Saving the Spoon Billed Sandpiper

Saving one of the world's rarest birds from extinction

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!        

Slimbridge Spoonies: In the snow!


Although not everyone has enjoyed the extra snow this weekend, the Spoonies at Slimbridge are having the time of their lives! We thought you’d like to see some of the snowy scenes at the Spoon-billed Sandpiper facility brought by the ‘Beast from the East’ at the start of March and in the last few days.                   Here’s a picture of one of the empty breeding aviaries! While the Spoonies enjoy the snow the team look forward to Spring sunshine ready for the breeding season!      

Slimbridge Spoonies- A Quick Update


Since the decision was made to time-shift the Spoonies (bring the breeding season forward by altering day length) things have been a little apprehensive in the polytunnels… so has it paid off? For most of their lives the Spoonies have experienced artificial day lengths, using artificial lights, which simulate where they would likely be if they were living in the wild. Sites include the breeding grounds in Russia to the wintering grounds in Myanmar, and all the stop overs in between. It took some time for their moult cycles to match this photoperiod, but now they correlate well. Since it took a lot of time and effort from the team to achieve these results, there were naturally concerns about time-shifting the Spoonies as they feared it could have adverse effects. However, if it worked the benefits would be immense. The time-shift began on 10 October 2017 whereby the photoperiod was altered so that it was 7 weeks earlier than in previous years. We’re pleased to tell you that initial signs look promising! Most of the birds have begun their summer moult approximately 7 weeks early in response to the time-shift. Blue Right (a 2011 male) is demonstrating a typical moult starting with the scapulars. The team have also finished replacing the netting in the polytunnel ready for the imminent breeding season. Stay tuned for more updates soon!

Slimbridge Spoonies: New Year, New Hope.


Preparations for next season are well underway! Here’s a brief summary of what the Spoonies have been up to post breeding season. Since our last update in July the captive Spoonies (and the team) have been very busy indeed. Once it was established the breeding season was over the birds were put back together as a flock, a stirring of Spoonies if you will! Shortly after, they began their steady moult into winter plumage. During this time the team got together with experts from far and wide to review the season and plan for next year. As has previously been mentioned the loss of the breeding males last year was a massive blow to the group dynamics and the females they were paired with. The pecking order is now being re-established and all birds are getting on well together. It has been decided that pairing the birds and moving them to their breeding aviaries earlier would give them a longer period to bond and become more familiar with their surroundings. And with a bit of luck the breeding females will take more of a fancy to their new mates! Last year Britain boasted a particularly hot summer. In contrast, at the same time of year, wild Spoon-billed Sandpipers are greeted by snowy scenes as they arrive at the breeding grounds. To avoid the Spoonies having to breed in high temperatures it was decided to artificially bring the breeding season forward by altering their photoperiod. This means that they will experience day lengths that will trigger breeding behaviours to occur in the cooler months of April/May instead of the heat that comes in June/July. In addition to altering the photoperiod we have installed ultra-violet lights. These become very important during our cloudy winter months as wild Spoonies winter on the sunny coasts of Myanmar and Bangladesh. UV light aids with calcium absorption, important for egg production, and sight as birds see a broader spectrum of colour than humans do. While the Spoonies go about their business the team are working hard to maintain the facility here at Slimbridge, replacing netting and refurbishing aviaries, ready for the early 2018 breeding season. Blogs to look forward to! Designing a Breeding Aviary What’s so Special about UV? A Day in the Life of a Slimbridge Spoonie Health Checking

New mission underway to tag Spoon-billed Sandpipers


Update from Guy Anderson, RSPB Its October again, and the brief Arctic summer is well and truly over. The annual cycle of Arctic-breeding waders mirrors the tides that many see every day outside the breeding season. The boreal winter is low tide – birds settled in their wintering quarters. Then as the sun climbs higher in the northern sky, the tide turns and birds flood northward, racing through the spring to reach their nesting grounds. Summer is a brief high tide – the Arctic full of breeding birds and their young. Then the tide turns again, and the southward migration starts, birds ebbing away to warmer climes once more. This is where we are now, our spoonies – first the adults and later the juveniles – have abandoned Meinypil’gyno and other, largely unknown, breeding sites, and headed south west. The juveniles will be lucky if they can follow any adults; most will have to rely on their hard-wired innate behaviour to point them in the right direction and make them respond to the right environmental cues to get them to suitable places to stop off on migration and to spend the winter. Those that get this right will survive and learn; what works one year is likely to work the next, so as adults they tend to use the same spots year in, year out, along their flyway. That’s what makes destruction of their habitats along the flyway such a serious problem for these birds. They can’t ‘just go somewhere else’, because they have no knowledge of where to go – if they stick to the same routes and same places every year then if one of these places vanishes, they simply don’t know anywhere else. Some may get lucky and find an alternative in time before they starve, but some will not. In technical language; loss of key intertidal foraging areas along migratory flyways results in increased mortality of displaced individuals. Or: destroying mudflats kills waders. We have known for some time that loss of mudflat habitat is a serious problem for any waterbird trying to migrate down the east coast of Asia; including our spoonies. Knowing where they stop and refuel is vital in order to be able to try to protect these sites from this, and other, threats. Our satellite tagged birds from the spring and summer have been helping us do just that – revealing stop-off locations between the Yellow Sea and Arctic Russia. Two birds tagged on the breeding grounds are now in Jiangsu Province, China – which increasingly seems like the epicentre of spoonie migration. We thought these birds might reveal a currently unknown migration staging ground and moulting area, but no sign of that so far. Moulting sites for waders are particularly important. Replacing all your feathers is hard work and takes lots of energy, so moulting sites need to provide reliable high quality food resources to allow rapid growth of good quality new feathers. Many wader species within the tide of birds racing out down the East Asian coast stop in Jiangsu for a couple of months to complete this moult, before continuing south. Thanks to Chinese ornithologists – both professional and volunteers – two of the three birds we tagged last autumn – Yellow ET and Yellow HU – have already been seen and photographed back in Jiangsu alive and well and getting on with their moult. Their satellite tags, which were glued on to their back feathers, fell off as planned in late winter/early spring, and now they are back, having completed another annual cycle, right back where they were caught and tagged last year in Jiangsu. See what I mean about sticking to the same sites year on year? So we have a team back in Jiangsu now, attempting to catch more spoonies and continue the satellite tagging project. We are also going to search the mudflats and roosting spots for as many spoonies as we can find, to estimate the proportion of birds that have been marked with individually engraved leg flags, and record which individuals we find. By doing this, and by knowing how many birds have been individually marked in the first place, we can estimate the total world population size, and what proportion of this is present in Jiangsu at this time of year. We’ve had over 70 sightings of spoonies in our first two days of fieldwork, including a few flagged birds and one of our satellite tagged birds from Russia. Good start, and in a week’s time we hope to have a lot more data. The Spoon-billed Sandpiper satellite tagging and survey work in Jiangsu is a collaboration between Nanjing Normal University, BTO, RSPB and WWT, with assistance from Birds Russia, and the Spoon-billed Sandpiper Task Force of the East Asian-Australasian Flyway partnership.

