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.

Headstarting spoon-billed sandpipers – Roland’s account

WWT aviculturist Roland Digby in Chukotka (c) Nicky HiscockRoland and Nicky returned from Russia last week, after a successful expedition headstarting spoon-billed sandpipers. They’re taking some well-earned time off now, but Roland still kindly gave us a debrief:

From my perspective this year was so much better. We learned a lot last year because this had never been done before. Last year there was a lot of conversations between me, Pavel, Nikolay, and Christoph where we’d be saying “Well, this is what we think might happen…”, but we didn’t know.

For instance, this year we built the rearing aviary down by the marsh, which is the ideal release site. This was great for the birds and it meant that they could get onto a diet of purely wild food pretty much straight away after the release.

I have to say, though the number of mosquitoes was good for the birds, it was not good for aviculturists. There was one feed, during the middle of the day when it wasn’t too painful, but at dusk and dawn it was hell going out to check on the chicks and put down the food. Obviously we couldn’t wear any sort of repellent because we couldn’t risk getting that on the food. And any sort of mesh or headgear would have restricted our sight, and stepping back on a bird doesn’t bear thinking about.

Bear, running away (c) Roland DigbyInterestingly, it was also a popular spot with the bears – they seemed to patrol the shoreline of the lake. I was spending most nights down at the release pen, sleeping in the tracked vehicle the Russian’s call a Vezdia Hode (translates as ‘goes anywhere’). We had to be very strict about any food eaten down there and the tins it came in. We even had to take left over bird seed well away from the pen, just in case. Nicky and I did turn up on the quad bike one day to find a young and rather naive bear attempting to break into the aviary. Nicky just drove straight at it, beeping the horn and flashing the lights. It got the message and turned tail. We followed it for several hundred metres, Nicky beeping the horn every time it slowed down, till it was well away.

I did have a worse encounter when I was down there on my own one day. Normally the bears are very wary of humans but this one fully grown bear started coming towards me. It was worrying but I did what the Russians had told me to. I didn’t run because that just triggers a predator-prey instinct that overrides any common sense that bears might have. I stood still and made myself look as large as possible. It stopped about eighty metres away thankfully, so I didn’t have to get the bear spray out. Apparently bear spray will stop a charging bear nine out of ten times, whereas a gun will only work six times out of ten. Not odds I ever want to put to the test.

This male spoon-billed sandpiper produced six fledglings: three he reared himself and three were hand-reared (c) Roland DigbyWe were also fortunate to have a spoon-billed sandpiper nest just nearby, so we were able to watch the progress of the chicks. This was a nest that we had collected eggs from shortly after they were laid. We always try to collect the eggs as soon after they have been laid as possible, to avoid them being taken by a gull or a ground squirrel, but also because, if done within about a week, it prompts the pair to lay a second clutch, which they then raise themselves with the result that any chicks we rear are in addition to the natural wild population.

So we watched and listened to the dad (mum migrates as soon as she’s finished incubating, leaving dad to rear the chicks) and his clutch of three just a few hundred metres away from where we were rearing our own clutches. Though we couldn’t see the chicks on the nest, we knew by the dad’s alarm calls that he still had chicks alive. Then, the day before I left to return home, three chicks fledged. This was incredible because the average number of fledglings per nest is just 0.6. It may well have been in part due to our presence nearby keeping predators away, but added to the three birds that we fledged from his nest, that is six young spoon-billed sandpipers from one pair – ten times the average!

Foraging spoon-billed sandpiper post-release (c) Roland Digby

Just as I was leaving they were joining the eighteen young birds that we released onto the marsh. They were a few days younger because they were from a later clutch.

After release, the hand reared birds lost interest in the food we left out for them within a day or two, which is perfect because it meant they were finding all the insects they needed. Each had been fitted with a leg flag but no radio tags so all our monitoring was done by eye. We were able to keep good track of them because we knew where they liked to feed and roost and when. They stuck to a strip of the marsh about a kilometre long by two to three hundred metres wide. Generally they’d be feeding around dawn and dusk and during the day they’d roost behind clumps of wild chervil, to keep out of the wind. We might not have seen all the birds on each sweep, but we’d tick off each bird over the course of a day.

Two birds unfortunately got predated before they headed off on migration, one by a ground squirrel and one we never worked out by what exactly. Another bird just disappeared after a couple of days, but we never found any evidence that it had been taken. We don’t know whether it died or migrated.

WWT aviculturist Nicky Hiscock, the quad bike and the Vezdia Hode (c) Nicky HiscockAs the time for migration drew nearer, the marsh started filling up with red-necked stints, phalaropes, dunlin and western sandpipers, all coming from further north. Our birds became restless a few days beforehand, calling a lot at dusk and making lots of test flights, pushing themselves. They set off in the short period of semi-light that passes for night up there, so I didn’t actually see them leave, but there were still fifteen of them the evening before and then they were gone.

They have a long way ahead of them – 8,000km, on which they will struggle to find safe places to rest and feed and when they arrive to the estuaries of Myanmar and Bangladesh, where they will spend the first two years of their life, there is still the chance they will get caught in mist nets intended for bigger birds. However, the good news is that it seems there is progress in asking villagers to swap bird trapping for fishing, so we are hopeful that in coming years we will be able to recognise our headstarted birds by their leg flags as they return to Meinypilg’yno to breed.

  1. Phil Palmer Reply

    great news. A steep learning curve but very positive results from this year. I will watch for the chicks in Myanmar this winter. The ex-hunters managed to free a bird that had been caught in fishing nets this year so I am hoping that more birders visit & donate to the village to keep the ex-hunters on board. So far all schemes are working well.


  2. NigelH Reply

    Brilliant job! It must be a great feeling to know that the birds you’ve reared have started migration. I hear there’s to be a sponsored walk for the project soon. Maybe you should ask Nicky to bring up the rear on a quad bike, to “encourage” anyone who feels like giving up.

  3. Helena Jefferson Reply

    Hi Roland
    What an incredible job your, Nicky and the Birds Russia guys did this summer. Welcome home – your families must be thrilled to have you home and I want to take the opportunity the thank them as well for their forbearance letting you go. What fun to have a pair nearby and how incredible that they (with your help managed to fledge 6 young. Let us hope that they find food and shelter on their perilous journey south. I am visiting Myanmar with Bird Holidays and Phil Palmer in January. It would be SO exciting if we manage to see one of your birds on the wintering grounds. I am so looking forward to seeing them in winter plumage and meeting some hunters possibly as guides!
    All the best from Helena

  4. Ken Tucker (AKA Turnip) Reply

    Inspiring stuff, as ever. Lots of people wanted to know about the birds at Bird Fair this year. Having up to date and positive news from you and Nicky on the breeding grounds (as well as some good news from the wintering grounds) was really uplifting and good to tell. The breeding success from those six nests is just fantastic. Let’s hope more positive news can come from China where perhaps the greatest threats now occur along the migration route. I’m really looking forward to a headstarted bird being recorded back on the breeding grounds. That’ll be a Champagne day!

    Well done and thank you for your efforts and for putting your life on the line with those bears. Let’s hope you never have to use your bear spray. Welcome home!

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