A very wet and quiet day on the surveying front; however, a very busy one for us all in the village. Pavel and Egor moved out to go and stay with Nikolai and Nastai, giving me a chance to give the house a deep clean and make sure everything was in its correct place before the first egg collection, which is planned for Tuesday.
It is also Pavel’s birthday so this evening we were treated to a lovely meal and some of his special and rather strong alcohol as a treat. It was interesting to speak with Roman and Sveta about the numbers of spoon-billed sandpipers that used to breed in Meinypil’gyno before the population crashed – around eighty pairs and this was excluding the Western coastal spit and the area along the Eastern shore of Lake Angavie. Sveta also informed me that at least three pairs used to breed in a grassy area at the end of the Second River, not more than three hundred metres from her house.
My last day of surveying until we release the young birds at the end of July and Egor had planned a bit of an adventure. We surveyed the Eastern shore of Lake Angavie and in particular the southern end, which comprised some excellent breeding habitat and held two pairs of spoon-billed sandpipers in 2011. First we rowed across a narrow straight to the peninsula at the entrance to the lake. We took two canoes and deflated and hid one on the opposing shore, the reason for this being that any inflatable boat is a great toy for any passing bear and, given that it is a well known fact that bears never look after their toys properly, the inflatable boats are very quickly destroyed!
That done, we headed back and set off for the southern end of the lake to repeat to process and start surveying. As we walked along the coastal spit toward the survey area, we came across a number of old Kerrik settlements that reminded me a little of Skara Brae on Orkney. The Kerrik were a group of people who lived along the coast, hunting walrus predominantly. Unfortunately during the 19th century hunters coming over mostly from Alaska killed most of the walrus for their ivory and forced the remainder out to the relative safety of the offshore banks. This had disastrous consequences for the Kerrik people, with their last living member dying in Meinypil’gyno twenty years ago.
Unfortunately we saw no spoon-billed sandpipers, even though there was clearly no shortage of suitable breeding habitat. Although not many birds were observed, the trek was not uneventful as these remote areas close to the coast tend to hold higher numbers of bears, both because fewer people go there and because there are often whale and walrus carcasses washed up on the shore. Early on I was grateful for the warning over the radio from Egor that through the fog, just on the other side of the ridge, there was a bear. Thus avoiding one of those embarrassing situations of coming face to face with a surprised bear miles from anywhere in thick fog.
After what was a very long 20km hike, we had made it back to the end of the peninsula where the canoe had been carefully hidden from the bears. Once on the other side of the narrow strait, Egor left to collect the quad, leaving me a last opportunity to get shown how to actually catch Arctic char by the seals and Pacific divers. On his return Egor informed me that he’d seen a spoonie and this one seemed to be behaving as if it could have a nest close by and it was less than a kilometre from where the quad had been parked. I went over to the area it had last been seen, however, thick fog descended on the area and visibility dropped to around twenty meters. The search for this spoonie and hopefully its nest would have to wait another day, but at least we now knew that the spoon-billed sandpipers had returned to Angavie.
More rain and more preparations, in particular; fine turning the incubator and recording the temperatures every twenty minutes to get a better idea of the variations of temperature in the incubator. This would hopefully give me a better idea of what to expect once the eggs were placed inside and the whole process began for real.
Today was to be the big day, the day of the first collection. As with all of these occasions, it didn’t go without problems. The first being the bridge we needed to cross over the Third River could no longer be driven over by the black quad bike we use for collections. And, secondly, even if the bridge was safe enough to cross using the black quad, we couldn’t, given that the bearings on the front right wheel had seized, so it would no longer be in use until Yuriy and Nicky arrived with spare parts, which would be no earlier than the 14th.
Roman however, as he has done so many times before, had come to the rescue and offered to drive us there and back in his 4×4, which had the added advantage of being able to ford the Third River at a crossing point close to the broken bridge. We knew we were taking a big risk in collecting eggs this early, from a nest so far away and involving such a difficult journey. However, the Russian team were very concerned that the nest, being in an unusual and very exposed position, with the added factor of a wolverine making regular patrols of the area, that this nest would be predated very quickly and by collecting it this early the birds should lay a replacement, hopefully down on the marsh in a more suitable place. From my own personal experiences of the last two years, I was in total agreement with them.
Roman couldn’t take us to the nest until the afternoon, so in the morning Nikolai went to check that everything was ok and, after what seemed like an eternity, he was back to say everything was still ok and we would go and collect the nest as soon as Roman was ready. The weather was really awful on this particular day and it was nice to be travelling in the warm 4×4 rather than the open black quad. In these conditions, using the quad we would have had to have waited another day and the nest could have been predated if it wasn’t for Roman.
Once at the collection site, Nikolai took me to the nest. Uncharacteristically for a spoon-billed sandpiper nest, it was on the dry open tundra among some sparse lichens. At first glance it seemed a more suitable place to find a red knot nest rather than a spoonie. Eggs collected, it was back into Roman’s 4×4 and a much slower and carefully driven journey back to the house. Once at the house eggs were weighed, measured and numbered – a process made all the more difficult because of the extremely thin shells of the eggs.
