Saving the Spoon Billed Sandpiper

Saving one of the world's rarest birds from extinction

News from the Field: Moving to the release aviary and the obligatory bear photo

Update from Roland Digby On Friday 14 July, we finally got the first couple of broods of birds out into the release aviary. Because of the storm we couldn’t put the birds out as early as we’d hoped (Wednesday 12 July), so the first couple of broods were a bit older than the 7 days of age that we usually put them out at. Nevertheless they seemed fine for their extra couple of days in the house (see photo from evening of 13 July below). A further 8 birds were moved on the 14th, another 7 on the 15th and the last 7 on the 16th. During this period the weather was mild, but with the usual Meinypil’gyno fog and mist until yesterday when conditions cleared up and we had some well deserved warm and dry weather which has continued through to today which has been a real scorcher (probably not by UK standards mind you as I still seem to be wearing thermals!). All birds are now settled and adjusted to the change of temperatures and all extra heating was turned off this morning. We are also starting to mix the broods so as to give them access to more space as they grow and by Friday 21st all birds should be mixed and have full access to the rearing / release aviary. There’s quite a mix of ages, with the older birds expected to start flying (not very well) in the next 2-3 days, and since yesterday, there has been lots of jumping up and down flapping. The ages are still close enough together to allow for a single release and, weather permitting, we plan for this to happen on 28 July. As I said earlier, the weather has been lovely for the last couple of days and Evgeny and the Chinese delegation were finally able to leave today on their helicopter that had been delayed since the 12th. Yesterday Ivan and I had a close, but not dangerous, encounter with a bear as one came on to the marsh and started to dig up young souslik (ground squirrels). The wind was in our favour, so the bear was not aware of us sitting on the Vekzdia hode watching it dig around 60 meters away from us. Once it had got its prize, it went off on its way and here is the obligatory bear photo for this year. That’s all from me for now. Thank you to everyone who’s reading these updates. If you don’t hear from me before, I’ll make sure to send an update shortly after the release.

What’s happening at Slimbridge?

Update from Baz Hughes I think you might have all realised that there’s been a bit of blog silence on the Slimbridge spoonies so it’s time to update you. Put bluntly, we didn’t get eggs this year, but it wasn’t for lack of trying! Moult into summer plumage commenced in late February with completion by mid-May: 12 of the 19 birds reached a moult score of 6 or 7 (7 being full summer plumage) with the remaining seven birds attaining moult scores of 4 and 5 as in previous few years. Males began to ‘sing’ towards the end of April. As in 2016, pairs (seven in total) were transferred from the wintering aviary to breeding aviaries in mid-May. Only one pair showed encouraging signs of imminent breeding activity: the male bird made a total of eight nest scrapes over a two week period when he was either singing, nest scraping or ‘corralling’ his mate more or less day and night until 15 June. Though the female visited her partner’s nest scrapes and showed interest in his behaviour, no copulations were observed and no eggs were laid. During this period, three other males were recorded as occasionally ‘territorial singing’, with two making nest scrapes. Attempts to instigate/sustain breeding behaviours/activity from these and other pairs, by moving birds between aviaries, proved futile. Moult resumed in the last week of June. Birds were returned to the main wintering aviary in early July. I feel for the conservation breeding and veterinary teams who have pulled out all the stops to try to get our birds to breed. Their attention to detail is amazing. Over the past year, it’s been like a forensic investigation trying to get the birds’ diet (especially protein and calcium levels) and lighting just right, on the suspicion that calcium metabolism issues were a factor in the death of the chicks last year. We’re extremely grateful to Frances Baines (UV Guide UK) and Amanda Ferguson (ZSL) for their help over the past year with the UV lighting set-up and diet analyses, respectively, and to Philips Lighting for providing additional lighting for bird enclosures. Unfortunately, a major blow this year was the loss of both of the 2016 breeding males before the breeding season, one through a diet related condition and the other through a freak night fright incident and collision with the aviary netting (which is double-skinned and designed to be as soft as possible). As we have CCTV running on the birds 24/7 we can see when the incident occurred but not what caused it. So – my apologies for the lack of blogs, but I can assure you we will keep trying!

