Roland Digby has been in Chukotka, at the spoon-billed sandpipers’ breeding ground for the last two summers, hatching and hand-rearing chicks in what is known as “headstarting”. It helps stabilise the declining spoon-billed sandpiper population and he’s back there for a third time this summer. Despite heavy snow and flooding, he has been able to take several clutches of eggs into safety.
Meanwhile, the rest of WWT’s conservation breeding unit is at Slimbridge preparing the world’s only captive flock of spoon-billed sandpipers for what could be the first ever breeding season. Earlier this year, the birds were moved into communal outdoor areas and socialised as a single group for the first time. Recently they have been moved into special breeding aviaries that replicate the tundra habitat of their breeding grounds in Chukotka.
The move seemed to get several of the male birds in the mood for love. Two in particular were seen fighting and so were separated and sectioned off with females. They showed classic spoon-billed sandpiper courtship behaviour, singing and hovering in the air and even making nest scrapes. The behaviour was short lived though, and soon they were enjoying a much less flirtatious relationship and being more companionable than anything else.
Concerned by this apparent dampening of ardour, the team back home contacted Roland to ask how this compared with the behaviour of the birds in the wild. This is what he said:
“Yes, the birds become much quieter once they have a mate. The frantic singing only comes from unpaired males. Even then, older males that are waiting for their mate to return don’t sing as frantically as young males that have never paired up before.
“A couple of days ago Ivan and I were returning from surveying the area known as The Cross and we stopped at The Monument for our lunch. The pair there is very tame and carries on with their business whether people are there or not. During the hour we were there, we only heard the male call three or four times and then only very quietly and for a couple of seconds at most with no display flights or singing.
“The as yet unpaired birds in the moraine hills sing almost constantly and much louder. Their song flights generally last for more than 5 minutes and are very regular, with only five to ten minutes in between for feeding before taking off again to make another song flight. But once the male attracts a mate, the song flights stop and he becomes much quieter.”
So, there’s hope that we may still have the world’s first captive bred spoon-billed sandpiper chicks this summer, but as the days pass by with no signs of mating, anxiety within the team rises.