Saving the Spoon Billed Sandpiper

Saving one of the world's rarest birds from extinction

Satellite tags to track critically-endangered sandpipers

The smallest satellite tag ever made is set to play a vital role in the battle to conserve the spoon-billed sandpiper (Eurynorhynchus pygmeus ). The species, classified as ‘critically endangered’ on the IUCN Red List, numbered fewer than 100 pairs in 2010. Now a conservation programme, set up in 2012 by a partnership including the Spoon-Billed Sandpiper Task Force, WWT, RSPB, BTO, Birds Russia, Moscow Zoo, BirdLife International and ArcCona, is planning to use the first production run of the tags, made by Microwave Telemetry and weighing just 1.6g each, to help track where the birds go. Dr Nigel Clark, scientific advisor to the Spoon-billed Sandpiper Task Force, said: “We need to know where the birds breed, stop over on migration, and over-winter, and satellite tagging might provide the answers. Conservation efforts to protect habitats and prevent hunting will be hampered unless we can find out where the birds are.” He added: “We would not be advocating putting tags on if there were not compelling conservation reasons for using them. If we do not know where the birds are we will have no chance of taking the actions needed to change round their fortunes.” Trials involving a small flock of captive-bred dunlin were carried out successfully; now the tags, weighing in at 1.6g, will be glued to the backs of selected sandpipers. The project team is confident that the tags will work and will fall off during moulting without harm to the bird. With permission for the project being granted by the Chinese government, the tagging team arrived in China on 27 September. They will use the first three tags on birds caught on the Jiangsu coast, tracking their routes to wintering sites and possibly their return passage and breeding sites. If successful, further funding will be sought to tag birds on a wintering site, on the Jiangsu coast in spring and on the breeding grounds.

News from the field: And they’re off!

Yesterday, the Spoon-billed Sandpiper headstarting programme successfully released 30 fledglings. That’s the most in a single year and means we’ve now released over 100 Spoon-billed Sandpipers (111 to be exact)! Roland has let us know that the release went to plan with all 30 fledgling Spoon-billed Sandpipers released together on Tuesday morning, 26 July. The birds were aged between 19 and 24 days with the majority being 20-22 days old. The weather was perfect for release – warm and dry without much wind. Releasing the birds isn’t quite as dramatic as you might imagine. When we talk about releasing animals into the wild, we tend to think of cage doors being opened and animals fleeing to freedom. It’s not like that for Spoon-billed Sandpipers. The doors of the aviary are opened and supplemental food is provided just outside the aviary to encourage them out. The birds then gradually leave, no dramatic escape flights, they just have a look outside the aviary and when they’re ready, walk or fly into their big, new world. This year it took just over an hour for all the birds to leave the aviary. This kind of release is exactly what we aim for with Spoon-billed Sandpipers. We want them to be settled and calm and not opposed to returning to the release area for extra food if they need it, but inquisitive and confident enough to venture out of their own accord. We don’t want them to scatter quickly from the release area, losing contact with each other and the supplementary food sources. This kind of release, called a soft-release, ensures the birds have a gentle introduction to their wild habitat which they have already partially acclimatised to within the release aviary (e.g. same sights, sounds and food supply). It’s easy to think that soft-release should always be the preferred method over hard-release where birds are not acclimatised to their release area and not provided with support post-release. Surely all released birds would do better with acclimatisation and extra support? But interestingly, that isn’t the case. Lots of species actually do better with a hard-release, for example territorial birds and very solitary birds, like the Scarlet Honeycreeper (‘I’iwi) and the Malleefowl, do better with hard-release. An experimental approach is often required to determine which release strategy will work best for the species and site in question. The highly social Spoon-billed Sandpiper definitely seems to benefit from a soft-release. In 2015, there were no known losses immediately after release and as far as we could tell all the birds left on migration on schedule (since 2012 only three birds are known to have not survived this phase). Fingers-crossed the same happens this year. The team will now dedicate their time to post-release monitoring – looking for and checking all the released birds over the next one to two weeks until they depart on migration heading to Southern China, Thailand, Myanmar, Bangladesh and perhaps other as yet unknown wintering sites. Roland reports that wader migration seems to have started early this year. The team has observed some quite large flocks (approx. 60 individuals) of Western Sandpipers for almost a week now, stopping off to feed at the corner of Lake Pikulneyskoe, close to the release site, along with Red-necked and Temminck’s Stints amongst other migrants. Hopefully our young birds will soon join in with these flocks, which will increase in size as the days go by, for their journey south.