News from the Field: Eggs hatched and release pen ready to go

Update from Roland Digby At 15:30hrs on 10 July, our 30th and last chick hatched! Although we didn’t expect all 34 viable eggs to hatch, we had hoped for 32. Unfortunately that wasn’t the case, with one dying just as it started to hatch and two others just before pipping, and the final egg, despite being incubated for the full term at 25% relative humidity, failing to lose enough weight. Of the chicks that hatched there were quite a number of very small chicks this year, which is to be expected with the poor weather conditions compared to last year. We also had some quite distended yolk sacs – these were cleaned with iodine and the chicks were kept in clean containers until the protruding sacs were withdrawn into the body cavity and, fingers crossed, we haven’t had any signs of yolk sac infections. Likewise there have been a few weaker individuals that have required a little extra TLC to get them going and these are also doing well now and growing nicely. Sadly, we do have one individual whose leg was badly injured and may not make it to release. Other news is that on 10 July the release pen was finished. With all the flooding and bad weather, the work was pushed back a lot more than we’d have liked. To get the work finished in time required a fair few late nights and juggling to make sure that bird care didn’t suffer. We had ideally hoped to start moving birds and aviculturists outside yesterday (12 July) however bad weather and now a storm today means we shall be hopefully moving ourselves with four broods out tomorrow and, if everything runs to plan, we should have all birds outside by 18 July 18.

News from the Field: Hatching update from 3 July

Update from Roland Digby (from 3 July 2017) On 1 July, clutch A pipped and were all moved from the Hemel incubator to the AB Newlife hatcher. As of 3 July, a total of 24 of the 34 viable eggs have pipped and been moved over and we expect the remaining 10 eggs in the incubators to pip during the next couple of days. This morning at 05:40hrs our 1st egg A3 (parents 10 and 05) hatched and, as usual with spoonies, it was very quick. I was checking temperatures at 05:38 and by the time I had finished a 1cm split in the egg shell was now a spoonie! The chick had a wet weight of 5.8g (fairly small) and is now settling down in the brooder resting and drying. As I type we have plenty of eggs wobbling around, so expect more to hatch soon. Other news is that finally enough of the flood water at the monument had receded so that yesterday afternoon we were able to clear the trenches of the release pen creating a moat which will help drain the ground where the pen will be built. Although rather wet now, the water level is going down very quickly and, despite the poor weather at the minute, we expected to have the pen completed and ready for chicks by 10 July at the latest.

News from the Field: 38 eggs!

On 24 June, the final clutch of eggs was collected from the plain at the foot of the moraine hills close to the village, making a total of 38 eggs collected. This is amazing because at one point earlier in the season when the floods were inundating territories (particularly in Angkavie), we were even wondering if we’d be able to collect 24 this year. Whilst most things have gone smoothly this year, there have been at least two clutches with very thin shelled eggs – one case with clutch collected for headstarting and another in a later uncollected clutch. Nobody’s exactly sure of the reason for this except for the obvious not enough calcium. Perhaps in some way this year’s environmental conditions have limited some female’s ability to access the required amounts of calcium to produce strong eggs? After candling all eggs yesterday, there are 35 with live embryos although one of these is a particularly thin shelled egg currently being incubated in the wet incubator which will not survive through to hatch. The other 34 eggs all look very healthy and with the youngest now 10 days old, we’re through the stage where we lose embryos during the vulnerable first third of incubation. Whilst being careful not to count our chickens (spoonies!) before they hatch, we’re hopeful for a good number of chicks this year. Other news is that after the river mouth was opened on 15 June, the flood has finally started to recede. Yesterday (25 June) I visited the release site with Yuri and, for the first time, I was able to wade to the release site (although it was still under around 60 cm of water). The water level is going down quickly and hopefully by 1 July it will be low enough to clear the release aviary trenches so we should at least be able to get the pen frame up before eggs start hatching around 4 or 5 July. Finally another bit of good news. We have resighted another headstarted bird – pink left (2014 male) – at the western oil drills bringing the total of headstarted birds observed this year to eight.

News from the Field: Three more spoonies have been tagged to track migration south to the Yellow Sea

