Saving the Spoon Billed Sandpiper

Saving one of the world's rarest birds from extinction

Spoon-billed Sandpiper Announcement

It’s with great pride and sadness that we announce the successful breeding of the first spoonie chick at Slimbridge and the first ever anywhere in the world, however the bird has sadly died. Just as we were about to officially announce the news, it died of a tragic flying injury that could not have been prevented. Despite the misfortunate outcome, the spoonie’s arrival sparks a significant breakthrough in conservation breeding. It is the result of eight years of hard work, perfecting conditions to allow the world’s only captive flock of spoonies to breed. Due to their extreme lifestyles – they migrate from tropical Asia to Arctic Russia to breed – the team were faced with a huge challenge. After doing their best to recreate that experience in the aviaries here – using special lightbulbs, timer switches and diet analysis, they finally made a breakthrough this summer. The “arked” population at Slimbridge was established in 2011 in case time ran out to save the bird in the wild. All along its migratory route, spoonies are threatened by illegal hunting and human encroachment of important mudflats. However since then, there are signs that the wild population may be starting to recover thanks to the Spoon-billed Sandpiper Task Force working across the birds’ range from Russia to China to Myanmar and Bangladesh. Learning from the experience of breeding birds at Slimbridge, a head-starting programme for spoon-billed sandpipers has been underway in Russia since 2012, involving the collection of eggs from incubating birds in the wild, hatching and hand-raising the chicks in captivity to fledging age, and releasing the birds back into the wild. Skipping the particularly risky incubation and rearing phases helps protects the eggs and increases the chicks chances of survival. This technique has boosted the number of young spoon-billed sandpipers bred each year in the wild by a quarter – 163 birds have been released so far. There are many positives to be taken from the significant developments of this year. Our dedicated, hard-working team have done a brilliant job, earning a world’s first in the process. There are a lot of real positives to build on and I’m sure their professionalism and first-class expertise will lead to greater successes in the future.

News from the Field: Onto the Release Pen!

A lot has happened since the last update on the 19th July. Here’s the story so far… By the 12 July all those that were able to hatch had done so. In the first 24/48 hours of a chick’s life it gets nourishment from the remaining yolk inside its body. This gives the chicks time to dry and rest before having to venture out and find food and water. As the chicks become active we move them in groups of 4 or 5 according to age and strength from the ‘Dryer’ to the ‘Brooders’. It was clear early on that 2 chicks were noticeably weak for their age. Though it was touch-and-go at times with some TLC, high energy supplement and careful monitoring they soon joined their brood-mates. The chicks are initially fed a pellet diet made especially for waders and insect protein mix, all crushed up and served in small dishes of water. Around the brooder we also sprinkle mosquitoes (fortunately the tundra is full of them!) and dry insect mix. These contrasting colours on the brooder floor stimulates them to peck and eat. Spoon-billed sandpipers are precocial birds which means they hatch well developed with the ability to feed themselves. At around 3 days old they are also given live aquatic invertebrates, mostly Daphnia. The movement of these also stimulates them to feed and marks the start of their ‘training’ to being totally independent. During the indoor rearing phase the chicks are monitored regularly and the food dishes changed every 3 hours, day and night. Ivan and Nickolay take most shifts, all between building the release pen, catching Daphnia and mosquitoes! Absolute heros. Each day the temperature is decreased and less food is crushed until around 7 days old they are moved to the release pen. At first they are put into small coops with heat lamps until they adjust to their new climate. Soon the coop door is opened giving them access to a small corral. Each day the corral is made slightly bigger until two groups merge into one. Finally the corrals are removed giving them all access to the entire release pen. The youngest birds are now 15 days old. Most of the downy feathers they began with have now been replaced with juvenile plumage. Their bodies are now more proportionate to their legs and the bill has elongated much resembling the adults. In other Spoonie news, the pairs who’s first clutch was collected for headstarting have now finished incubating their second! This is a good opportunity to catch and ring adults and their new broods. Only a few days left until release! Stay tuned for updates soon. Written 29th July.