News from the field: One more week until release

There are now 30 chicks thriving under the team’s care and living in the release aviary. The chicks have one more week to get accustomed to their surroundings with release planned for early next week! In the last blog, we reported that 22 chicks had successfully hatched and ten eggs remained in the incubator. From those ten, another eight chicks hatched giving a total of 30 Spoon-billed Sandpiper hatchlings – a bevy of baby Spoonies! All of those chicks are still alive and well. The oldest is 19 days old and the youngest 14 days old. As expected, there were a couple of smaller than average chicks that initially appeared quite weak and were slow to start, but now all are strong and growing well. The team began moving the chicks to the release aviary on 12 July and because the chicks are so close in age, were able to move all the chicks by 14 July. A few days ago the heat lamps, that provide the chicks with a bit of extra warmth in the release pen, were switched off and the last rearing coup was removed. So all the chicks are now together in the aviary with just a few basic shelters to allow them to escape from heavy rain. Release is imminent! Roland, who’s now living in a tank (Vezdekhod – “he who goes anywhere”) next to the release aviary, reports that the weather has been good over the last few days and the surrounding marsh is teeming with mosquitoes and other invertebrates. So all is looking good for a release early next week.

News from the field: Chicks, chicks and more chicks

The team reached their target of collecting 36 eggs and within days, 22 of those eggs hatched! The chicks are doing well and should all be ready for a single release in a few weeks time.  Last time we heard from Roland he reported that the incubator was almost full with 32 eggs but that the team wanted to collect one more clutch, aiming for 36 eggs in total. The next day, the 25 June, Pavel and Egor finally found the nest of Light green 10 and 05 in the moraine hills. That evening Roland and Nikolai visited the nest to assess the eggs and determine incubation stage. Luckily, the age of the embryos fitted in well with the 8 clutches already collected and the eggs of Light green 10 and 05 were collected. So in total, the team collected 36 eggs from nine clutches. Of the 36 eggs, all were fertile but two failed to develop beyond the very early embryo stage and one egg appeared to be significantly behind the others, i.e. would hatch too late to fit in with a headstarting release, so was returned to a wild nest for parent-rearing. All of the remaining 33 eggs looked to have strong embryos and were due to hatch within days of each other indicating that a single release (our preferred strategy) would be possible. After a few days of calm and quiet with 33 eggs safely settled in the incubator, the eggs began to wobble and move as the chicks were stirring inside and getting ready to hatch. On 2 July, all eggs looked close to hatching so were transferred to the ‘hatcher’ (an incubator set-up for hatching with slightly different conditions to the main egg incubator). That evening at 6:40 pm, the first chick hatched and within hours there were three. By 5 July, 22 chicks had hatched leaving 10 eggs still on the way. If you’re keeping an eye on the numbers, you might be thinking why not 11 eggs left? Unfortunately, it’s not all good news. One chick appeared to start to hatch too early (approximately 36 hours before it was due based on egg weight and volume) and sadly died about an hour after breaking through its eggshell. But otherwise, the chicks are doing really well. All the chicks that have been moved out of the brooder (a warm and comfy set-up for new hatchlings) are looking healthy and feeding well. Roland and the team will now be ridiculously busy caring for the chicks round-the-clock but hopefully we’ll learn the fate of the 10 remaining eggs very soon and get more good news about how the chicks are developing. Blink and it’ll be release day!  

