Roland Digby is an expert aviculturist. His skill at breeding and rearing birds has helped return cirl buntings and Eurasian cranes to parts of southern England. He’s spent long periods working in remote parts of the world including the Madagascar highlands, where he helped set up breeding facilities for the world’s rarest bird – the Madagascar pochard – and the Russian Far East, where he runs a headstarting programme for chicks of the Critically Endangered spoon-billed sandpiper. This is what he reports from Chukotka in the Russian Far East.
Over the last few weeks I’ve been surveying spoon-billed sandpipers as they return to breed. This is my fourth summer out here. I’m based in Meinypil’gyno, a small coastal village nestled amongst moraine hills. The village’s multi-coloured houses are clustered on a spit of land that separates Lake Pekulneyskoye from the Bering Sea. It’s remote; so remote that there’re no roads in or out. You either arrive by sea or via the aging ex-military helicopter that brought us here from the capital, Anadyr.
I’m here for a reason, which I’ve written about before. I’m an aviculturist with the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust and effectively I’m here to prop up the spoon-billed sandpiper population while, elsewhere in its 8,000 km range, friends and colleagues tackle the things that are killing them off.
However, my main job only starts in earnest once the spoonies have paired up and start laying eggs. Until then, it’s fieldwork. And what an amazing place this is to work.
The birds come here so their new born chicks can thrive on the insect life that irrupts during the short summer. To be ready for that the birds first arrive as the snow is just starting to melt. And, to be ready for the birds, we arrive even earlier, when everything is still covered in snow.
As the snow melt drains off the moraine hills, water defines the landscape. Most years storms during the winter have blocked the river mouth with shingle from the spit. As the water backs up it replenishes the vast Lake Pekulneyskoye and spills out across the land turning it into marsh.
Eventually the full weight of the water will force its way through the blocked river mouth, but in the meantime everyone waits in the flooded landscape. The spoonies wait for their breeding territories to appear from beneath the marshes. The villagers wait to catch the spawning salmon that are building up offshore. The salmon run is their main source of protein for the year and their main source of income.
June 13th is a key date. If the river hasn’t freed itself by then, the local administration come and clear the blockage. But last year, the local fishermen got fed up waiting and took matters into their own hands, physically clearing the river mouth by hand. This winter they drove a bulldozer our across the spit while the ice was at its thickest and strongest, so that it was in place ready to be used to reopen the river. But even so this year’s flooding has been as extensive as I’ve ever seen it. It’s hard going for us as we survey the birds. The marshy areas are impassable, unless we borrow a monster truck (!) from our host, Roman. On foot we’re forced to take big detours to reach known spoony territories – I’ve been doing 20km round trips some days, which is keeping me fit!
It’s hard for the birds too, because a lot of the usual spots are underwater. The first spoony turned up on June 3rd this year while the low-lying marshes were completely flooded. These first arrivals have to head for territories in the moraine hills to pair up and get down to business. With fewer territories we’ve noticed is that the unpaired birds have been moving about a lot more than in drier years, as they try to be in the right spot at the right time as the waters recede.
I love getting these little insights into the lives of these spoon-billed sandpipers and building up a picture of how they cope in this wild and elemental landscape.
The good news is that it looks like it will be a good breeding season for the spoonies at Meinypil’gyno, despite these early disruptions. A healthy number of birds have returned already and about eleven pairs so far have settled down already. This is looking much better than a few years ago when numbers were falling by about a quarter each year.
What we’re really celebrating is that among the spoonies we’ve surveyed, there are several ‘headstarted’ birds – ones that I hand-reared in past summers as part of our work here. They have now returned to breed themselves. It’s a huge relief that they have made it, alongside their kin that were hatched and reared by their natural parents.
We always suspected that they would because so much of spoon-billed sandpipers’ lives is innate and instinctual, but headstarting is at the more radical end of conservation and spoon-billed sandpipers are quite unique.
Incredibly the young birds first set off on their amazing 16,000 km round trip at less than one month old. Both parents have already left, leaving them with just the company of other similarly aged and inexperienced birds. They make it all the way to the estuaries of Myanmar, Bangladesh and Thailand on instinct. And two years later they manage find their way back here in the hope of finding a mate of their own and starting the cycle again. It’s an incredible thing to experience.