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.

Nicky arrives in Meina

Week 1 (11th – 19th June)

Three days of travelling and I was finally at my destination – Meinypil’gyno, Chukotka in Far North East Russia. The helicopter journey from Anadyr airport was truly spectacular and certainly made up for the many boring hours of travelling I had experienced over the last couple of days. The views were amazing, nothing like I had ever seen before and we were so close to the tops of the mountains it was as if you were walking across them yourself. We were greeted by a very weary looking Roland who was in dire need of some sleep. He had collected the first two clutches of eggs in the last couple of days and so had been awake around the clock, practically sitting on them himself! You could see he was just as relieved as us for getting out to Meina so soon.

Within two days of arriving, I got to see my first ever wild spoon-billed sandpiper. Roland had caught up on sleep and so was able to stay and watch over the incubator while Juriy and I went out exploring. The weather was bright and not too cold so we headed towards ‘The Monument’ and Lake Pikul’ney on foot. We saw many birds including black and white-winged scoters, ringed plovers, Mongolian plovers, brant geese and Pacific eiders. But the most important for me was my first spoonie sighting. It was the famous so-called ‘monument bird’ and his partner that provided me with some fantastic views. Whilst stood at the monument, close to the road, suddenly I heard the classic buzzing call that I hear so often among the captive birds at Slimbridge. When I looked up I was delighted to see a pair flying over very close by. They landed not far away, just on the other side of a bank next to a small stream. I sat and watched them from a short distance, only approximately 10 metres, feeding close to each other along the banks of the stream. This was the moment I had been most looking forward to, since the day I was offered the chance to come to Chukotka on this headstarting expedition and I was totally ecstatic.

The following day Egor invited me to go out surveying with him for the day. We went by quad to the western area of Meina. When we reached the edge of the mainland, we left the quad and paddled over to the Western spit via an inflatable boat. Bears are common in this part of Meina and because of this we had to let the boat down and store it on top of an oil barrel once we had landed on the spit. Apparently bears love to play with these boats if given the chance.

We walked over to the opposite side of the spit which looks out over the Bering Sea. Within minutes of being on the rocky shore, sea birds were passing close to land in small flocks. We saw kittiwakes, Pacific diver, red-throated diver, black-throated diver, pomarine skua, arctic skua, scoters and long-tailed ducks. The highlight for me was the king eiders though. Four pairs flew past, close to shore on their way further north.

Egor spotted a bear sat on the edge of the water quite far ahead of us. We watched it through our binoculars for a while; it looked as if it was eating something. You could see a large long white thing that looked like a walrus tusk in front of it. We continued walking along towards it and for a little while it hadn’t seen us. We got within approximately 30 metres of the bear, when it stopped what it was doing and looked up at us. It then started to slowly walk towards us whilst sniffing the air. I was getting quite nervous at this point. We stopped and Egor loaded his gun, just in case. Eventually, after around 15 – 20 paces, it turned around and started to run away. We went to investigate what it had been eating on the shore. It was a walrus skull with one tusk still in place. A little further up the beach was the walrus skin. It smelt horrendous, like rotting fish. Egor explained that we must check it for something, but I didn’t really understand what he meant. As he pulled at the skin to get a better look, he seemed really delighted and shouted “Ah yes it does!” excitedly. He got out his knife and started to cut in to it. I was still totally unaware of what was going on. “It is a walrus penis!” he shouted and I immediately started laughing, and continued to do so for a long while afterwards. He tied the ‘treasure’ to his rucksack and we carried on. I spent the rest of the day avoiding walking down wind from him because the smell was so bad.

At the end of the spit there is a bay where, in previous years, two pairs of spoon-billed sandpipers had nested on opposite sides. We split up to cover more ground and see if any had returned but unfortunately we didn’t find any. I did find a red-necked phalarope in the bay close to the shore but there was not much else to be seen. We then made our way back along the other side of the spit, where we saw Mongolian plover and ringed plover. We got back to the boat and re-inflated it, then paddled back to the quad and made our way back to the house.

