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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.

Mating pairs! 7 June 2011

7 June 2011
Getting out to search for more SBS, today? We have established a routine this week it is likely to change when we search for nests but it is…

Get up after very late night to bed…some of us 0300 in the morning or get up early 0600-0630 largely due to slow internet, one laptop between three and trying to communicate with family and friends, this is very important to all in our house hence the any time of day access policy.

Breakfast- it is always on offer at 0800 at Sveta’s home, if we all do not get there then one will go to collect some for the others as there is only room for six at the table anyway. She provides a stout meal usually porridge which sets you up for the day. We take advantage of that time of day because people at home are back from work or have not left to email them or download and resize images on the laptops.

A top up on food and I am ready to go out into the wilderness to search. Today I paired up with Simon and headed for the corral to search for the male with the slightly twisted bill seen on previous days. We had the quad which saves miles on your feet, on arrival I dropped Simon off and walked along the edge of the long, shallow pools which lie between shingle ridges, these low ridges have flattened vegetation rich in lichens, mosses and flat shrubs growing patchily upon them.

The pools are part of a meandering natural drainage system, the water seeps through the gravel to reach the rivers and eventually the sea. It is fed by the snow melt water from the hills. We stalk carefully along taking a channel each. A female Merlin flashes past flushing all the birds ahead, a wader flies past me, I can see the flaps on the bill, it is a spoon-billed sandpiper! Four more waders join it, probably Red-necked Stints and they fly off. I keep crunching my way through gravel until I hear him singing, he passes over with a mate! They both drop nearby and I find them in a shallow damp depression, up they go again flying out to the corral and drop again. We wait and soon they are calling and we see them circle the whole area drop into the marsh. Again we wait, we need to gather information on these birds they fly over again and drop into the pools.

spoon-billed sandpiper feeding in gravel, photo by Martin McGill

Carefully stalking we cross the pool, edge our way to them, they are roosting (sleeping), we crawl on our bellies and get close, after 20 minutes they begin to feed. A very memorable hour or two (lost track of time) was then spent with them wandering back and forth as they pick at the damp vegetation or in the water. The plumage like so many wading birds in summer is very attractive, the rufous head and neck and markings on the back contrast with white underparts (belly, breast, undertail). The bill makes this bird so incredibly special. The male of this pair has a slightly twisted bill making him even more endearing. They flew to other pools and fed elsewhere.

I hiked back to collect the quad and left Simon, I re-parked it and began walking into the hills climbing the slope and following a ridge passing the now familiar sight of Chukchi graves, they are adorned with rocks and Reindeer antlers, a sign of their previous close association with this animal and how formerly they were a way of life here. Each grave commands a view over the hills and to the sea. I reached a gully in the hill, nice boggy patch, a snow field melting into it and reasonably sheltered. At the bottom where the snow edge is melting creating a stream I see a spoon-billed sandpiper, soon I see two, a pair.

Simon arrived and another hour is spent with these birds, the male singing every now and again and standing on tussocks to keep watch, the female feeding all the time and largely out of sight in the tussocky mound covered ground. I retire to a nearby slope to observe them from distance. Lovely watching them, cannot get enough of this but feeling the need to maximise my time I press on to look for more and am rewarded by another singing male. A walk back to the quad and a fast return to base, a Short-eared Owl crosses our path, back for a tea and off to dinner.

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