Hatching and heartbreak for the Spoon-billed Sandpiper captive breeding programme

From elation to devastation. Over the last few days, the two viable eggs at Slimbridge successfully hatched producing two perfect looking Spoon-billed Sandpiper chicks. The chicks seemed to do well initially but their health deteriorated and within 60 hours of hatching both chicks died. The viable egg from the first clutch hatched at 9 am on Saturday (2 July) surprising us all with how quickly it hatched. Spoon-billed Sandpipers normally take 24–36 hours to completely hatch but with the first break in the eggshell appearing at 7 am, this feisty, little chick managed it in just two hours. As far as we could tell, the chick was healthy and behaving normally – tired from the effort of hatching and still wet from the egg, the chick understandably wanted a rest. It soon dried out and regained some energy and began exploring. The next day, on Sunday, the other viable egg, from the second clutch, hatched just after 10 am. Again all looked good. Nothing obvious to worry about – although we were always aware that the first few days would be the most challenging and that it would be difficult to breathe easy until the chicks were walking around strongly and feeding well. But we were elated – two healthy-looking chicks from two eggs in two days. Later that day, the first chick developed a leg problem and its health gradually deteriorated. On Monday afternoon the chick sadly died. The second chick, however, seemed to be thriving and developing well. But yesterday, despite round-the-clock expert care, this chick also took a turn for the worse, deteriorating quickly and slipping away within a couple of hours. We are devastated. The causes of death are as yet unknown. Both chicks have been sent for specialist post mortem which we hope will reveal why these chicks failed to survive and help us prevent the same problem in future. We are trying to remember that despite its crushing end, this year has seen the first eggs, the first fertile eggs and the first hatchlings for captive Spoon-billed Sandpipers – a year that should still be celebrated although it’s going to take some time before we can reflect on it with a sense of celebration. Our hopes are now pinned on efforts in Russia. The same day the first chick hatched at Slimbridge, 4,500 miles away the first chick also hatched at base camp in Meinypil’gyno, followed closely by its three brood mates. There’ll be a full update soon on developments from the field. We’re hoping the next update from Roland will lift our spirits! Stay tuned.

News from the field: An almost full incubator, a breakdown and T8!

A quick update to let you know that the team in Russia now has 32 eggs, not all the collection trips have gone smoothly with the quad bike transporting the last clutch breaking down at the western oil drills, and another headstarted bird, White T8, has been spotted. Roland has let us know that the team now has 32 eggs – eight complete clutches of four – safe in an incubator at base camp. Twenty of these are fertile and developing well. It’s too soon to tell if the other 12 are also viable but signs are good. The team hope to collect one more clutch giving them a total of 36. If Roland and the team can achieve the same high levels of hatching and rearing success they have in previous years and all 36 eggs are viable, it may be possible to release 29-30 fledgling Spoon-billed Sandpipers, a new record for the project. The last collection trip didn’t go entirely to plan. Nikolai and Ivan went back to an area of the western oil drills to look for the nest of a pair that had not been found on the last survey. Having found the nest, Nikolai and Ivan decided to collect the eggs straight away to avoid any risk of predation (foxes and stoats seem to be in high numbers this year). Unfortunately, their quad bike broke down on the 25km return journey and by the time it was repaired, they didn’t get back to base camp until 2 am. Fortunately, the team always carry a back-up incubator battery (a car battery), so the eggs at least didn’t mind the long delay and when candled the embryos were large and well developed. This is definitely a case of me counting our eggs before they’ve hatched which I really shouldn’t do but I’ve been thinking about the numbers a lot lately and this could be a special year. Over the last four years, 81 birds have been released so if 19 or more are released this year we’ll have reached the 100 mark. A milestone that felt very far away when the programme began back in 2012 with the pilot release of nine birds. The latest global population estimate is around 200 pairs. For a population that size, 30 headstarted fledglings will be about 20% of all the fledglings produced by the entire global population. No pressure then Roland, Nikolai, Pavel, Egor and Ivan! Another bit of good news is that White T8 has been spotted. White T8 was headstarted in 2014 so is the second of that cohort and the fifth headstarted bird to be spotted so far this year.   The Comments section is now working. We would love to hear from you!