With funding from the Mohamed bin Zayed Conservation Fund, Nigel Clark has gone to the Spoonie breeding grounds to fit satellite tags to three breeding birds in the hope that we can learn where they stop on their migration south to the Yellow Sea. For more information on how the Mohamed bin Zayed Conservation Fund is helping spoon-billed sandpipers visit *Updated on 29/06/2017 with photos* From Nigel Clark Getting to remote parts of north-east Russia is never easy, but I was going to Meinypil’gyno where Roland and the Birds Russia team are working on the largest known breeding colony of Spoonies. All the organisation had been done by our partners Birds Russia – no simple task in itself. However, a couple of days before I was due to leave, the first problem arose when the Russian airline due to take us from Moscow to Anadyr, the regional capital, stopped flying as they had financial problems. After a lot of effort a solution was found involving a flight to Magadan, an overnight stay and then a flight to Anadyr the next day. This involved flying from a different Moscow airport but, as luck would have it, the timings worked out OK. I would have been lost trying to do this on my own, but Evgeny and Elena were going to Meina at the same time so I had expert guides. Magadan airport is an hour’s drive inland from the town as the weather is better away from the coast. This made for a fascinating drive through a landscape of larch and birch trees all stunted by the harsh winter weather. Magadan has a lot of history, being founded by people shipped to the gulags in Stalin’s time, with tens of thousands dying in the mines or just from the extreme winter cold. There were a lot of poignant monuments to those who lost their lives there. Next day we flew on to Anadyr with bright sun all the way. When we arrived we were hopeful that the helicopter would take us on the last leg the next day and it was bright and sunny when we got up. However, the news was that there was low cloud over the mountains and the flight might be cancelled – we took all our bags to the airport and hoped for the best. The helicopter flies at 1,000 metres through the mountains so the cloud base had to rise enough for us to fly below it. We waited in the hall with the other passengers, and a kitten, all hoping to go. A delay of an hour was announced, then another and then a third hour’s delay before finally we were told that there would be no flight that day. We still had many hours of good light so we went and surveyed a small valley near the airport that had historical Spoonie breeding records. Although it was close to a large mining village, we very soon came across the first displaying waders – mainly Dunlin, Red necked Phalaropes and Temminck’s Stint, but with several other species as well. There were also lots of wildfowl including a pair of swans which appeared to be a Bewick’s paired with a Whistling Swan. We sat and drank tea watching the fluttering display flights of the territorial Temminck’s Stints, accompanied by their charming twittering. That evening I learnt that if the helicopter did not go the next day, then it would not fly on the weekend and bad weather was forecast for the whole of the following week! Such a delay would have meant that it would be getting very late to catch spoonies, as we only wanted to tag birds whose clutch had just been taken for headstarting and been replaced by dummies. The following morning there was not a cloud in the sky, but our hearts sank when we got a message from the team in Meina telling us they had a sea fog and did not think that a flight was likely. We went to the airport anyway, and there was again a delay, but then things started to improve and to our pleasant surprise the flight was on. Two hours later we touched down in Meina, so five days after leaving London I was finally in the land of the spoonie. I had been lucky – in past years team members had been delayed for up to 20 days in Anadyr due to the weather! The team, who had already been in the field for a month, told us that it was a difficult year for the spoonies. The previous week there had been a flood – as rapid snow melt had occurred before the river outlet to the sea had been breached. It blocks each winter after storms and only opens when the local villagers make a channel once the frozen gravel thaws out. They had finally done this the day before and in a day it had gone from a trickle to a raging torrent 100m wide! The flood had wiped out many clutches before the team had managed to find them, so they had only found a few to take for headstarting. In the evening of the next day there was better news as two clutches had been found 25 km to the west of the village and the plan was for a team to go and collect the eggs for headstarting the following day, leaving dummy eggs so that we could go afterwards and trap and tag two birds. In the morning the weather was warm with a light breeze, just enough to keep the mosquitoes at bay. Our plan was take an inflatable Zodiac the 25km along the river that runs behind the shingle beach. When we got to the river we found a large amount ice flowing downstream, which made for slower progress for the first part of the trip. Catching the birds was relatively simple as Pavel and Egor were with us who are extremely […]

