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.

Starting 2014 on a high – Dr Nigel Clark

Dr Nigel Clark is Head of Projects at the BTO and Coordinator of the UK Spoon-billed Sandpiper Support Group. As a key advisor to the Spoon-billed Sandpiper conservation breeding programme he visited the Slimbridge flock earlier this week. He writes:

Trying to save Spoon-billed Sandpipers from extinction is a roller coaster ride as each piece of news comes in. 2014 is definitely on a high at the moment. Last month we got the first definite picture of a headstarted bird (AA) on the wintering grounds. We all believed that headstarting is the right thing to do and that it will help bolster the wild population but there is nothing like proof that they are surviving to raise the spirits.

The good thing about headstarting is that many of the pairs lay a replacement clutch and this was the case with AA’s parents. They also raised the second brood and some of the chicks were also marked. The ultimate happened on Tuesday we got a photo sent through of one of these chicks wintering in the bay of Martaban in Myanmar!

The third great thing was on my monthly visit to record the plumage state of the captive birds. Over half of them have the first breeding plumage feathers appearing right on time. At the moment it is only one or two lines of breeding feathers on the back. But it is an unmistakable sign that they are on track for the breeding season to come.

The WWT husbandry team have been working feverishly to get the breeding quarters ready. They will be a series of interlinked breeding units which the birds can be moved between so we have pairs or small groups in each unit. When we need to split them up we will be able to segregate them without catching them. This will enable us to react to behavioural changes quickly without stressing the birds.

To start the birds getting used to these new facilities the two groups have been let out into the first breeding aviary on alternate days. As I arrived at the facility I could hear the flock calling as they were feeding in their new surroundings seemingly oblivious to the work going on around them to finish the other units. Their winter quarters have no vegetation in them as they would be on mudflats in the wild. Now for the first time they have access to turf that mimics the vegetation on the breeding grounds.

As I watched the flock feeding in the shallow pool one came over to the turf and started feeding. Immediately the rest of the group rushed over and joined in chattering away just as wintering dunlin do on flooded fields. I marvelled that this came so naturally to them as they had not encountered this before! After a couple of minutes something disturbed them and the whole flock went for a fly round expertly avoiding the soft side and roof netting before returning to the pool to feed.

Soon the whole group will be put together and we hope that they will pair up naturally, but that is a month or two away yet. It is now time to be patient and hope that four years of planning and hard work come to fruition. When we started out I hoped that we may get 10 birds to breeding age. To have 25 is beyond my wildest dreams and down to the dedication of the whole team. The breeding season cannot come soon enough now!

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