News from the field: Final update from Roland


Update from Roland Digby This will be my last update because, as I type, I’m finally waiting for my helicopter which should be here around 12:00 hrs local time. Things have been going well since the release with the birds growing and losing any remnants of down on their heads as they settled in to life on the marsh, fattening up on insects before starting their migration south. The birds have been spreading out nicely, foraging on different areas of the marsh. Using a mixture of vantage point counts and foot surveys we have maintained contact with the majority most days and all over a three day period. We have also been keeping an eye out for predators such as; foxes, stoats and skuas, and I’m glad to say that no birds have been predated this year. Since the release, we have seen good numbers of migrating waders, most notably dunlin, red-necked stints and western sandpipers, with the migration really picking up around 1 August. This was also the time that our spoonies started to migrate and, as of today 4 August, more than half of the birds have already headed south and we expect the remainder to leave over the coming week. 0C and his chick (lime green U6) are also still both doing well. U6 is 15 days old today so it should be able to fly short distance by tomorrow and be fully fledged by Thursday 10 August. Although 0C has, at times, chased away any of the headstarted cohort that have strayed too close to his chick, this year’s birds have certainly benefited from his vigilance, especially when it came to warning of hunting skuas and chasing away sousliks (ground squirrels) which will happily predate on chicks and young naïve birds. Although unfortunately I won’t get to see U6 fledge, it has been a real privilege and great learning experience to watch it grow. That’s all from me from Meinypil’gyno for this year! Thanks and best wishes to all.

News from the field: The release!


Update from Roland Digby At around 12:00hrs, all 30 of the 2017 cohort of headstarted spoon-billed sandpipers were released. Around three hours before the release all shelters were removed from the pen and dishes moved to the front near the entrance. We’ve adopted this approach as we’ve found that it helps the young birds move out in a more settled manner, as they can be rather reluctant to leave the security of the pen. Just before the release the food dishes were all removed and arranged just outside the entrance, the door was removed and we stepped back to watch the proceedings. It didn’t take long for things to start happening and after around 20 minutes the first bird gingerly left the release aviary. After the first bird had left others quickly followed and within two hours all birds had left the aviary. Upon leaving, the birds quickly melted away into the marsh and, once clear, all food dishes were removed and the pen sealed up. With so many insects around (particularly mosquitos and midges), there was no need for any supplementary feed other than a couple of handfuls of dried mealworms spread around to encourage the birds out and the birds all quickly settled down being all observed happily feeding away during the afternoon and evening when the marsh was surveyed. Other news is that 0C and his chick lime green U6 have moved to our end of the marsh and we’ve been treated to some lovely views of him and his offspring on a daily basis since the day of the release. The chick is doing well and is a real eating machine, growing well on a daily basis. That’s all from me, time permitting I’ll try and get another update sent to you before my helicopter leaves (hopefully) on the 4th.

News from the field: Chick of headstarted pair spotted


Update from Roland Digby On the 24 July, Ivan reported seeing a spoon-billed sandpiper with a white leg flag around 200m north of the release pen. Being aware that the headstarted pair White 0C and U6 had recently hatched two chicks (Light green U6 and Light green V6) from a replacement clutch of four eggs, Nikolai went to investigate. The bird in question was White U6, the female from the successful pair, which was resting close to the edge of Lake Pekulneyskoe prior to migrating south, having now finished with her breeding duties. After photographing U6 from a respectful distance, Nikolay went to the area further to the north to see if 0C was still in its breeding territory and if any of the chicks were still alive. After some careful searching Nikolai was greeted with the sight of 0C and one of the chicks (Light green U6) alive and well, feeding along the edge of an area of marsh. This is great news as this is the first case of a headstarted pair successfully hatching chicks. Whilst being observed, 0C was seen and heard to give alarm calls when a vega gull passed over head, warning the chick to hide until the threat had passed. We’re all keeping our fingers crossed that he’s able to rear this chick to fledging. ————— Release update coming soon! We haven’t yet heard from Roland if the release happened as planned yesterday. Fingers-crossed everything when to plan.

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!

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