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.

Spoon-billed sandpiper still boldly going: hand-reared bird from Russia seen in Thailand

Photo of ‘AA’ on Peter Ericsson’s camera

A spoon-billed sandpiper was snapped last week by birdwatcher Peter Ericsson on wetlands at Pak Thale in Thailand and identified as bird ‘AA’, which was hand-reared and released in Chukotka, Russia last summer as part of the effort to save the species from extinction.

The spoon-billed sandpiper is one of the rarest birds in the world and consequently is one of the most difficult to find once it leaves its known breeding area for the winter months. This is the first time an individual hand-reared bird has been identified in the wild by the unique code on its plastic leg flag proving beyond doubt that this bird was Spoon-billed Sandpiper ‘AA’. Last autumn there were three sightings of spoon-billed sandpipers with white leg flags, indicating that they had been reared as part of the headstarting programme, but they were too distant for the codes to be read.

WWT aviculturist Roland Digby, who reared bird AA and many others on the tundra in Russia over the last two years, first spotted Peter Ericsson’s sighting on a Facebook site. He said:

“It was so exciting to see Peter’s message. We rear these birds for a few weeks till they’re ready to fledge and migrate, and then we have to let them go into a world where we know the odds are stacked against them.

“This particular bird always had a strong character. Its flag is AA because it was the boldest and the first to be picked up. It was independent as soon as I’d released it , disappearing off during the day and only returning at night to feed on mosquitoes.

“I last saw it on August 6th last year and never expected to hear of it again, but it’s wonderful to hear that it’s survived its first migration, found places to safely rest and feed and avoided the bird trappers’ nets.”

‘AA’ as a chick in the rearing aviary on the Russian Tundra in summer 2013

Hand-rearing is part of a plan to artificially boost the number of spoon-billed sandpipers in the wild while conservationists protect coastal wetlands and stop bird trapping along Asia’s eastern and southern coasts. Also known as headstarting, last year it increased the number of fledglings leaving the birds’ only known breeding grounds by 25%.

It also allows conservationists to fit leg flags to the birds. Reported sightings give a measure of the success of different tactics to save the species and could potentially reveal new information about the birds.

Dr Nigel Clark of the BTO is a leading wader expert and has been at the centre of efforts to conserve the spoon-billed sandpiper. He said:

“This sighting is a fantastic bit of news. It shows that headstarting the birds is working and they are successfully migrating and it’s starting to give us more clues that could be useful in future. This is the fifth sighting in Thailand of a bird from the Meinypil’gyno breeding grounds. Only time will tell if that’s a coincidence, so I urge anyone in the region to keep their eyes out for leg flagged birds and report them if they see one.”

Birdwatchers in Asia are asked to particularly look out for and report (to sbsrecords@eaaflyway.net) these spoon-billed sandpipers with the following markings:

  • Any of eight adults marked with light green flags inscribed with two alphanumeric characters on their left legs. These birds were caught and marked in 2013 as wild adults.
  • Any of three juveniles with light green flags inscribed with two alphanumeric characters on their right legs. These birds were also caught and marked in 2013 as wild birds.
  • Any of the 16 headstarted juveniles from 2013 which have white flags inscribed with two alphanumeric characters on their right leg
  • Any of the 9 headstarted juveniles from 2012 which have light green flags with single alphanumeric character on their right leg

Any Spoon-billed Sandpiper with any other marking. As there are a few survivors previous studies.

  1. stewart darroch Reply


  2. Siriya Sripanomyom Reply

    This spoonie is still at Pak Thalae. I and my friend George Swann from Kimberly Birdwatching, Australia, also found this bird still in the same area on 11 March 7.50 am. There are other 2 spoon-billed sandpiper in the same pond with this spoonie, but they are not feeding close to each other at all during 2 hours that I observed. They were feeding far apart from each other. In this pond also found 40 Normann’s Greenshanks roosting as a background when we were looking at all these 3 spoonies.

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