Headstarting is a collaborative effort between WWT, BirdsRussia and the RSPB, and occurs as part of the International Arctic Expedition mounted each year by BirdsRussia under the leadership of Dr. Evgeny Syroechkovskiy.

Just what we are here for! Our first clutch of eggs – 19 June 2011

19 June 2011

Late afternoon Nige dropped Simon at the foot of the hills so he could search he returned for me as I was going to lead him to a Dunlin nest later.

Pavel, Egor and Nikolay were all searching the moraine hill territories for SBS nests. Jochen went with Gerrit to the east end of the spit. He had seen a male spectacled eider late that night, a dream bird sighting for many of us.

spectacled eider, photo by Laura Whitehouse

I rode the quad across the first marsh and into the hills with Nige to visit a Dunlin nest. Some concern for the quad as steam appeared, water poured out of the combs so we waited, stripped the panels off the bike and check for radiator damage, and checked the temperature. No problem found so put it all back together and rode on.

Test run

Our mission was to check the eggs for size in our incubator trays and to weigh and measure the eggs as they are very close in form to SBS eggs. We spent an hour watching the bird before going in to the nest, sheltered fromt he arctic winds by wisps of grass. We quickly measured the eggs, carefully replaced them, and as we left, pulled the vegetation back up, so as to cover our footprints to prevent predators from seeing our route.

Martin McGill and Nige Jarrett place the eggs in the portable incubator

This job complete, we carried along the track near to the other large lake shore. Here a few bushes began to appear and bluethroat and Siberian rubythroat were seen and heard singing.

bluethroat, phot by Jochen Dierschke

bluethroat, phot by Jochen Dierschke

A Brown Bear was foraging along the shore and parties of white-winged scoter males gathered around a single female. On our return we saw a number of displaying Pacific divers.

brown bear, photo by Jochen Dierschke

Fog was rolling in, we were already late and it was a relief to get to the edge of the hills. On descending we saw a spoon-billed sandpiper right in front of us. It landed a short distance away and fed, we watched and waited for any indication of nesting… it until it disappeared in the distance.

We eventually got to Sveta’s where Nikolay and Egor were waiting on the step, they had found two more SBS nests. A couple of weasels were active near one and although it was getting dark, we had to act immediately to ensure the safety of the eggs.

We took some food back to eat whilst preparing the incubator and kit.

We decided to take the river crossing route, it would save us a two kilometre walk over rough terrain… Nikolay was waiting with the inflatable boat, and took Gerrit and Liza across first, whilst Nige and I ran the quad bike to keep the incubator warm. It was soon our turn to cross, By the time we were all across and nearing the nest area it was past 2300hrs, it was dark and now very hard to see the tiny nest. We all waited whilst Nikolay carefully searched the ground alone, he could not see it, he was bent over placing every footstep slowly, straining his eyes in the dim light – the use of a torch offered too much disturbance to the bird and drawing attention to night time predators that might be drawn towards it from a distance.

Liza helps Nige and Nikolay into the boat

He found the site and beckoned us all in. We were about to see a nest of the spoon-billed sandpiper containing a freshly laid clutch and collect them for the captive rearing programme. Although ideally we’d have left them for a few days to incubate naturally in the nest, after what happened to the last nest we found we couldn’t take the risk that the same thing would have to this nest. Weighing up the pros and cons, the call was made to collect this first clutch now, albeit earlier than planned, just in case it was our last chance.

spoon-billed sandpiper nest and eggs, photo by Martin McGill

Predation is a distressing, but natural, event, that a healthy population can deal with. But for the SBS the particularly high rates of inter-tidal destruction along the spoon-billed sandpiper’s flyway have so decimated the population, that each predation is a catastrophe, pushing the birds closer to extinction. With so few breeding pairs in existence, to leave this nest to almost certain predation was a chance we couldn’t take.

Nigel placing eggs in incubator, photo by Martin Mcgill

Nige, with expert hands, picked up each one and gently placed it in the incubator; I did not want to touch them as they are so delicate and rare. He placed each one in foam lined compartments and sealed them in the box eventually happy to transfer back to the boat. Nikolay paddled us both back with the precious cargo and calmly rowed it back, glad it was a very calm, still night.

Liza helping Nigel, Nikolay and sbs eggs into the boat, photo by Martin McGill

Back ashore, back on the quad bike for a very slow ride across the softest terrain arriving with thumb cramp from holding the throttle so long. We drove so slowly that Nikolay was not far behind walking but the ATV kept the eggs warm. It had passed midnight, but still lots of work to do in the incubator room under Nige’s instruction. We were all so pleased that this clutch had not been lost to predators and with remaining the SBS adult population ageing, we dearly hope they turn out to be fertile and healthy.

Nigel placing egss into incubator back at base

At 0400 we were finally done, and I crashed out on my foam mat and slept.

I shall now hand you over to Liza who will give you her thoughts on the day. Over to you Liza………………..

Liza Tamboutseva

We started this project at the beginning of April 2011 and at the beginning I could not foresee all the issues we would face, I was tasked with arranging all the logistics.

I knew all stages of project, but it was such a big task, so many things to do that behind all immediately necessary things I could hardly imagine finding the  bird let alone their nests.

After arriving in Meinypilygno everything become easier and I could start paying attention to birds.

I am not a birdwatcher,  but even I thought the numbers of birds in Meinypilygno was low. We have not seen new species of birds every day as I originally thought. Some day we went without seeing any birds at all.

After week or so we found several pairs of SBS but it was not very exiting.

The team started nest searching. Several unsuccessful days, then a dead bird, finally Pavel found a nest with 3 eggs in! Great success. Nigel was as happy as an Elephant! And so were the rest of the team. Nigel, Martin and Simon spent yesterday preparing everything for the eggs and went birding at 4 p.m.

At dinner Nikolay arrived with the news that he had found a new nest that could be easily predated. He suggested the clutch in this nest be taken as soon as possible, to eliminate the risk of predation.

We waited for the WWT team. One hour passed, another. Simon arrived. And only at 10 pm WWT team arrived and we decided to take a clutch.

Two quads, one boat, five men and a portable incubator were used to take the first clutch. It was a well organized process and something that we had all worked hard for. We drove to the lake and Nikolay took us by boat to the other side where the nest was. It was like a miracle. Sky covered with clouds, absolute silence and only the sound of oars breaking it. As we neared the nest it was becoming darker and darker.

The nest appeared in front of us and looked like the most perfect thing in the World. Nigel took the eggs,  and put dummy eggs in place. we got the eggs back to base safely just before midnight and placed them in the incubator.

For me it was absolutely amazing to see how all efforts of many people and of several organizations are becoming the reality. It was a great day not only for the team in field but for everyone who is working for this project.

And I hope that in 21 day 4 healthy yellow chicks arrived from these 4 eggs.

  1. Sylvia Reply

    Very exciting news! More power to the team and keep the blog posts coming!

  2. Linda Reply

    That’s brilliant news. Fingers crossed for the eggs being fertile. Keep us posted.


  3. Giles Diggle Reply

    The story just gets better. Great news, great blog. Fingers crossed here.



  4. Duncan McLaughlin Reply

    It has been thoroughly engrosing following the story so far. Great work by all, good luck for the next phase, and keep the blogs coming.


  5. PaulBT Reply

    Superb, keep up the fantasic work.

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