Saving the Spoon Billed Sandpiper

Saving one of the world's rarest birds from extinction

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.

New hope for spoon-billed sandpipers as hand-reared bird heads for breeding grounds

Sat, 10 May 2014 00:01:00 +0000
Happy World Migratory Bird Day! As mentioned previously on this blog, the first hand-reared spoon-billed sandpiper has been spotted migrating back towards Chukotka, Russia where it was hatched. It is one of nine chicks reared by hand by Roland Digby in 2012 at the breeding ground in northern Russia, to ensure they survived through the crucial early days. The birds migrated 5,000 miles away to south Asia and there’s been a 2 year wait to see if they would return north to breed. Now one of the group has been spotted and photographed on its way back to Russia by Chung-Yu Chiang and Chin-Shi Hsu at Kinmen Island, Taiwan, off the east China coast. At 2 years old, it’s now ready to breed and 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: “Two years ago I reared and released nine spoon-billed sandpiper fledglings on the Russian tundra. Theoretically all could return to breed for the first time this summer, but the odds are severely stacked against them. Illegal bird-trapping and the destruction of wetlands mean that very few birds survive to maturity. “It tells us that hand-rearing works and these birds behave and migrate normally. What’s more, reports of individual birds like this one, who we know, give us an indication of the proportion of young birds that are reaching breeding age.” The leg ring shows this 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. Pavel Tomkovich of Birds Russia, who marked the bird said: “During the coming summer we’ll look for this bird back on the breeding grounds and hope to see it in the area where it was raised and released. “All that remains of the spoon-billed sandpiper population is thought to be fewer than 100 breeding pairs. So seeing this one individual, who we know is just reaching maturity and returning to breed for the first time, is hugely significant.” Nigel Clark wader expert from the BTO said: “This is a huge reward for the team that toiled to rear these birds on their arctic breeding grounds. The pictures of Lime 8 show that it is growing its breeding plumage feathers right on schedule showing that headstarted young that have successfully integrated into the wild population.” Roland Digby and Pavel Tomkovich are due to return to the spoon-billed sandpipers’ Russian breeding grounds this month for a further season of field surveys and hand-rearing. 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.  

Ken Tucker – helping prepare for breeding season

Wed, 30 Apr 2014 11:58:03 +0000
In August 2010, I took a trip to China especially to see Spoon-billed Sandpiper. I was lucky and saw about eight birds – some still in summer plumage. I felt sad when I reluctantly walked away from the last bird. I can still see it now: a mostly winter-plumaged bird bathing vigorously in a pool. I knew then that I would never see this species again and that within five years or so it would be extinct. I’d made the trip in something of a hurry to see Spoon-billed Sandpiper before it was too late – the situation was that bad. Well, almost four years on from my China trip, I’ve just returned from watching twenty five Spoonies at Slimbridge. Things have changed since my last-minute trip to China and this small population represents a welcome lifeline for the species. When the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust launched its initial expedition to try to safeguard the future of the species I was naturally very interested and provided support wherever I could. More recently I’ve been privileged to get to know and meet the team and over the last year I’ve become involved in a very practical way, helping to prepare the aviaries where the team hope the birds will breed. It’s never been done before and so the birds are being given lots of options in terms of aviary size and setup. Most of the work involves shifting and landscaping several tonnes of sand: you wouldn’t think such tiny and delicate birds would require such heavy work! Other jobs have involved laying turf, creating pools and suspending and sewing partitions between aviaries. But the best bit about my last visit was sitting quietly in the corner of the largest aviary, watching the birds run about and feed just like the wild birds I’d seen in China. I’d never been in with the birds before, however this time I was tasked with getting a photographic record of the plumage progression as they moulted into summer plumage. The birds behaved so naturally and there was a lot of interaction and calling as they chased each other, squabbled over some bloodworms or huddled together as they roosted. The birds are looking good and so are the new aviaries. We’re now all anxiously waiting to see what the next few months will bring. As readers of this blog will know, the Spoon-billed Sandpiper is still one of the most endangered birds on the planet, but its future is not looking quite as bleak as it was when I went to China. Through the work of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper Taskforce supported by many organisations worldwide and with help from the Birdlife Species Champions (Wildsounds and Heritage Expeditions), reserves have been established, alternative incomes found for would-be bird hunters and surveys undertaken. Perhaps best of all is the captive breeding and head-starting pioneered by WWT which is hopefully helping this species keep its head above water. As a result of all this, I hope that one day I will see Spoon-billed Sandpipers in the wild again – something that looked very unlikely just four years ago as I turned my back on that bathing Spoonie.          

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!

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