Technology coming to the aid of spoonie: finding the unknown

From Nigel Clark on behalf of the Satellite tagging team. In 2009, Rhys Green and I were tasked with assessing how we could use new technology to track Spoon-billed Sandpipers. We thought that this would be an easy task but the more we looked into how we could safely attach any tag the more concerned we became. With a bird as rare as a spoonie we would not be prepared to risk putting on anything that might adversely affect their chances of survival or their normal behaviour. We initially thought that geolocators attached to a leg ring or a harness to attach a device to the back would be the perfect solution. Such a device would have to stay on for a year for us to get any information so we decided to trial leg loop harnesses on a group of Sanderling on the Wash. The Wash was the perfect place as there was a detailed study of their movements and feeding behaviour being conducted by Chris Kelly at the time so we would be sure that the birds would be seen regularly. Sanderling migration is very complex and there is a lot that we don’t know so we hoped to fill some gaps in our knowledge of Sanderling as well as trial the attachment of the tags for future use on spoonies. The Wash Wader Ringing Group made a special catch of Sanderling and we selected six birds that had been caught previously in mid-winter on the Wash so we could be sure that they were resident there in winter. We had decided that the most promising attachment method would be to use a ‘leg loop’ harness which would hold the one gram geolocator on the bird’s lower back. All went well with the tagging and we released the birds with high hopes. Chris soon reported that some of the tagged birds were behaving abnormally and it was clear the leg loops were having an effect. It was not long before they started to shed their harnesses. The aim was to re-catch the birds when they returned from their breeding locations in the Arctic. Despite lots of searching only two returned and only one had a tag. The next day the bird was re-caught but to our dismay it had lost its tag overnight! With results like this we could not risk putting tags on the rarest wader in the world so we had to rely on individually marking spoonies with engraved leg flags and hoping that they would be seen in autumn and winter. The results have been fantastic but they will not inform us of any places that spoonies go where there are not birdwatchers searching for them. In the summer of 2015 Paul Howey from Microwave Technology, Inc. announced that he had successfully developed a two gram satellite tag that was powered by sunlight and would give frequent locations via satellite. This was a game changer as we would learn more about the bird’s movements even if the tags only stayed on a short while. Rhys and I discussed the possibilities and thought that gluing the tag to their back would give us info for a few weeks at least. Only a small number of these tags could be produced each year so Paul asked for people with conservation needs for these tags to make a case to him. Forty teams of conservationists applied and Paul selected spoonie. We were uncertain how well a bird the size of a Spoonie would take a tag of 2 grams so we needed to do another trial. We considered that the best thing to do was to trial dummy and real tags on Dunlin in captivity and, as luck would have it, there were some captive bred Dunlin for sale in Europe. The trial would need a very special aviary as it could not have metal mesh as this would mask any signal from the real tag. This was going to be costly but as luck would have it the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust had just received a generous gift in memory of a lifelong supporter, which it was agreed would go towards the cost of the trial. In November 2015 the captive flock of 15 birds arrived at the WWT’s quarantine station where they went through a rigorous disease screening protocol. To our dismay they could not be given the all clear so could not go into an area where there were other captive birds. All looked dismal until our neighbours Reg and Rowena Langston said that we could build the aviary in the field they owned at the side of their house. The aviary was built over a two day period by Nige and Roland from WWT and in February 2016 the Dunlin moved in. On the third of March we glued six dummy 2 gram tags on the back of half the birds. In the following days we watched intently to see if the tagged birds behaved unusually. We could see no effect at all. The only way to distinguish the tagged from the control group was by seeing the tag or reading the colour rings. It was as if they were unaware of their presence. After 46 days one tag came off but the rest stayed on for over 100 days and only fell of when the birds went through their annual moult. Paul and his wife Julia brought us a real tag on 19 April and we glued it on wondering if it would work and when we would know. It did not take long! The next day Paul sent an email to say that we had had a good fix so finally after six years we had a method of remotely tracking spoonies. So where was the best place to put on our first tags? There are many things that we do not know about spoonie migration wintering and breeding sites but there are few places that we know that we could safely […]

News from the Field: The first eggs of 2017

The team has collected the first eggs of the season, many more flagged birds have been seen and flooding continues to cause problems. Here’s the latest from Russia. From Roland Digby We collected the first clutch of eggs this week – four eggs were collected from the nest of Light green 10 and 05 and are now in an incubator. Hopefully this pair will relay and rear their own chicks in the wild this year as well. To date, we have identified 11 spoonie pairs in the monitoring zone and a number of lone males and some other birds we think could be females but as yet have only been observed just after arrival feeding on the floods to the east in Angkavie and not encountered since. In addition, we suspect a secretive pair may be using an area at the foot of the morain hills, where the male has been observed but not the female. From his behaviour, he appears unpaired but given that last year the female was only observed once and he later appeared with chicks, there is a slight possibility she’s around but undetected. As mentioned in the previous update, the flooding is something else this year. Lake Pekulneyskoe has flooded all of the surrounding low lying areas including the Monument marsh, where the current site for the release pen is under around 1.5m of water. Whilst on the other side of the monitoring zone, Lake Vaamychkyn has completely flooded all of the spits and marshes where spoonies breed around the area of the Western oil drills. Pavel and Nikolai have both said this is the most extensive flooding around the lakes since they have been coming out to the area. This has also made surveying rather difficult as we cannot yet access all areas – attempts are being made to open the river mouth now and once successful things should improve. Likewise, Angkavie has now completely flooded, which has been somewhat of a double edged sword. The flooding has attracted large flocks of migrating waders, including plenty of spoonies. However, the extensive flooding has most likely destroyed at least one spoonie nest (Light green 07 and an unmarked female), along with the nests of other ground nesting birds in the area. There are currently five pairs in the Angkavie area including the male Light green 21 and female Light green H3. Light green H3 is the 2015 offspring of an unmarked male and the 2013 headstarted female White LA and she is the first recorded instance of a wild-reared offspring of a headstarted bird returning to Meinypil’gyno. In addition to the five pairs, five headstarted birds have also been observed in this area as well as a couple of unmarked birds. In total, seven headstarted birds have been spotted so far: White T8 (headstarted in 2014); White U7, U6, P7 and A7 (all headstarted in 2015); and White 0C and 0T (headstarted last year). Male White 0C and female White U6, despite his young age, have formed a pair and I last observed them, with U6 looking heavy with eggs, moving into the morain hills behind the flooded Monument on Sunday (11 June). If successful, these will be the first pair where both individuals are headstarted birds and as the offspring of AA, 0C is the grandson of the Monument Male (Light green 01) and it’s nice to see his line continuing. Due to the flooding and displaced pairs, it will be difficult for us to release the target of 30 headstarted birds this year, but time will tell as we’ve got a long way to go before we have a final tally.

