Update by Guy Anderson (Nature Recovery Unit, RSPB).
The first week after spoonies arrive back on their breeding grounds in early June is a critical time to find territories. This is when they are most vocal – lots of displaying, and lots of singing – a Dunlin-like bubbling trill, given from the ground or during lengthy song-flights, when the sound carries even further. This is a golden opportunity to find out which birds have returned to the tundra around Meinypil’gyno. After a week or so, egg-laying is underway and once incubation starts, the birds will get much quieter and harder to find. So this is why, less than 24 hours after arriving in Meinypil’gyno, I found myself part of a 4-person survey team, off to camp at the far end of the study area. To get there required a zodiac ride across a river, dodging ice-floes, and then an hour’s drive along a shingle spit in the ‘Kerzhak’ – a monster truck version of a transit van. Its massive tyres were ideal for soft snow, sand or shingle, and it was both our transport and bear-proof accommodation for the trip. The shingle ridge separating tundra from the Bering Sea is littered with whale and walrus bones – washed up over decades or possibly centuries. The occasional pair of ringed plovers scurries around between the massive skulls and piles of ribs and vertebrae.
We set up camp next to an abandoned oil drilling site – established in the 1980s, and abandoned in the 1990s after the Soviet Union collapsed. A makeshift grave nearby told of the grim life the original oil prospectors must have faced here. The immediate surroundings were a scene straight from Mad Max – abandoned rusting metalwork everywhere. But wildlife has a habit of capitalising on human additions to the landscape – a pair of ravens were nesting on one of the drilling towers, and greeted us each morning with reproachful ‘quonk’ calls. Snow buntings, white wagtails and – improbably – house martins – were nesting in the old buildings. Standing in bitter wind and a single digit temperatures I wondered how on earth the martins managed to survive, let alone breed, in these conditions. But terraced rows of nests within the ironwork attested to their hardiness.
We soon located a cluster of spoony territories in the surrounding area – territory mapping helped greatly by a few birds being flagged already. But we also needed to check further afield. Long days hiking across tundra just starting to bloom, and along lakeshores still smothered in ice, did not reveal any more however. This made me realise just how hard it is to get a complete picture of where spoonies are nesting – so easy to miss a few scattered pairs of these tiny birds here and there, across the vast tracts of tundra. Exhaustive ground searching of all possible areas in Chukotka would take an impossibly long time.
Wind-blasted and sunburnt after five days out, we returned to Meinypil’gyno, having found at least five spoony territories, and one nest. The picture of which birds are breeding where is starting to come together for this year. Next job – nest finding, and establishing the headstarting ‘class of 2019’.