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.

A Stirring of Spoonies

Today is one of the most important days in the calendar of the 2015 Headstarting expedition and a very important one in the recovery of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper. Today is the day the WWT and Birds Russia team release the birds they have known from the newly-laid egg stage….  today is the day the team release bright-eyed, feather-perfect, just-fledged Spoon-billed sandpiper chicks. All chicks hatched, raised and released inside the month of July 2015!!

I can only imagine how very stirring it must be for the team to see so many young sandpipers with the knowledge its population numbers only a few hundred individuals. I certainly felt stirred when I phoned Roland yesterday evening between his regular forays for chick food – shrimps and mosquitoes netted from icy pools near Meinypil’gyno. Roland described how incredible it was for all team members when the first brood of four hatched on the 7th July,  followed by one chick every 90 minutes throughout the 8th!  Although this then meant exhausting round-the clock nursery duty for many team members, they were all delighted with the synchrony of hatching. The ‘synchrony of hatch’ meant the chicks would reach flying stages at around the same time which in turn meant a single large release of birds was a possibility. The team have always felt that by releasing the group as one flock, they would provide the youngsters with the best chance of joining flocks of other small waders just before the exodus south.

I hope to speak to Roland again before the weekend, to find out how the young birds have taken to the pools and wet areas, post-release. He told me, before our telephone call ended, that over the next few days, the team plan to observe the birds as closely as possible, without disturbing them. The team will respond to any of the birds’ needs if they can – for example they will move extra food to ‘here and there’ positions to keep the birds well-fed and safe in the days they take to acclimatise to the Chukotkan wilderness, ahead of their southward migration in a fortnight or so.

When my phone conversation with Roland ended I was left imagining, once again, how emotionally stirring this time must be for the team. We don’t have a collective noun for a flock of spoonies but I’m beginning to think a stirring may be appropriate –  “a stirring of spoonies”, perhaps?

If you want to find out more about our work tune into Spoonievision, a live online broadcast with Kate Humble on Wednesday 19th August! Spoonievision will bring you the latest news and behind the scenes information from our WWT Slimbridge spoonies’ enclosure and the latest information about headstarting in the wild from Roland. Make sure you don’t miss it by signing up to Spoonievision alerts at www.wwt.org.uk/Spoonievision


  1. David Reply

    How many Spoonies were headstarted this year by Roland and the team? 20?

    • Baz Reply

      Hi David. Sorry for the delay in responding. Since Spoonievision Nige and I have been out of the office at the UK Bird Fair. 33 eggs collected for headstarting, 29 hatched, 28 birds released, 28 birds migrated. So the most successful year so far 🙂 A fantastic performance by Roland and the Birds Russia / WWT expedition team

      • David Reply

        Thanks for the reply Baz,

        i’ve been following you and the teams fantastic work since the start on the other side of the world in NZ and its been intriguing. I hope one day to see these little guys in Asia if not at slimbridge when you have enough that you can show them to the public. I wish you all the best, and hopefully next year i will be able to meet some of you when i move to the UK to try and find a job in avian conservation!
        All the best,

  2. Linda Haylock Reply

    Hello Nigel,

    I watched Spoonievision with interest last night. I remember you saying that, so far, breeding attempts by the Spoonies at Slimbridge haven’t been successful. Then, in another part of the programme you said that as far as possible the conditions that they’re kept under match those of their breeding grounds, but that you feel you’re not matching it exactly – something’s missing and that if you could find the missing ingredient, they might breed successfully.

    In another unrelated topic you mentioned that the Spoonies at Slimbridge weren’t subjected to stressful conditions at all. They didn’t have any predators to cause them to have a reaction. I woke up too early this morning and was musing over the problem. And it struck me that perhaps these two factors are related. I’m not a biologist but wondered whether the stress hormone in a female bird might have a knock on effect on her reproductive hormones? Perhaps if a female was subjected to a tiny amount of stress, she might be more receptive to a male Spoonie. It’s just a thought, and you wouldn’t want to take the risk of harming the bird should it be subjected to stress that it wasn’t used to. But would it be worth looking into? I really hope you have success with breeding the Spoonies next year. Best wishes, Linda

    • Baz Reply

      Hi Linda. Coincidentally, we have a meeting tomorrow with the conservation breeding team to discuss what, if anything, we can do to try to try to get the spoonies breeding. It seems that the males are doing their thing, but the females aren’t. So there could well be a hormonal thing we haven’t got right.

      • Shakira Christodoulou Reply

        Is there any difference in the length of daylight hours between their Russian breeding grounds and Slimbridge, I wonder? Perhaps the ladies are only triggered into breeding behaviour by a certain amount of daylight time, or maybe a daylight time/temperature combination, or even a particular availability of certain food or particular flora for nesting material at that time? It’s jolly interesting – hope you solve it! Best of luck with all aspects of the project – keep up the good work to save these extraordinary birds! Shakira

  3. Baz Reply

    Hi Shakira. We manipulate the light levels in the breeding aviaries to mimic those in their annual cycle, but we can’t mimic the temperatures as the aviaries are outside polytunnels. We’ve also recently had diet analysis done and will make some changes to their diet next year too. Whatever happens we will keep striving to find out what we need to do to get them to breed. Fingers crossed for 2016!

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