The last stage, in particular, really concerned me and I must have drawn on the back of my hand at least twenty times until I was sure I had the pressure just right, so as to not to pierce the paper thin shell of the eggs. Once the eggs were in the incubator that had been running fairly happily for a few weeks whilst empty, it decided to play up! There were a lot of temperature fluctuations and the incubator needed to be checked every five minutes just to build up a picture the rhythm of these changes. On this first night there was going to be no chance of getting any sleep.
By this afternoon, I had worked out enough of the rhythm of the incubator that I was able to get one hour’s sleep. As the tray moved from the front to the back, the temperature increased. However, from the back to the front it decreased again. I therefore knew during this period no harm could come to the eggs. Later in the day when Nikolai and Nastia returned, they informed me they had found another two nests; one in the moraine hills behind the Third River and the other at the monument. Nikolai suggested we collect the first nest the following day, as this was more likely a day older and more accessible. So plans were made for the following night and I returned to my task of recording and tweaking the incubator, with another sneaky one hour’s sleep thrown in for good measure.
A nice and uneventful day, with the highlight being the now regular one hour nap in the afternoon. Once I start incubating eggs, no matter where I am in the world, the last thing I want is any form of excitement. The mundane daily norm suits me just fine. Everything was working quite well, allowing for the fact that the incubator really didn’t like the heat of the Russian house, until around thirty minutes before Nikolai and I were due to collect the eggs, when the temperature in the incubator started to drop!
Incubators are funny things and, no matter which model you use, there are always hot and cold spots within each one. However, this had nothing to do with any form of temperature variation – the incubator temperature dropped by one degree Celsius and would not increase in temperature for around thirty minutes. This was very strange and unnerving, although after thirty minutes the temperature went back to normal and the incubator began working again as if there had never been a problem.
Luckily Nastia was on hand to stand guard and, as the nest we were collecting was so close to the village, I felt safe to leave the incubator and the valuable eggs inside it in her capable hands. The collection went like clockwork and, as always, it was always great to watch Nikolai at work in the field and a relief to be able to collect another four very large spoon-billed sandpiper eggs.
Once back, with aviculturist suitably warmed up and eggs weighed, measured and numbered, I settled down for was to be a long and stressful night trying to keep the incubator in check. By the morning, as well as being completely shattered and on my last legs. I was also extremely appreciative to Egor for converting the broken door bell of the house into an incubator alarm, which alerted me to any drops or unexplained increases in temperature each time I started to nod off, whilst trying to stay awake drinking cup of coffee after cup of coffee.
This morning was beautifully clear and sunny, which boded well for Nicky and Juriy’s helicopter flight being given the all clear to leave Anadyr. Over the last two years we have been very fortunate with our flights out and back, but the last helicopter to arrive here had been delayed by nine days and there was no way I could get through another night on my own without any sleep.
Throughout the morning, I could hear the conversations between Nikolai and Roman. Whilst not being a Russian speaker by any means, I could pick out enough words to realise that by ten o’clock in the morning, the helicopter had left Anadyr and that they should be in Meino by eleven thirty. It was such a relief to see Nicky and Juriy arrive that I forgot all about being tired.
After they quickly settled in, Egor and Pavel returned from Angavie where they informed me that they had found another spoonie nest, and that this one was another very exposed nest and there were a number of arctic foxes around. After giving Nicky and Juriy a rather small amount of time to settle in and a rundown of our incubator issues and what to watch out for and what to do in the event of anything untoward happening, I set out with on the back of the quad bike with Egor on the 10km journey to Angavie, to collect the clutch of eggs.
I always enjoy the trip out to Angavie, as it involves travelling through the red knot breeding area and, second only to the spoonies, these are certainly my favourite wader species here. Once close to the nest, I could see immediately why Egor should want this nest to be collected as, unlike other spoon-billed sandpiper nests which are unbelievably difficult to spot, even at close range, this one we could see from ten metres away. The male of this nest was very tame and flew a few metres away and perched on a tussock and began calling. I have to admit, I felt a few pangs of guilt whilst taking his eggs, but this was tempered by the fact that I knew that by collecting so early, there was a very good chance that he and his mate would produce a new clutch. And better that it was me taking them and headstart his young, than them ending up in the stomach of an arctic fox or skua.
Once back, a demonstration to Nicky and Juriy of how to measure, weigh and mark the eggs and what to be careful to avoid doing and it was time to suddenly remember how tired I actually was. Not to say that Nicky or Juriy wouldn’t have been either, but the fact that the both of them were still on Western European time meant it was the morning for them both and they were far more awake than I was. So there it was somebody to watch the incubator for me and time for me to get a well needed few hours sleep.
Another inspiring insight into the life of a conservation avic on the tundra. Now the first eggs are in, Roland won’t be seeing much of the outside world. Glad Nicky and Juriy have made it there to support. Have a great time, Nicky. What an experience! Stay alert for those playful bears and locals!