Two of the eggs at Slimbridge are fertile and developing well

On Tuesday, the eggs at Slimbridge were candled (tested for fertility) and at least two eggs are looking good! One egg from the first clutch and one from the second. As described in the blog announcing the eggs, the captive Spoon-billed Sandpipers at Slimbridge produced two clutches of eggs around two weeks ago. The first clutch, of three eggs, appeared to contain eggs of poor quality with the first two eggs looking chalky and thin-shelled, and the third egg soft-shelled. The second clutch looked much better and was a complete clutch of four eggs. Here’s what’s happened to the eggs since they were laid. Unfortunately but not unexpectedly, the third egg from the first clutch (the soft-shelled one) collapsed after only a few days. The egg was sent to Professor Tim Birkhead‘s team at Sheffield University for analysis. The other two eggs from the first clutch (the thin-shelled ones) lost water too quickly over their first few days of incubation and were moved to a more humid incubator. Despite the best efforts of the team to restrict water loss, one of these eggs continued to lose water rapidly. After 5 days of incubation, it had already lost over 15% of its total weight which is what we’d hope for after the full 21 days of incubation. We lost hope quite early on that this egg could support a viable embryo. BUT surprisingly the second thin-shelled egg reacted well to the humid incubator and its weight loss quickly took on a normal trajectory. The four eggs from the second clutch have lost water (and therefore weight) basically as we’d expect. Although we aim for approximately a 15% weight loss, eggs of different sizes, shapes and shell composition will naturally vary from the 15% ‘ideal’ and generally anything between 10 and 20% can be ok. So these eggs aren’t perfectly on the 15% line but all are within normal bounds. One of the four has lost weight a bit quicker than the other three (which we think might be because of a tiny Spoon-billed Sandpiper toenail-sized puncture hole) but with extra humidity is not too far off track. And then they were candled. Candling is the simple process of checking the fertility of an egg by simply holding the egg up to a light source to illuminate what’s going on inside. As you can probably guess, it gets its name from when people used candles as the light source. After around seven days of incubation, if an egg is fertile, it’s usually possible to see blood vessels and even movement by the tiny embryo. A lack of blood vessels is an indicator that an egg is either infertile or that the embryo died very early in incubation. But it isn’t always clear cut. Some egg shells are too thick to allow good illumination and as you can imagine, blood vessels and embryos in Spoon-billed Sandpiper eggs are incredibly small and sometimes just not visible until later in incubation. The eggs at Slimbridge were candled on 21 June – about half way through incubation. We were of course hoping that all the eggs would be fertile but based on the experience of other wader breeding programmes, there was also a good chance none would be fertile. The two thin-shelled eggs were candled first. The first egg, the one that is losing water far too quickly, showed no signs of embryo development and its thin shell gave us a clear look inside. The second egg, however, looked good! Blood vessels and a live embryo. Fantastic and unexpected considering the quality of these eggs. The four ‘good’ eggs were next. Nothing could be seen in eggs one, two or three. We can’t be certain that these eggs don’t contain living embryos. The shells seem a bit thicker than normal and it wasn’t possible to get a really good look. So the conclusion is that these eggs are probably not developing but there’s a small chance they are so they’ll continue to be incubated. We expected egg four to look the same as its clutch mates, but when the light was flicked on, there were blood vessels! Hurray!! So we have two eggs that are definitely fertile and developing, one definitely not and three probably nots but possibles. And it’s great that the two eggs are from different clutches and therefore have different parents and different genetic backgrounds. All being well, the thin-shelled egg is due to hatch on or around Wednesday 29 June and the other fertile egg three days later, on or around Saturday 2 July. Fingers-crossed that two tiny fluff balls with long legs and funny-looking bills are wobbling around us very soon! Spoon-billed Sandpipers weight about 5 grams when they hatch – about the same as a teaspoon of sugar! The Comments section has been fixed! We would love to hear from you.

