Saving the Spoon Billed Sandpiper

Saving one of the world's rarest birds from extinction

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!

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


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yolk sacs – these were cleaned with iodine and the chicks were kept in clean containers until the protruding sacs were withdrawn into the body cavity and, fingers crossed, we haven’t had any signs of yolk sac infections.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

News from the Field: Hatching update from 3 July


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

News from the Field: 38 eggs!


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

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


With funding from the Mohamed bin Zayed Conservation Fund, Nigel Clark has gone to the Spoonie breeding grounds to fit satellite tags to three breeding birds in the hope that we can learn where they stop on their migration south to the Yellow Sea. For more information on how the Mohamed bin Zayed Conservation Fund is helping spoon-billed sandpipers visit www.speciesconservation.org/case-studies-projects/spoon-billed-sandpiper/14719. *Updated on 29/06/2017 with photos* From Nigel Clark Getting to remote parts of north-east Russia is never easy, but I was going to Meinypil’gyno where Roland and the Birds Russia team are working on the largest known breeding colony of Spoonies. All the organisation had been done by our partners Birds Russia – no simple task in itself. However, a couple of days before I was due to leave, the first problem arose when the Russian airline due to take us from Moscow to Anadyr, the regional capital, stopped flying as they had financial problems. After a lot of effort a solution was found involving a flight to Magadan, an overnight stay and then a flight to Anadyr the next day. This involved flying from a different Moscow airport but, as luck would have it, the timings worked out OK. I would have been lost trying to do this on my own, but Evgeny and Elena were going to Meina at the same time so I had expert guides. Magadan airport is an hour’s drive inland from the town as the weather is better away from the coast. This made for a fascinating drive through a landscape of larch and birch trees all stunted by the harsh winter weather. Magadan has a lot of history, being founded by people shipped to the gulags in Stalin’s time, with tens of thousands dying in the mines or just from the extreme winter cold. There were a lot of poignant monuments to those who lost their lives there. Next day we flew on to Anadyr with bright sun all the way. When we arrived we were hopeful that the helicopter would take us on the last leg the next day and it was bright and sunny when we got up. However, the news was that there was low cloud over the mountains and the flight might be cancelled – we took all our bags to the airport and hoped for the best. The helicopter flies at 1,000 metres through the mountains so the cloud base had to rise enough for us to fly below it. We waited in the hall with the other passengers, and a kitten, all hoping to go. A delay of an hour was announced, then another and then a third hour’s delay before finally we were told that there would be no flight that day. We still had many hours of good light so we went and surveyed a small valley near the airport that had historical Spoonie breeding records. Although it was close to a large mining village, we very soon came across the first displaying waders – mainly Dunlin, Red necked Phalaropes and Temminck’s Stint, but with several other species as well. There were also lots of wildfowl including a pair of swans which appeared to be a Bewick’s paired with a Whistling Swan. We sat and drank tea watching the fluttering display flights of the territorial Temminck’s Stints, accompanied by their charming twittering. That evening I learnt that if the helicopter did not go the next day, then it would not fly on the weekend and bad weather was forecast for the whole of the following week! Such a delay would have meant that it would be getting very late to catch spoonies, as we only wanted to tag birds whose clutch had just been taken for headstarting and been replaced by dummies. The following morning there was not a cloud in the sky, but our hearts sank when we got a message from the team in Meina telling us they had a sea fog and did not think that a flight was likely. We went to the airport anyway, and there was again a delay, but then things started to improve and to our pleasant surprise the flight was on. Two hours later we touched down in Meina, so five days after leaving London I was finally in the land of the spoonie. I had been lucky – in past years team members had been delayed for up to 20 days in Anadyr due to the weather! The team, who had already been in the field for a month, told us that it was a difficult year for the spoonies. The previous week there had been a flood – as rapid snow melt had occurred before the river outlet to the sea had been breached. It blocks each winter after storms and only opens when the local villagers make a channel once the frozen gravel thaws out. They had finally done this the day before and in a day it had gone from a trickle to a raging torrent 100m wide! The flood had wiped out many clutches before the team had managed to find them, so they had only found a few to take for headstarting. In the evening of the next day there was better news as two clutches had been found 25 km to the west of the village and the plan was for a team to go and collect the eggs for headstarting the following day, leaving dummy eggs so that we could go afterwards and trap and tag two birds. In the morning the weather was warm with a light breeze, just enough to keep the mosquitoes at bay. Our plan was take an inflatable Zodiac the 25km along the river that runs behind the shingle beach. When we got to the river we found a large amount ice flowing downstream, which made for slower progress for the first part of the trip. Catching the birds was relatively simple as Pavel and Egor were with us who are extremely […]

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