Saving the Spoon Billed Sandpiper

Saving one of the world's rarest birds from extinction

Super Spoonie – Lime 07 and the tag that just keeps on giving

Update from Baz Hughes We’ve known for some years now that Spoon-billed Sandpiper Lime 07 is a Super Spoonie, but until this year we didn’t really know how super! The Birds Russia field team, led by Pavel Tomkovich, caught him on his nest, east of Meinypil’gyno, Chukotka, Russia on 23 June 2013 and fitted him with his Lime 07 leg flag and metal ring number KS18827. His mate was fitted with Lime 08 and their clutch of four eggs was taken for headstarting, all four of which hatched and fledged. Although Lime 07 wasn’t seen in Russia in 2014, he was most probably present but not located, as he subsequently reappeared in 2015 along with his mate Lime 08. They only laid two eggs this year, both of which were again taken for headstarting, both of which hatched and both of which were released. In 2016, Lime 07 and Lime 08 again bred together but their nest was not found. However they produced three chicks, all of which were ringed and subsequently fledged. In 2017, Lime 07 was observed in spring with a new unmarked female, but his nest was not found (presumed either flooded or predated). In 2018, Lime 07 again appeared on the breeding grounds at Meinypil’ gyno and this time he was a bird we were very interested in as part of our quest to locate unknown moulting sites as he had never been seen previously at the main moult site in Jiangsu, China. When his nest failed (freshly damaged eggs were found in and around his nest on 4 July) the Russian field team put dummy eggs into the nest which he subsequently began to incubate. This gave them the chance to catch him, which they duly did on 7 July, and his satellite transmitter was fitted. As with all other tagged spoonies to date, the tag was glued on to the lower back – designed to be a non-permanent attachment, with the tag expected to fall off when the bird next moulted all those back feathers. Lime 07 started his migration from Meinypil’gyno on 19 July, flying 1,285km south-west to Magadan, were he staged for 8 days before continuing his migration to northern Sakhalin where he stayed for another 8 days (using 2 sites). He set off on the next (1,981km) leg of his migration on 8 August arriving at Yonan, North Korea on the 11 August where he then remained for 67 days, presumably to moult. We then expected his tag to fall off, as we thought that Spoon-billed Sandpipers undergo a complete post-breeding body moult in autumn, which would mean the feathers supporting the tag would have been lost. Undoubtedly most do, but to our great delight, Lime 07 was to prove an exception to the rule. On 17 October 2018, Lime 07 left North Korea for a non-stop 51 hour 2,400km flight to the south coast of Guangdong Province, China, where he settled on 19 October at a previously unknown staging / wintering site on the west coast of the Leizhou Peninsula. So where would Lime 07 spend the winter? He had previously been sighted on 4 February 2016 at Khok Kham, Samut Sakhon, Thailand; 21 November 2016 at Sonadia Island, Bangladesh, and then again here on 17 February 2017, indicating that Lime 07 spent the entire winter in Bangladesh in 2017, possibly in and around Sonadia Island. As spoonies are thought to be faithful to their wintering sites (i.e. once they find a site they like, they return to it year-on-year). However, recent surveys have discovered that there are significant numbers of Spoon-billed Sandpipers remaining to winter in southern China. Would he stay put or would he move on? Flurries of e-mails were speculating he would move on. And they were right. In the evening (local time) of 28 October, after 9 days in southern China, Lime 07 set off once again. But instead of heading due west towards Bangladesh he headed off south west. As we all waited for the next fix, we expected him to correct his route and thought we’d next find him somewhere over the Thai peninsula heading towards Myanmar and then maybe on to Bangladesh. We waited, and we waited, and we waited until his next fix eventually came in 19 hours later – placing him off the coast of Cambodia! He had continued on his south-westerly bearing and was still flying. And on he flew, and on he flew, and on he flew eventually making landfall in northern Sumatra on the morning (local time) of 30 October after a non-stop 49 hour flight of 2,300km – almost the same distance in the same length of time (and thus at the same speed – 47km/h) as the previous leg of his migration. Now you might think the story ends here – after a marathon 3 ½ month, 9,000km migration from the far north of arctic Russia to the tropical heat of northern Sumatra. But it does not. After seeing that Lime 07 had made landfall in northern Sumatra, the international Spoon-billed Sandpiper Task Force swung into action. This was the first ever record of Spoon-billed Sandpiper in Indonesia at a site which was not known to be an important site for shorebirds. We needed to find out how many shorebirds and how many Spoon-billed Sandpipers were using the site and, importantly, whether Lime 07 was looking okay after it’s marathon migration. Visiting a remote site in northern Sumatra isn’t anything like popping down to your local estuary in the UK, or even visiting well known wintering sites along the flyway. Could we manage to find someone who could get out into the field and hopefully find and even photograph Lime 07? Thankfully the Spoon-billed Sandpiper Task Force has contacts throughout the East Asian – Australasian Flyway – including in Indonesia and, it turns out, even in northern Sumatra! Task Force Coordinator Christoph Zöckler immediately got in touch with Chairunas Adha Putra (Nchay) who runs Sumatera Birding […]