News from the Field: The First Chicks

On the 5th July the first eggs began to pip, 5 days on and we have 14 chicks so far! The eggs are weighed regularly throughout incubation to track their progress but as due date approaches they are checked carefully for the first signs of hatching. At around 19 days of incubation the developing chick needs more oxygen than what it is receiving through the egg shell. It begins to move and with its beak pushes through the internal membrane to the air space within the egg to take its first breath. Sometime after it gathers the strength to make the first tiny break in the shell. The chick at this point is pretty well exhausted. It can take another 3 or 4 days for it to fully release itself from the shell. During this time it is absorbing the last of the yolk that’s kept it nourished through incubation. It has also taken in some of the calcium from the egg shell itself to use within its body and also making it easier to break through. Once we can see the external pip the whole clutch is moved to the ‘Hatcher’. This is because they now require a slightly different set of conditions to hatch successfully. The temperature is reduced fractionally and the humidity increased. When the chicks hatch they are given a colour ring so we can tell them apart, then they are put in a ‘Dryer’ where the temperature is reduced fractionally again and the humidity significantly lower. Once dry the chicks are moved to a ‘Brooder’. Before being moved the are fitted with an additional metal ring and a white engraved leg flag. These are put on early in the birds life to ensure they acclimatise to them quickly. In other Spoonie news 3 satellite tags have been deployed to 3 males. These tiny tags are solar powered and designed to drop off when the birds moult into their winter plumage on their staging grounds in China. We are hoping they may lead us to previously unknown staging sites on their way south from Meinypil’gyno. To date 16 pairs have been found in the core area (3 more last last year) and 5 head-started birds have been sighted 1P, 1X, A7, 1T and Pink Left. Stayed tuned for more updates soon. Written on the 10th July.

News from the field: A Close Encounter with the Loons

Update from James Phillips who is now back in the UK There are certain iconic birds that capture the imagination, that define a given landscape or habitat or are just emblematic of those beautiful remote wild places that we all on occasion dream about. The White-billed Diver or the Yellow-billed Loon (as it is known in North America) is one such bird and a true species of the arctic wilderness, occurring across the Eurasian, Russian and North American arctic, breeding on lakes and slow moving rivers in low lying tundra regions. A number of these wonderful birds nest on Lake Pekul’neyskoye, a huge deep freshwater lake surrounded by snow-capped peaks and vast rolling tundra hills which forms an integral part of the land of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper at Meinypil’gyno. A nice local link to this is that the species was actually first described by G. R. Gray in 1859 and named Gavia adamsii after the surgeon Dr Adams who collected the first specimen aboard the H.M.S. Enterprise during the vessel’s voyage through the Bering Strait, not too far away from Meinypil’gyno itself. As we carried out our spoonie field work each day we would catch distant glimpses of these most magical of birds as they commuted between the lake and the open Bering Sea, and sometimes we would hear their eerie laughter-like flight calls as they flew by. Then one day while taking a short lunch break upon the shores of the mighty lake Chris Kelly and I happened upon a wonderful experience with the Loons. In beautiful still conditions with the lake surface looking like a huge reflective mirror, we came across three adult summer plumaged birds close inshore in a secluded bay. They seemed very inquisitive, drifting in closer and closer to where we were standing watching from the shore. AND they really did come in very close….. This gave us a unique opportunity to study these exquisite looking birds at close quarters and to view their intricate, perfectly defined lattice-like patterned plumage, their strange piecing red eyes, that amazing huge yellow bill. The behaviour and interaction between the three birds was fascinating, including one bird giving an amazing territory call, the sound of which carried across the huge still lake…… And who knows, these birds may even be related to the very first birds described to science back in 1859 from aboard the H.M.S Enterprise.  