After dinner, Roland, Nikolay, Pavel and I went to look at a couple of possible sites for this year’s release pen. We went off on the quads and looked at a couple of sites that we thought would be suitable, taking into account factors such as vegetation, the nearest pool of water and disturbance from people and vehicles. We found a site that we all agreed on. It was right on the shore of lake Pikul’ney and near to where Roland had seen small flocks of young waders gathering together before migration at the end of last year’s season. The vegetation was predominantly made up of mosses and grasses that would be soft for the chicks’ delicate feet to walk on as well as a couple of small willow shrubs which could provide shelter and cover. Nikolay also said that he had seen wild spoon-billed sandpipers bring their chicks here. What could be better than a site that had been previously chosen by wild spoon-billed sandpipers!

The next day was Roland’s birthday. There were some cards for him to open from friends and work colleagues and I had brought him some sweets – they didn’t last long! We candled the first clutch of eggs and to our delight discovered they were all fertile and alive. In the evening, Sveta cooked a special birthday dinner at her house. She had made some lovely apricot jam-filled cakes and the Russian team had got him a few gifts too, including a packet of Russian cigarettes, the hottest horse radish sauce they could find in the shop (Roland really enjoys hot and spicy food), a spoon-billed sandpiper soft toy and a traditional doll which is believed to warn off evil spirits.

The following evening, I went with Roland and Nikolay to assist with the collection of the 4th clutch of eggs. It was around a 30 minute trek from the quad bike up and in to the hills. Once we were close to the nest, we were told by Nikolay to wait while he moved closer in to locate the nest. Pavel and Egor arrived shortly afterwards. They hoped to catch the female when she returned to the nest after we had left with the eggs. Dummy eggs were put in their place inside the nest to ensure she would return. Their aim was to place a leg flag on the female so that the numbers of birds returning to the breeding grounds each year can be monitored.

There was frantic talk between the Russian team for several minutes as Roland and I waited. We couldn’t understand what they were saying and feared that the nest may have been predated. After a few minutes we were told that it was OK to approach and Nikolay pointed out the nest. When we got there I was amazed at how incredibly well camouflaged the nest was. We placed the eggs in to a foam insert, inside a Tupperware box, wrapped in a foil blanket to keep them warm and began our journey back to the quad. Once back at the quad, we placed the eggs in the portable incubator and made the slow and careful journey back to the house. We now had 16 precious spoon-billed sandpiper eggs within our care.

The Hemel, the main incubator we use to incubate the spoon-billed sandpiper eggs, had begun to cause us a few problems. We started to have less and less confidence in it and as a result, the number of sleepless nights increased. With no warning, it would suddenly shoot up to dangerous temperatures, those that could easily kill eggs if they were left for extended periods of time. We had to watch it every hour of the day. We shared this time out between us in shifts so that we could all get a couple of hours sleep here and there at least. Cabin fever was truly beginning to set in at this point, so occasionally I would sacrifice some of my hours of sleep to go out surveying with the Russian team. Birding is a very good cure for the boredom of egg-watching.

Week 2 (20th– 26th June)

I was invited out for a couple of hours in the morning with Pavel and Egor to help them catch and mark a male spoon-billed sandpiper sat on dummy eggs. They were certain it would be the male bird because females always incubate during the night while males incubate during the day. This was to be the fourth spoon-billed sandpiper they had marked with a metal ring and coloured leg flag this year. They were also trialing a new trapping method this season, which was different to the spring trap they had used in previous seasons. They believed this trap would cause the birds less stress, as it allows them to simply walk in through a small entrance and can subsequently be caught quickly and carefully.

This particular nest was in the moraine hills not too far away from the village. It was also very close to where Nigel had found the dead spoon-billed sandpiper and predated nest in 2011. We arrived at the site and watched the bird fly away from the nest. Then we approached and Pavel and Egor set the trap. The trap consists of a soft but stiff green mesh that is pegged in to the ground surrounding the nest using tent pegs with just a small entrance for the bird to walk through. This entrance faced the location of where we would wait at a suitable distance for the bird to enter. A soft net was placed over the top of the mesh and fixed with elastic to prevent the bird from flying out. We moved away and watched from behind a small bank, waiting for the bird to return. Whilst we were waiting I noticed a Lapland bunting feeding on the ground very close by; they are abundant in this area and you can hear them singing most of the time.