News from the field: More eggs and some good and bad news from the western oil drills

Update just in from Roland: the western area of Meinypil’gyno is proving good for pairs this year, a bird from the 2014 headstarting cohort has been spotted and 20 eggs are in the incubator. On the 15 June, a small team including Nikolai, Egor and Roman and Sveta’s family, headed off to survey ‘the western oil drills’ for breeding activity. This area is to the west of the main area at Meinypil’gyno and in recent years has held 1-3 breeding pairs. It was hoped that eggs would be collected from two pairs already known to be using the area. Unfortunately, the nests of both pairs appeared to have been predated. The good news. The dryer conditions this year have opened up a larger area of the western oil drills as breeding habitat and the Spoon-billed Sandpipers are taking advantage. The team estimate that there are between 5 and 7 pairs in the area this year. Among them is a two-year-old headstarted bird, released in 2014. It’s the first of the 2014 cohort to be spotted at Meinypil’gyno and has an interesting history. In 2014, while the bird was in the care of the headstarting team, it was fitted with a leg-flag but shortly after developed an abscess on its flagged leg. The flag was removed and the bird treated with a 6-day course of antibiotics. As a result, the bird didn’t appear to be as fit as the others released and its chances of surviving migration were thought to be low. Further to that, the lack of a flag meant identifying it in the wild would be difficult after it left the breeding grounds. Despite the lack of a flag, it was spotted and identified on the Jiangsu coast of China in October 2015 and seems to have spent the 2015/16 winter in southern China with a sighting in December 2015 and another in January 2016. And here it is two years after release, alive and well and paired with a female, proving that all the extra care and attention that this bird received was well worth the effort. On the 16 June, egg collection efforts focused on an area to the north. Nikolai and Ivan collected two clutches of four eggs giving us a total of 20 eggs to date. So that the numbers all add up. In a previous blog, we reported the collection of 11 eggs from three pairs. Since then, one more egg was collected from one of those pairs. So that’s five complete clutches of four eggs so far.

News from the field: First eggs collected in Russia

Egg collection at Meinypil’gyno is underway and another headstarted bird has been spotted – White E7, headstarted just last year. The first eggs required for the headstarting programme were collected a couple of days ago, on 13 June. Three clutches have been collected so far totalling 11 eggs. So Thermometer Watch 2016 is underway! Monitoring incubator temperature isn’t quite as simple as it might sound. The temperature inside an incubator can vary significantly between different areas (depending on the incubator type and model) and even calibrated thermometers often don’t agree with each other. Roland will be using different types of thermometers and positioning them throughout the incubators. All the temperature readings will be carefully watched and recorded to closely monitor the conditions being provided for these precious eggs. And it doesn’t stop there. Room temperature must also be controlled and monitored – an incubator on the same temperature setting will run at a higher temperature in a warm room than in a cold room. Considering the warm conditions experienced so far in Meinypil’gyno, the portable air conditioner, a vital part of the aviculture kit, will have whirred into action providing a cool, stable room temperature in the (so far) peaceful incubation room. And in other news, White E7, a male Spoon-billed Sandpiper headstarted in 2015, has been spotted at Meinypil’gyno (photo below). Egor, Pavel and Nikolai observed the bird yesterday in the company of a female who is marked with a light green leg-flag. Unfortunately, the flag couldn’t be read but hopefully the team will get another chance to confirm the female’s identity. Could it be Light green 02, the female half of the famous Monument pair? Or perhaps Light green 8, the most prolific headstarted female to date? We’ll let you know! For those of you keen for news on the Slimbridge eggs, there’s nothing to report yet. The eggs haven’t been candled yet so are still of unknown fertility. Watch this space (and keep everything crossed)…

Spoon-billed Sandpipers have finally laid eggs at WWT Slimbridge!