News from the field: China expedition September 2018, Part 2

Update from Guy Anderson The spoony survey and ringing team has now finished fieldwork in Jiangsu, China for this year. Through the fog of sleep deprivation and jet-lag emerges the realisation that we got loads achieved this year. As Kane Brides reported, we caught 15 spoonies, 13 of which were unringed and so now sport individually coded small plastic yellow leg flags. This will be a major contribution to our efforts to understand individual migration patterns, estimate annual survival rates and population sizes. Releasing a box-full of spoonies, and hearing them whirr off into the dark humid night air was particularly satisfying. As was seeing them over the next few days, scuttling around on the mudflats; hyperactive little clockwork birds, probing, pecking and dabbling around shallow pools on the mud for whatever tiny food items they could find (we still know very little about what spoonies eat and what use that bizarre bill for; those are questions for the future). We spent a lot of our time scanning flocks of waders out on the mudflats, looking for spoonies and estimating the ratio of flagged to unmarked birds out there. Once we have more resightings of marked birds from elsewhere along the flyway over the next few months, we will be able to use these data to make another formal estimate of global population size. But Kane’s photo of 6 spoonies in that keeping box is likely to be in the order of 1% of the whole population. Take care with that box! Our flock scanning has told us already that Tiaozini, the best site for spoonies in Jiangsu, has around 200 individuals staging and moulting there this year. So the statements from the Chinese authorities earlier this year that Tiaozini is planned to be included within the boundary of China’s first application for a Natural World Heritage Site in the Yellow Sea is to be warmly welcomed. The flag sightings and flock scan data we have been collecting also tell us that we have a very significant proportion of the world population staging and moulting across all our Jiangsu study sites. But not 100% by any means. Maybe about half? So, where are the rest? If you’ve read the earlier blogs from the fieldwork team in Russia this summer, you’ll remember 3 satellite tags were fitted to adult spoonies on the breeding grounds in July, in the hope that they might reveal one or more moulting areas elsewhere. …and it looks like those tagged birds have delivered the goods. Two of them have been in the same location for over a month now, and must be going through their annual moult there. So, where are they? North Korea! This is potentially a huge step forward, if we really have found a second key moulting area for spoonies. It is hoped that future ground surveys will be able to count them there. For me, this brings home just how essential international cooperation for spoonies is, and will continue to be. The partnership between conservationists and researchers in Russia, China, all the other range states in East and South-East Asia, and a host of countries worldwide, is working hard, and well, together to understand these birds and so help their countries look after them all along the thousands of miles of their flyway. As we packed our muddy and dust covered gear for the journey home from China, one of the relentlessly cheery and enthusiastic students from our research partner, Nanjing Normal University, gave me a thumbs-up and said ‘see you next year, right?’ Now, that’s the spirit that will help save spoonies!

News from the field: China expedition September 2018

Update from Kane Brides. On Wednesday 5th September a team from the UK arrived in Shanghai to join colleagues from New Zealand, Hong Kong and China to continue the latest survey efforts of Spoon-billed Sandpipers in Jiangsu Province. Three aims of the expedition are keeping the team busy for the next two weeks which involve 1) scanning flocks of waders for spoonies to see what proportion of the birds are colour-marked, this will help us to improve our global estimate of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper population 2) whilst scanning the flocks the team are attempting to identify as many individual spoonies by their colour flags, this providing valuable information on movements, survival and giving fascinating insights into the lives of these special birds and 3) attempting to catch a sample of spoonies and other shorebirds to increase the number of colour-marked individuals in the population. A large amount of time has been spent trying to catch spoonies and other shorebirds using a mixture of capture methods from mist netting to cannon netting. The team have, at times been working on very little sleep, through the night and often welcoming sunrise having just released the last birds from the catches. So far 1,751 shorebirds of 31 species have been captured by the team, of which 15 are spoonies! Several Nordmann’s Greenshank and Far Eastern Curlew have also been captured and colour-marked, these endangered species sharing the same important flyway as the Spoon-billed Sandpiper. In other news, during the scan surveys the team were delighted to read the flag of ‘white 4H’ a spoonie that was given a helping hand through the headstarting programme earlier this year. Along with seeing 4H, the re-sightings efforts have also identified a number of headstarted birds from previous years, including white 3K in a catch of 6 spoonies! With several more days of the trip left, the team together with Professor Chang and his team of students from Nanjing Normal University will attempt a few more catches and will be spending more time carrying out scan surveys of spoonies.

News from the Field: The Release

After months of planning, preparation and implementation. The moment we’ve all been waiting for… Over the last 2 weeks these precious little chicks have grown into totally independent fledgling Spoon-billed Sandpipers. They’ve learn to feed themselves, know what is good to eat, where to find it, and have been brought up in such a way they don’t associate humans with any of it. While in the care of the team, they have been conditioned to avoid predators such as dogs and Skuas through training with recordings of alarming adult Spoon-billed Sandpiper. And in the last few days they have taught themselves to fly! This is the signal that tells the team they are ready for the big wide world. Release is also dependant on the weather, low winds and no rain is ideal. On the morning of the 31st July the sky was overcast with a light breeze from across the lake and no forecast for rain. The food dishes where taken away and placed on the outside of the pen, close to the door that would shortly be removed. Many team members were already on their homeward journey from Meinypilgyno but those that remained gathered some distance away from the pen in anticipation of the release. At 11:00 the door was removed and the surrounding net rolled up around the door forming a funnel out into the marsh. It didn’t take long for the first few fledglings to amble on out! They were all very relaxed and almost oblivious to the infinite amount of space they had just gained. As more made their way out the first few began exploring further afield and wandered along the lake shore. The wind did pick up occasionally and we were able to witness some of their first real flights. Fortunately they were very controlled and short in distance, circling the pen and following the shore, then landing (with a little less grace) close by. Within the hour all 22 had left the pen and the door was put back in place. You could see the relief wash over the team as they took a step back and just admired the birds and a job well done. Seeing them running around foraging on the marsh completely independent was such a satisfying sight. It was pretty emotional knowing these birds are on their own now after you’d seen them hatch and watch them grow until this point. You just have to remember you gave them the best head start in life they could have asked for.

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!

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