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.

Russian conservation trials pave way for spoon-billed sandpiper recovery

Media Release issued on behalf of WWT, RSPB, Birds Russia, Moscow Zoo, BTO, BirdLife International, ArcCona Consulting and the Spoon-billed Sandpiper Task Force

An Anglo-Russian team has successfully trialled conservation methods that will pave the way for Critically Endangered spoon-billed sandpipers to be reared and released into the wild.

For the trials an international field team of ornithologists took eggs from the wild. Twenty eggs were flown back to the UK to boost the conservation breeding programme. Nine more were successfully hatched and reared in the nearest tundra village, Meinypil’gyno, before being released as fledglings to make their 8,000km migration to Burma.

The aviary built for the young birds on the tundra (c) Anastasia Sestnova

The aviary built for the young birds on the tundra (c) Anastasia Sestnova

During the trial the team perfected the methods needed to rear the birds in captivity on the remote Russian tundra. The success of the trials has been in seeing the birds set off on migration, paving the way for eggs laid in the UK in the future, as part of the conservation breeding programme, to be flown to Russia, hatched and released into the wild.

WWT aviculturist Roland Digby worked with Juriy Bragin of Moscow Zoo and Liza Tambovtseva of Birds Russia to oversee the project and perfect the techniques. Speaking on his return to the UK he said:

“We worked round the clock to keep the chicks alive and healthy. It was wonderful to release them and watch them as they found their way in the wild, but it was definitely tinged with anxiety, knowing the terrible threats they face.

“I just have to remind myself that we’d given those particular birds a far safer start in life and that as a result we’ve learned so much that is going to be critical to the future of their species.”

Ringing one of the spoon-billed sandpipers before releasing it into the wild (c) Anastasia Sestnova

Ringing one of the spoon-billed sandpipers before releasing it into the wild (c) Anastasia Sestnova

There are thought to be fewer than 100 breeding pairs of spoon-billed sandpipers left in the world and, in recent years, they have been declining by more than one in four each year.

The rear and release methods, coined ‘headstarting’ within the conservation world, effectively protect the young birds from predators and sudden bad weather. In the wild, out of every 20 eggs laid, just three birds survive long enough to migrate away from the breeding grounds. This summer the headstarting trial reared and released nine spoon-billed sandpipers from 11 eggs.

Roland Digby continued:

“Predation by skuas, foxes, dogs and even bears has a massive effect on the birds, but it is small beans compared with the effect of land reclamation along the coast of the Yellow Sea, which has wrecked the main place they stop to feed on their long migration.

“The other major threat they face is in Myanmar and Bangladesh but, thankfully, initial reports indicate that measures to discourage hunters there from targeting shorebirds like spoon-billed sandpipers seem to be working.”

“As headstarting boosts the number of birds migrating south to Myanmar over the next few years, just as those conservation measures start to take effect, it is hoped it will speed up the birds’ recovery. £150,000 is still needed to run the project again next year. Donations can be made online.”

A spoon-billed sandpiper post-release (c) Anastasia Sestnova

A spoon-billed sandpiper post-release (c) Anastasia Sestnova

The loss of habitat in the Yellow Sea is a much more challenging problem. As the economies around its coastline develop rapidly, great tracts of mudflats have been encircled by seawalls and converted for industry, agriculture and recreation. Last month WWT, RSPB and others fighting for the survival of the spoon-billed sandpiper were at the IUCN World Conservation Congress in Jeju, Korea to lobby for better use of habitats along the Yellow Sea coast. As a result the IUCN adopted two new motions, which it is hoped will set the international conservation agenda.