News from the Field: A Full Incubator

Spirits are high now the incubator is full and the River mouth is finally open! This year a grand total of 35 eggs have been collected by Nickolay and Ivan, 31 before the re-lay cut-off date (21st June) allowing females the chance to lay a second clutch and males to rear their own brood. Most were collected within the core survey area meaning a shorter journey to the village via quad bike, but 2 trips had to be made further afield travelling by quad and boat. Naturally there are some eggs that are infertile and some that are fertile that died early on. This can be due to a number of factors mostly out of our control, for example, genetic abnormalities or ageing parent birds causing weak embryos. These eggs have been removed and will be sent away for further analysis. 28 eggs remain in the incubators. Now water levels are receding construction of the release pen has begun. The rearing house is also being prepared for the arrival of the chicks with brooders and heat lamps ready for the indoor rearing stage. In the last few days we’ve seen an influx of mosquitoes and aquatic invertebrates, collections have already begun but we’re still hopeful for even bigger swarms in the coming days. A number of spoonies have been newly flagged this year, meaning all of the known spoonies in the core area this year are now marked. Flagging enables re-sighting of birds which allows us to estimate populations, track feeding sites and record pairings and parentage. In the last few days Ewan Weston has also arrived in Meino ready to deploy 3 satellite tags which will give us even more insight to the secretive lives of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper. By strategically choosing which birds to tag (those that haven’t been sighted in the known areas) we hope that they will reveal new migration stop-overs and moulting points. Stay tuned for more updates soon. Written on 2nd July 2018 Other sightings While the rearing team sit tight with the incubators the field team continue their surveys in the core and surrounding areas. As well as collecting data on Spoonies they monitor and collect data from many other bird species. Red Knot adults are also fitted with flags and in previous years have been fitted with data loggers to track incubation length. The nests are monitored too, close attention is paid around hatching time as the chicks are also ringed and flagged in hope of future sightings. Tern numbers are also estimated and nests counted. There is a large colony and sub colony totalling around 100 individuals comprising of mostly Arctic and Common Tern. A handful of Aleutian Tern have also been seen and heard within the flock with at least one pair on eggs. It’s not just birds we’ve been seeing in Meina! We have been lucky enough to see bears almost every day. On our travels to the outer most spit we have been treated to Beluga in groups of 50+, Grey Whale so close you can smell their breath and Larger Seal in excess of 400 individuals hauled out at the river mouth. Red Fox and Wolverine have also been spotted close to the mountains. Ground squirrel are also present in high numbers.

