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.

Spoon-billed sandpiper health screening

Nicky writes:

I’ve just returned from handling all the sandpipers, something we do fortnightly to assess their physical condition and general well-being. The good news – we were happy with today’s health check.

Nigel, Rebecca, Michelle – our resident vet – and I rounded up the birds using a soft sided corral and handled them one-by-one. We always aim to record as much information as we can about the birds when in the hand while being as quick and smooth as possible so that we don’t cause them any unnecessary stress.

One of the important things we record is the birds’ mass. To weigh a bird we carefully slide it inside a plastic tube, until its head pokes out one end while its tail feathers are still visible at the other. Once the bird is securely inside, we place it on a small electronic balance. As you can imagine, it would be very difficult to accurately weigh the sandpipers without using this method as they very rarely keep still when they’re not resting or sleeping!

Spoon-billed sandpiper being weighed

Spoon-billed sandpiper being weighed

We were pleased to see that all the birds had masses between 30g and 40g and none had lost weight since the last catch. Interestingly, over the last few weeks we’ve noticed that the mass of the birds fluctuates without any change in overall condition. We think this may be related to the bird’s stage of moult.

We also take down a body condition “score” for each bird. To do this Michelle feels around the breast bone of the bird, assesses how much muscle and body fat it has and gives it a score from 0-5, where 0 is very thin, 5 is very fat. Ideally we’re looking for scores around 3. It‘s important that only Michelle completes this task each time so that the results of each health check are comparable. All their body condition scores were within the normal range.

We also take a close look at each bird’s foot condition. Maintaining good foot condition among captive birds is a notoriously difficult task and therefore something we closely monitor. Often the birds’ feet need treatment. Nothing drastic, just a warm foot bath and a few blobs of antiseptic cream here and there on the callouses which form as a result of walking on hard substrates. We score each of the bird’s feet so we can track any change over time. We are trying the birds with a new substrate of river sand and heating the main pond in their enclosure. We hope to steadily see an improvement in the condition of their feet.

Occasionally we also clip the birds’ toe nails if they are particularly long or growing irregularly, as they do not seem to wear down as well as they would do naturally in the wild. We also make sure their plumage is in good condition – shiny and glossy – a tell-tale sign that a bird is in good health. If they are slightly soiled we can encourage the birds to bathe by releasing them into the pond when we are finished recording all of our information.

In summary we have some very happy and healthy sandpipers… and carers!

  1. Linda Reply

    They have toenails?! That’s amazing – I never imagined that wading birds would have toenails.
    They must be tiny.

  2. Keith Hambly-Staite Reply

    The latest report was very encouraging. The care and attention they are receiving is most warming. (Can one sign oneself in for personal attention!!) The individual aspects receiving attention eg foot condition) is most illuminating. I look forward to further bulletins with great interest.

  3. Sylvia Ramos Reply

    You guys are so thorough!

  4. Ken Turnip Reply

    Lovely to hear some details of what you do with them and great to see they are getting such care and are doing well. Thanks for taking the time to write a report. Love the picture – looks like you’re about to stick a couple of stamps on and pop it in the post!

    Any ideas yet about ratios of males to females?

    Keep up the good work team. You know how much I appreciate what you do. I’m sure the birds do, too.


    • Baz Reply

      Hi Ken

      Regarding sexing, we have sent DNA samples to Leiden University in the Netherlands, and expect the results very shortly.

      Best wishes


      • Ken Turnip Reply

        Hi Baz

        Thanks for that. Look forward to hearing the results.

        All the best

  5. Helena Jefferson Reply

    I think this is one of the most fascinating reports I have ever read. Thank you and the guys for keeping us informed and how exciting that you are getting it all right with your first group of Sandpipers. Helena

  6. NigelH Reply

    Great to hear they’re doing so well and that you’re monitoring their condition so closely. I’m sure that keeping their feet in good condition will be a major factor affecting their behaviour and breeding potential in the long term. I’m a bit jealous actually – my feet could do with that sort of tlc after a long training run! Seriously, my marathon training is going well, and if anyone following the blog would like to sponsor me to support the sandpiper project, please visit http://www.justgiving.com/sandpiper.

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