To follow the project visit www.saving-spoon-billed-sandpiper.com

The Anglo-Russian team monitoring the birds after release (c) Anastasia Sestnova

The Anglo-Russian team monitoring the birds after release (c) Anastasia Sestnova

About Saving the spoon-billed sandpiper:

  • Unique in the animal kingdom for being born with a spoon-shaped beak, the spoon-billed sandpiper has declined by a quarter year on year. With possibly fewer than 100 pairs left, it could be extinct within five to ten years.
  • Much of the more recent information about the spoon-billed sandpiper on its breeding grounds has resulted from regular Arctic expeditions to Chukotka, initiated in the 1980s by Pavel Tomkovich and supplemented by the work of Evgeny Syroechkovskiy and colleagues including Christoph Zöckler from 2000.
  • Just four years ago, conservationists uncovered the largest, previously-unknown concentration of the birds in the Gulf of Martaban in Myanmar. Almost immediately it became obvious that bird hunting, carried out by the poorest sections of society, could be a major factor behind the recent drastic decline in numbers.
  • The work to reduce hunting in Myanmar has been funded by the BBC Wildlife Fund. It builds on work between 2008-10 by BANCA (Myanmar BirdLife International partner) and ArcCona.
  • A similar story has played out on Sonadia Island off the coast of Bangladesh. Local conservationists who have been working with villagers to distribute small grants and set up village conservation groups, will now be able to work more closely with groups in Myanmar.
  • Two motions have been adopted by the IUCN World Conservation Congress that could help conserve habitats in the Yellow Sea for spoon-billed sandpipers and other migratory birds. Motion 32 Conservation of the East Asian-Australasian Flyway and its threatened waterbirds, with particular reference to the Yellow Sea and Motion 66 Improving conservation and sustainability of the Yellow Sea.
  • Major funding from SOS – Save Our Species has made it possible to develop long-term economic and environmental solutions in Bangladesh. It has also supported the 2012 expedition to Chukotka.
  • The spoon-billed sandpiper conservation breeding programme is a collaboration between WWT, Birds Russia, Moscow Zoo and the RSPB working with colleagues from the BTO, BirdLife International, ArcCona and the Spoon-billed Sandpiper Task Force.
  • The project is supported by WWT, RSPB, the UK Darwin Initiative, and SOS – Save our Species, with additional financial contributions and support from BirdLife International, the East-Asian Australasian Flyway Partnership, the Convention on Migratory Species, Heritage Expeditions, the Australasian Wader Study Group of Birds Australia, the BBC Wildlife Fund, Avios, the Olive Herbert Charitable Trust, the Oriental Bird Club, British Airways Communities & Conservation Scheme, Swarovski Optik and many generous individuals.
  • Save Our Species is a joint initiative of IUCN, the Global Environment Facility and the World Bank. Its objective is to ensure the long-term survival of threatened species and their habitats.
  • Part of the work is supported by the saving the critically endangered spoon-billed sandpiper from global extinction project, funded by the UK Government’s Darwin Initiative.
  1. NigelH Reply

    Nine birds reared to release from eleven eggs is a brilliant result – well done Roland and team. If they can negotiate the Yellow Sea and are spotted on the wintering grounds, that really will vindicate your efforts and give hope for the future. I hope it will also help with obtaining funding to continue and expand the headstarting programme next year.

  2. Helena Jefferson Reply

    What a wonderful report of what has been going on recently. 9 birds fledged from 11 eggs is incredible news. Well done Roland, Lisa and Juriy. A magnificent effort, I hope you have all managed to catch-up with your sleep by now. Certainly this seems like a wonderful way forward and once eggs coming from Slimbridge are added into the mix hopefully the corner will be turned for this delightful species. It is also heartening to hear about the outcome of the recent conference. I found it hard to get the results off their website.
    Congratulations also to the people working in Bangladesh and Mayanmar. Hearing such good news makes being a Species Champion SO worthwhile.

  3. Ken Tucker (AKA Turnip) Reply

    Always good to get such great news. Well done everyone from so many different organisations on getting this going. And Roland – what a super hero! You obviously have the magic touch when it comes to hand-rearing birds on the brink. While it may not be sustainable in the long run this is such a huge helping hand until things can be made better along the migration route. Time will tell when we see how many of your colour-banded birds come back. I know Zhang Lin and others who watch SBS on their migration and wintering sites are primed and looking out for marked birds. Thanks to everyone involved.

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