Read the latest news bulletin from the Spoon-billed Sandpiper Task Force

The April 2017 edition of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper Task Force News Bulletin is available to read here. The contents are as below. Previous news bulletins are available on the SBS Task Force website. Foreword from the Editor Guest Editorial by Minister Min Kyi Win Workshop on SBS National Action Plan in Mawlamyine, Myanmar 11th SBS Task Force Meeting in Mawlamyine, Myanmar Gulf of Mottama Survey – a personal account New Wintering site in Tanintharyi, Myanmar China-Russia Bilateral Meeting and field Survey in Jiangsu Province Spoon-billed Sandpiper in South China – update Results from Satellite tagged Spoon-billed Sandpiper China adds critical sites in the Yellow Sea to the World Heritage Tentative List Survey of southward migrating waders Kamchatka late summer 2016 SBS and People: Pyae Phyo Aung SBS and People: Saw Moses How many Spoon-billed Sandpipers are there? Two new major donors from America     Original article:

News from the Field: First update from the team

We’re very pleased to be able to share the first news from the field with you. Roland and the BirdsRussia team have been at the breeding grounds for almost a month now but have had a more limited internet connection than usual. Below is the first update we received and we’ll post another shortly (with some egg-citing news). Hopefully there’ll be many more over the next few weeks! From Roland Digby We arrived in Meinypil’gyno on the 19th May even though we didn’t expect to fly that day – the conditions weren’t good with low cloud and initially some fog. Something in our favour, however, and a real rarity was no wind, so fortunately we weren’t delayed. Unlike the previous year, there was a lot of snow and ice everywhere and the river mouth had been closed by winter storms. It’s also been much colder and we’ve had a few snowy days in May, particularly the week after we arrived so we were very fortunate to have left Anadyr when we did or it would have been a long wait at Yaranga hotel. Although in general this year has been much colder with very little ice melting on larger water bodies, most of the snow has melted in open areas and the weather for the last couple of days has been fairly warm, with lots of invertebrate activity which will be good for returning spoonies. Although a lot of snow and ice and a blocked river mouth, thus far the flooding isn’t as extensive as in 2015 or 2011. As always we’ve seen some interesting birds on migration, most notably this year large numbers of red and great knot passing through. Pavel and Egor saw the first spoony on 1st June and although it had just arrived and was too nervous to approach, they could see it had a Light green flag on the left tibia. Yurri and I returned to the area the following evening (2nd June) and saw Light green 21 and Light green 07, both birds local to the area. In 2014 and 2015, Light green 21 was paired with Light green 8 (2012 headstarted bird, the first headstarted bird to return). At least three other unmarked birds were also observed that day by Pavel, Egor and Nikolai. Yesterday (3rd June), Nikolai led a small team to the Western oil drills to survey and although many of the former territories are under water and ice this year compared to last year they still found four pairs, including Light green A1, a wild-reared chick from 2014. Pavel and Egor observed a female spoony close to the mountains. Whilst Yurri, Tong and I surveyed the area known as the Cross, where we observed the pair Light green 32 and Light green 09, who bred in the area the previous year. We’re currently dealing with some problems with our main incubator and may need to change the micro-processor and the heat sensor. Hopefully this incubator will be up and running soon and there’ll be many more sightings to report.

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