Two weeks ago we updated you on some positive signs that the captive population at WWT Slimbridge might breed this year. Now we have the great pleasure to tell you that WE HAVE EGGS, the first captive Spoon-billed Sandpiper eggs in history. We have been nervously watching the birds since February for signs breeding might occur this year. We watched the birds moult on schedule into breeding plumage. The females progressed better into their russet summer plumage than they had in previous years which was our first sign that this year might be different. Despite their good-looking plumage, by April we weren’t seeing the breeding behaviours we’d seen at the same time in previous years so we started to prepare ourselves for the crushing disappointment of no eggs again. But then slowly but surely the males started to sing and nest scrapes were made… and at the end of May, as mentioned in a previous blog, we started to see behaviour we hadn’t seen before. Two females were sitting in nest scrapes each with a male displaying in very close proximity. We remained pessimistic – after all there were good signs last year that came to nothing. On the 2 June, the team caught video footage of a pair mating and for the next three days, that pair and another were seen mating frequently. At this point, cautious optimism was creeping in and I think all of us had started holding our breath. It was difficult to think about anything else during these days. At 10pm on the night of the 4 June when I was away at a friend’s birthday party, I text Tanya Grigg, one of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper aviculturists, daring to ask when we might expect eggs if they were going to come – should we have them by now, would it be days, a week? Tan reassured me that it could be a week but every bird is different. At 7.39 the next morning, I was woken up by my phone – a text had arrived from Tan. It couldn’t be could it? “They’ve only gone and done it!!!!!!!!! Blue Left and Pink Pink Right have an egg” I crawled out of my tent, half-asleep, read the text one more time just to be sure and burst into tears. It’s hard to describe the emotions pinned on this egg. More than anything it’s relief. Since the first eggs were collected by Nigel Jarrett and the team on 19 June 2011, this little population has been meticulously cared for and worried about. The team constantly adjusting their techniques and making subtle and sometimes dramatic changes to their living environments in an effort to give the birds what they need for health, happiness and breeding. I make that 1,813 days of care and worry. I’m not directly involved in caring for the birds anymore (I get to do the exciting office based stuff) but work very closely with those who do. As well as being a great step-forward for the project, the partners and potentially the species, I’m over-the-moon that the people who look after the birds day-in and day-out have finally had their efforts rewarded. It is so deserved. We didn’t make an announcement about the first egg earlier because we weren’t sure how the next few days would unravel. The first egg appeared “a bit chalky” and not perfectly shaped so there was some concern this egg and any subsequent ones would be poor quality or that only one would be laid. Spoon-billed Sandpiper females produce one egg approximately every 36 hours until they have three to four eggs so we just had to watch and wait for more eggs to arrive. And so they did! The evening of the day the first egg was laid, a second pair laid its first egg. This time discovered by Nicky Hiscock. Each pair then continued to produce eggs – the first pair stopping at three and the second pair producing a full clutch of four. The last egg was laid at the end of last week. The eggs are now in incubators and being closely monitored. The eggs of the first pair are a concern: as well as the first egg, the second is also chalky and the third egg is soft shelled. Two of these eggs are losing water too rapidly (water naturally evaporates from the egg during incubation so that the egg actually loses weight between laying and hatching) so special measures are being taken to reduce the water loss and give them the best chance we can. The four eggs of the second pair, however, are exactly as we’d expect – colouration, texture, size and water loss all perfect. Now we just have to find out if they’re fertile… The eggs will be candled in a day or two at which point it should be possible to see the characteristic blood vessels of fertile eggs, which don’t develop in infertile eggs. The elation will either abruptly end that day or we’ll move on to the next obstacles of embryo development and hatching. Please keep everything crossed for these eggs (and hopefully more)! A huge thank you to everyone who has supported this project and enabled us to get this far. For the official press release which includes links to more photos and a video, click here. P.S. For those of you who follow the blog and are familiar with the Monument pair (wild Spoon-billed Sandpipers marked Light green 01 and Light green 02), we were really pleased to discover that one of the breeding females is their offspring. Particularly meaningful for us because this is the first year since 2010 that the Monument pair has not returned to their nesting site at Meinypil’gyno.

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