We only had to wait around five minutes before we could see the male approaching the nest from behind the trap. You could see he was a bit confused and kept circling the nest looking for a way in to his eggs. After approximately 15 minutes he walked in and Egor ran very quickly over to the nest. He reached in and had the bird in his hand by the time Pavel and I got to the nest. We took down the trap and went to sit in a small valley nearby which was sheltered from the wind to weigh, measure and ring the bird. The bird weighed 31.7 grams and a metal ring was placed on its right leg while a green leg flag was placed on its left. Once all the measurements and pictures of the bird had been taken it was time to release it. Pavel and Egor allowed me the honour of releasing it. They passed me the bird and I gently cupped it with my hands. Once ready, I lifted my hand off to uncover it. It sat crouched in my hands for a couple of seconds, then flew off and landed not far from us. It had a quick drink in the nearby stream and then flew off behind the hill.

Later that day, Roland, Juriy and the Russian team went to collect the last clutch of eggs from the Angavie area of Meina. I stayed at the house to watch over the incubator with the other 16 eggs inside. Once they had returned, we carefully transferred our precious cargo into the Hemel incubator. We now had our full quota of eggs and the responsibility of watching them day and night, to ensure they did not come to any harm.

At approximately 10 o’clock the next day we had our first power cut. We began heating up the portable incubator straight away in case we needed it and Juriy went over to Sveta’s house to ask if we could have the generator from one of the storage containers. Once fired up, we connected up the incubators to the generator and we were able to get them running again. Thankfully we weren’t without power for very long, only around an hour or so.

At dinner, Egor and Pavel told me about a pair of spoon-billed sandpipers that they suspected may re-lay at an area known as ‘The Cross’. They had seen the male displaying earlier in the day, as well as calling and chasing the female. Egor offered to take me there that evening as we feared it would probably be the last chance for me to see wild spoon-billed sandpipers displaying; most of them had started incubating by now. ‘The Cross’ is a large site with many small pools, near the moraine hills but it is also on the coast of Lake Pikul’ney. First Egor showed me a white-billed diver sat on a nest on an island in the lake not far from the coast. Its partner was also nearby, sat on the water even closer to the shore. They are absolutely beautiful birds and I could really appreciate their size seeing them so close up. Then we walked across the site where Egor and Pavel had seen the spoon-billed sandpipers displaying earlier in the day. Once we had located the pair we moved back and lay in a dip around 20 metres away where we could not easily be seen. We watched them for around 30 minutes. The female was feeding along the shore and the male was sat in dense vegetation nearby. We heard the male making his song calls and the female responding but no large display flights. We watched the female making her way along the shore line probing in the soft mud for food in between spouts of crouching behind tufts of grass and other vegetation. This was a very welcome break from incubator-watching back at the house and was a great temporary cure for my cabin fever. But now it was sadly time to head back to cover the incubator duties again for the night.

Over the following few days we began constructing the release pen. We made a start on some of the parts we could build at the house, in between short stints of nipping inside to check on the incubator. We made sure we were never far away and very often one of us was inside watching the eggs at all times. Juriy and Roland constructed a door for the end panel of the pen out of the metal struts and I attached heavy duty green mesh which would help us to keep out predators. This was all in preparation for transport via the caterpillar to the chosen release site, where the whole structure could be erected.

With only a few days until the first clutch of eggs is due to pip, the main focus now is to prepare the inside rearing coops and clean the necessary rearing materials such as soft matting and towels for the young chicks to live on. We are currently setting up what will be the ‘hatcher’ incubator and ‘brooder’ in order to ensure they are at precisely the right conditions to receive the hatching eggs and young spoon-billed sandpiper chicks. Watching the incubator has finally become more exciting now as we eagerly check for ‘bouncing’ eggs and pips in the egg shells.

  1. Elaine Reply

    Thank you for all your wonderful work saving the spoonies!

  2. Rick Simpson Reply

    Well done Nicky, keep up the wouderful work you are doing! We’re very happy for you and wishing everything goes well in Meina.
    Good luck!
    Rick and Elis.

  3. Ken Turnip Reply

    Great stuff Nicky. So pleased you have had the chance to get to see the relatives (parents even?) of the birds you take such good care of back at Slimbridge. Sorry I can’t send any Red Bull out to the tundra for your long hours watching the incubators (other energy drinks are available! 😉 ) Good luck for the long days and nights ahead.

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