Update from Baz Hughes
We’ve known for some years now that Spoon-billed Sandpiper Lime 07 is a Super Spoonie, but until this year we didn’t really know how super!
The Birds Russia field team, led by Pavel Tomkovich, caught him on his nest, east of Meinypil’gyno, Chukotka, Russia on 23 June 2013 and fitted him with his Lime 07 leg flag and metal ring number KS18827. His mate was fitted with Lime 08 and their clutch of four eggs was taken for headstarting, all four of which hatched and fledged.
Although Lime 07 wasn’t seen in Russia in 2014, he was most probably present but not located, as he subsequently reappeared in 2015 along with his mate Lime 08. They only laid two eggs this year, both of which were again taken for headstarting, both of which hatched and both of which were released. In 2016, Lime 07 and Lime 08 again bred together but their nest was not found. However they produced three chicks, all of which were ringed and subsequently fledged. In 2017, Lime 07 was observed in spring with a new unmarked female, but his nest was not found (presumed either flooded or predated).
In 2018, Lime 07 again appeared on the breeding grounds at Meinypil’ gyno and this time he was a bird we were very interested in as part of our quest to locate unknown moulting sites as he had never been seen previously at the main moult site in Jiangsu, China. When his nest failed (freshly damaged eggs were found in and around his nest on 4 July) the Russian field team put dummy eggs into the nest which he subsequently began to incubate. This gave them the chance to catch him, which they duly did on 7 July, and his satellite transmitter was fitted. As with all other tagged spoonies to date, the tag was glued on to the lower back – designed to be a non-permanent attachment, with the tag expected to fall off when the bird next moulted all those back feathers.
Lime 07 started his migration from Meinypil’gyno on 19 July, flying 1,285km south-west to Magadan, were he staged for 8 days before continuing his migration to northern Sakhalin where he stayed for another 8 days (using 2 sites). He set off on the next (1,981km) leg of his migration on 8 August arriving at Yonan, North Korea on the 11 August where he then remained for 67 days, presumably to moult.
We then expected his tag to fall off, as we thought that Spoon-billed Sandpipers undergo a complete post-breeding body moult in autumn, which would mean the feathers supporting the tag would have been lost. Undoubtedly most do, but to our great delight, Lime 07 was to prove an exception to the rule. On 17 October 2018, Lime 07 left North Korea for a non-stop 51 hour 2,400km flight to the south coast of Guangdong Province, China, where he settled on 19 October at a previously unknown staging / wintering site on the west coast of the Leizhou Peninsula.
So where would Lime 07 spend the winter? He had previously been sighted on 4 February 2016 at Khok Kham, Samut Sakhon, Thailand; 21 November 2016 at Sonadia Island, Bangladesh, and then again here on 17 February 2017, indicating that Lime 07 spent the entire winter in Bangladesh in 2017, possibly in and around Sonadia Island.
As spoonies are thought to be faithful to their wintering sites (i.e. once they find a site they like, they return to it year-on-year). However, recent surveys have discovered that there are significant numbers of Spoon-billed Sandpipers remaining to winter in southern China. Would he stay put or would he move on? Flurries of e-mails were speculating he would move on. And they were right.
In the evening (local time) of 28 October, after 9 days in southern China, Lime 07 set off once again. But instead of heading due west towards Bangladesh he headed off south west. As we all waited for the next fix, we expected him to correct his route and thought we’d next find him somewhere over the Thai peninsula heading towards Myanmar and then maybe on to Bangladesh. We waited, and we waited, and we waited until his next fix eventually came in 19 hours later – placing him off the coast of Cambodia! He had continued on his south-westerly bearing and was still flying. And on he flew, and on he flew, and on he flew eventually making landfall in northern Sumatra on the morning (local time) of 30 October after a non-stop 49 hour flight of 2,300km – almost the same distance in the same length of time (and thus at the same speed – 47km/h) as the previous leg of his migration.
Now you might think the story ends here – after a marathon 3 ½ month, 9,000km migration from the far north of arctic Russia to the tropical heat of northern Sumatra. But it does not.
After seeing that Lime 07 had made landfall in northern Sumatra, the international Spoon-billed Sandpiper Task Force swung into action. This was the first ever record of Spoon-billed Sandpiper in Indonesia at a site which was not known to be an important site for shorebirds. We needed to find out how many shorebirds and how many Spoon-billed Sandpipers were using the site and, importantly, whether Lime 07 was looking okay after it’s marathon migration. Visiting a remote site in northern Sumatra isn’t anything like popping down to your local estuary in the UK, or even visiting well known wintering sites along the flyway. Could we manage to find someone who could get out into the field and hopefully find and even photograph Lime 07?
Thankfully the Spoon-billed Sandpiper Task Force has contacts throughout the East Asian – Australasian Flyway – including in Indonesia and, it turns out, even in northern Sumatra! Task Force Coordinator Christoph Zöckler immediately got in touch with Chairunas Adha Putra (Nchay) who runs Sumatera Birding Tours and lives a mere 220km or six hours drive from the site. Nchay immediately agreed to muster a team to visit the site in search of Lime 07. Nchay and his team arrived at the site on Friday 2 November to find over 7,000 waders of more than 15 species, including many Red-necked and Little Stints, plovers and Sanderlings but no Spoon-billed Sandpipers. The team would keep looking.
Then, at 9am UK time on Saturday 3 November, the news we had all been waiting for came through – Christoph e-mailed us to say that Nchay and his team had found Lime 07! It was looking well and actively feeding on some fishponds together with Red-necked Stint, Curlew Sandpiper, Greater Sandplover, and Broad-billed Sandpiper.
And then my eye was drawn to the e-mail attachments. Surely Nchay hadn’t managed to photograph Lime 07. Click. Oh yes he had! Two stunning full frame photos of Lime 07 Super Spoonie along with satellite tag!
Will Lime 07 remain in northern Sumatra for the winter or will he return to his previous wintering area in Bangladesh? Only time will tell, but we’ll all be keeping a close and concerned eye on him and wish him well.
At Meinypil’gyno we have now headstarted 163 Spoon-billed Sandpipers (160 of which were flagged) plus 118 wild chicks and 57 wild adults. This has resulted in over 800 sightings in nine countries along the flyway. Resighting rates suggest that headstarted birds are surviving as well as truly wild birds but further analysis is needed. Flagging, in combination with standardised scan sampling on the wintering grounds in China and Myanmar, allows us to estimate the world population size – the next calculation of this will take place later this year. While these analyses are conducted behind the scenes, they rely on a large network of highly committed and mainly volunteer observers. Without their efforts these important analyses would not be possible. Each and every one of these observers make an essential contribution to this a truly international conservation programme.
We have now satellite tagged a total of 12 Spoon-billed Sandpipers since October 2016 and the results have been breath-taking. The overland migration route to Myanmar proven; a number of previously unknown staging and wintering and possibly breeding sites identified; two important new sites identified in North Korea, including a site which may turn out to be another critical moulting site for the species; and on the ground action at some sites in southern China identified through satellite tracking resulting in prompt removal of illegally set mist nets.
I’d like to end by personally thanking Paul Howey and all at Microwave Telemetry Inc. for supplying us with the amazing satellite tags which has made all of this possible. And obviously to all of our funders and supporters, more information about which you can find here. Also sorry for the length of this blog, but when I started I’m afraid I got so excited that I couldn’t stop!