News from the Field: The First Eggs

The first few eggs are safe in the incubator, but the search for more nesting pairs continues… Finding Spoon-billed Sandpiper pairs has been a little tricky this year. Normally very site loyal they tend to nest in the same place every year but with the heavy flooding many birds have been displaced. The unusual amount of snow has also meant access to certain areas has been difficult or not at all possible. Though the weather has been mostly warm and sunny, melting the snow quickly, it is only contributing to the flooding. With the river mouth still closed the water level is now higher than the sea! In 2011 Meina experienced similar flooding and pairs were found further East than usual. A trip was made to this location recently but no pairs were found at this time. There were plenty of White-fronted goose nests as well as a clutch of 6 Emperor Goose eggs. Another trip may be made here in the in the coming days and a trip further West is on the agenda too.   On a lighter note! To date around 10 pairs have been found in the areas we have been able to search. During the searches paired males have been observed performing song flights, nest scraping, and defending territories/females from other males. 3 headstarted birds have also been spotted, P1, A7 and 1X. 3 active nests have been found so far with the first egg found on the 14th June. It was collected the same day and replaced with a dummy. Each egg was collected fresh and replaced with a dummy in this way until she laid a full clutch of 4. Eggs are best transported as fresh as possible, those that have been partially incubated are more susceptible to vibration during transportation. We currently have 11 eggs in the incubator, carefully collected and processed (weighed and measured) by Nickolay and Ivan over the last few days. This time last year most clutches had already been collected with more established pairs found around Meinypil’gyno. There are still a few more places left to search so there is still hope we will reach our full quota of eggs this year. As I write we are waiting at the rearing house for the call that more eggs have been located! Stayed tuned for more updates soon. Written on 17th June 2018. Other Sightings with James Phillips One of the exciting additional perks to our fieldwork on Spoonies has been the other species we encounter each day as we survey the core areas for breeding pairs and look for nests of the Spoon-billed sandpiper. We are seeing a wide range of species which are either new to us all or which are unfamiliar as breeding species back home in the UK. Being able to see these species up close and in their breeding habitats learning more about their breeding biology has been fascinating and a real privilege. Species such as Sandhill cranes, White-fronted goose, Greater scaup, Long-tailed duck and Pacific diver all breed in good numbers at Meina. It has been wonderful to hear the sound of Sandhill cranes and the haunting calls of Pacific diver echoing around us and across the beautiful wide open tundra landscapes we have been surveying each day for the last two weeks. Their calls make for a wonderful soundscape to our work each day. We are regularly seeing the rare Emperor goose, which is a globally restricted species a breeding only along the Bering Sea coast in Chukotka and western Alaska. Waders are well represented too and we are finding Red-necked stints, Dunlin, Red-necked phalaropes, Ringed, Pacific golden and Mongolian plovers all breeding in the costal habitats and tundra hills we survey each day. Passerines such as Red-throated pipit, Buff-bellied pipit and Lapland bunting all make the open tundra their home. It’s been strange to see Skylarks here breeding on the open tundra, a species you normally associate with farmland and grassland back home. Even in the small settlement of Meina where we are staying Snow buntings are common, breeding in among the houses of the village. They seem to ‘serenade’ us each morning with their friendly song as we go for breakfast and before we start our field work!

News from the Field: We’ve arrived! And so have the Spoonies..

We’ve finally reached Meinypil’gyno and already can’t wait to get stuck in to the 2018 season! Our journey from Heathrow to Meina has taken 5 days, with a short delay in Moscow and a 1 day extra wait for the helicopter at Anadyr. Being met by Russian staff at Moscow and Anadyr helped us considerably through customs and passport control which has meant a relatively straight forward trip that we are very thankful for! Being delayed in Anadyr did allow us time to explore the town and surrounding tundra habitat for migrating birds (see ‘Other sightings with James Phillips’ below). We also had wonderful close encounters with displaying Long-toed Stint and Red-necked Phalarope. The last leg of the journey to Meinypil’gyno is by helicopter. Flying so low to the ground allows you to guage how wild and remote the area really is. Being level with snow covered mountain peaks is something else! On arrival we were met by Nikolay and the team who took us to our home for the next two months. They arrived some weeks ago and told us they had seen their first two Spoon-billed Sandpipers to arrive back the day before on the 6th June. This is later than normal but we are hopeful this will work in their favour as they will now be able see the flooded areas and avoid nesting in them. There has been much more snow here than in previous years and with the good weather we are having it is melting fast. The river mouth is yet to be unblocked but as soon as it is water levels will decrease rapidly. After a hearty dinner from Sveta and a good night’s sleep James, Chris and I trekked out for our first day in search of spoonies. We had little luck in the morning but by late afternoon we came across 2 birds in beautiful breeding plumage. One was Lime 38 and the other unmarked. We were first drawn to them after hearing the unmistakable song of the male. Listening for birds is definitely one of the best ways to locate them as we found in the coming days. To date we have seen 4 or 5 individuals. More spoonies have also been spotted further east with more arriving every day. Stayed tuned for more sightings soon! Written on 9th June 2018. Other Sightings with James Phillips Our wait in Anadyr was well spent and allowed us get our eye in for the fantastic bird assemblage to be found in this part of the world. Bird migration is in full swing and the open tundra habitat close to where we were staying was alive to the sounds newly arrived waders with many displaying Common Snipe, Wood Sandpiper, Temminck’s Stint, lecking Ruff, Long-toed Stint and Sandhill Cranes all seen, with migrating Red-necked Phalaropes, Grey Phalarope, Great Knot and Long-billed Dowitcher and flocks of Pomarine and Long-tailed Skuas all moving through the landscape. While Bluethroats and Alaskan Wagtails seem to be singing and displaying from every small bush and tree dotted across the tundra. Those pools that were free of ice and snow held good numbers of migrating duck with Long-tailed Duck, Greater Scaup, White-winged Scoter, Common Eider, Northern Pintail, Greater White-fronted Goose, Eurasian Wigeon, Tundra Swan, Black Brant, American Wigeon and Green-winged Teal all seen. Being so close to where the Old world meets the New world was not lost on us and this was reflected in the birds we were seeing, it was very exciting to watch Eurasian Teal, Green-winged Teal, American Wigeon and Eurasian Wigeon together side by side.  

