connection I will update you once this has started.