For the past nine days, since the eggs arrived at Slimbridge, Nige and Nicky have worked non-stop. And I mean quite literally non-stop – 24 hours a day – grabbing two hours of sleep here and there in between checking the eggs and chicks. Their only breaks to see the outside world are functional – for toilets and showers – and then it’s back to their 24 hour vigil. The attention to detail shown by these guys is phenomenal. As is the strain and pressure they are under.
First it’s carefully candling each precious egg to see if they are still alive, monitoring weight loss to make sure each is losing the required 15% over the 21 day incubation period. Then, when each egg pips (the chick makes the first hole in the egg shell), the worry and pressure mount as Nige and Nicky know the egg should then hatch within the next two days. After the exertion of pipping, the chick then normally rests, before beginning the arduous task of chipping its way out of the rest of the shell. If the hatching process goes according to plan – which thankfully has happened for most of the eggs – once the chicks start trying to break out of the shell, they usually do so within about 30 minutes.
Then the worry and pressure mount further – will the tiny chicks survive, will they start to feed properly (once they have used up the remainder of their yolk sacs which takes 2-3 days) and, importantly, will they start to poo – usually the first crucial sign that they will indeed survive.
After a day in the hatcher – so their fantastically patterned down can dry off – they are moved into their rearing coops. And Nige and Nicky’s challenge to get them to feed begins. In between their short naps, all huddled up together, the chicks race around their coops looking for food – like little clockwork toys. And each is carefully watched by Nige and Nicky to make sure each is eating and pooing. To ensure they are all receiving sufficient food, they are delicately fed small insects – fruit flies, water flies and crickets – using watchmaker’s forceps. As I said, the attention to detail shown by these guys, and the pressure they’re under, is phenomenal. But it’s also exhausting. Really, really exhausting.
They flew to the other side of the world. They collected 20 Spoon-billed Sandpiper eggs. They flew them back again. They hatched the eggs. They are now rearing 17 chicks. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? I can assure you it is not.
Our avicultural team are super-human. I am, quite simply, in awe of them.