News from the Field: Initial Report

Preparations in Russia have begun for the 2018 breeding season! Most of the headstarting team are already in Meinypil’gyno awaiting the return of the Spoon-billed Sandpipers. This year the headstarting team welcomes a new member. Jodie Clements has been working with the Slimbridge Spoonies for the past year and is now looking forward to spending the next 2 months assisting with the incubation and rearing of the Spoon-billed Sandpipers in Meinypil’gyno. Roland Digby has recently started his new birdy adventure in Quatar but has promised he’ll return to Meino soon! Initial reports from the team suggest Meino has experienced some of the worst snow it’s had in the last 18 years. The headstarting house was hidden under 3 metre drifts, with much of the surrounding tundra under a metre of snow. Though it seems to be melting quickly, flooding is expected over the coming weeks. More team members are due to fly out soon to assist with monitoring and surveying in these difficult conditions. Despite the weather, spirits are high and everyone is looking forward to another productive season in the field. Stay tuned for more ‘News from the Field’.    

Slimbridge Spoonies: A Quick Update

The seven females and their partners seem settled in their breeding aviaries… but will they lay eggs? ‘Time-shifting’ the Spoonies, by six weeks, has so far, led to many birds acquiring breeding plumage six weeks sooner. With the beginning of territorial singing coinciding with the Beast from the East, bringing snow and tundra temperatures in the last week of March, we had a Chukotkan Spring at just the right time! During the last fortnight, ‘paired’ males have been observed singing, more often than not on top of the 0.4m high mounds we made this winter. We expected these might be more likely to be used as ‘visual barriers’ behind which birds could hide, if need be, and not so much as places from which they could proclaim their presence, which they are: boldly! loudly! vehemently! Some males are also now ‘frog calling’ (something you have to see to get what we mean) and to ‘nest scrape’ with their partner females responding with sub-songs and wing salutes. So far two males have made nest scrapes and their partners have been inspecting these -nest scrapes are mini cup-cake size depressions in the vegetation and we cant yet tell if the girls are impressed with them… time will tell. Stay tuned for more updates VERY soon! Written 19th April.

Latest Newsletter from the Spoon-billed Sandpiper Task Force

You wont find a more in-depth or compelling compilation of Spoon-billed Sandpiper news any where else! Discover recent sightings along the East Asian-Australasian Flyway. Find out more about Spoon-billed sandpiper migration and tagging efforts to aid field surveys. Read the latest on conserving coastal wetlands in China, and the actions being taken to prevent hunting of shorebirds in Bangladesh. You can even find out how the Spoon-billed Sandpiper is influencing artists and bakers alike. You will find all this and more in the full newsletter here! If you’d like to read past newsletters or find out more about the Spoon-billed Sandpiper Task Force you can visit their website here. Stayed tuned for more Spoonie updates soon!        

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