Chukotka, Russia is where I’ve spent the last three Summers, coaxing spoon-billed sandpiper chicks from eggs to fully-fledged birds.
The village of Meinypil’gyno – a multicoloured cluster of stilt houses with no roads in or out – is surrounded by moraine hills which are the only known breeding ground for the curious sandpipers with the spoon-shaped bill. I’m there as part of a team with a mission: to make sure as many young spoon-billed sandpipers as possible safely survive their first fragile weeks and set off to migrate along the East Asian – Australasian Flyway.
The method we use is very hands on and, with the spoon-billed sandpiper being one of the world’s most endangered species (and possibly the birding world’s most loved!) it is both a privilege and a heavy responsibility. But after three years, I know what I’m doing and I’m better able to appreciate the incredible wilderness of Chukotka. Besides which, we’ve had a lot of good news this year.
I’m there with some hugely talented Russian fieldworkers including Pavel Tomkovich, who’s visited the area since the 1970s, and Nikolay Yakoshev. We fly in an ancient ex-military helicopter from Anadyr across miles of frozen tundra. Often the weather is so bad that we’re delayed by days, but the aim is to arrive before the first birds, so there’s time to revive all the incubators and rearing kit, get it set up and start the fieldwork.
Pavel and Nikolay know the birds’ favoured haunts where the males like to set up territory when they arrive, so we divide up the fieldwork and spend days waiting for the first signs – males calling to attract their mates from little tussocks or as they hover one hundred feet in the air. This year Spring was late and there was still a lot of snow on the ground, making fieldwork on foot hard going. Meinypil’gynois on a spit of land which becomes a river mouth in summer as the snow melts. This Spring, the mouth was blocked with shingle and the snowmelt backed up across the region. This was bad news for us as it meant a detour of tens of kilometres to survey some of the birds’ more remote territories. It was also bad news for the Spoon-billed Sandpipers as many of their usual nest spots were under water.
It was also bad news for the fishermen who rely on the Spring salmon migration for much of their annual protein. Eventually, it became too much for the local guys. They took matters into their own hands by digging a small channel at the river mouth and letting the force of the backed up water do the rest, making life considerably better for all of us.
Though our fieldwork was initially hampered, we found about twelve pairs, the same as the previous year. Hopefully that indicates that after many years of decline the breeding population at Meinypil’gyno is stabilising. As soon as the males pair up, either with their former mates or a new female, they stop their exuberant courtship calling. The Russian fieldworkers’ skill is now invaluable. The birds are silent as well as almost invisible on their nest among the low tundra vegetation, and when they feel threatened their instinct is to lie low.
But Nikolay and Pavel are vastly experienced and their ability to know just where a pair has nested is almost spooky. For me this is the time when the expedition switches gears because I’m an aviculturist. In the long tradition of the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust, I rear birds for conservation. As soon as the first pair lays a clutch, Nikolay and Pavel know and we visit the nest to very, very carefully collect the eggs. They’re put in a portable incubator and gently brought to my big incubators in the village where I will carefully monitor their development, safe from predators.
Taking eggs may sound like a harsh thing to do, but the results are extraordinary. The birds’ innate desire to reproduce kicks in just as it would if the clutch was eaten by an arctic fox, which happens. Then they lay a second clutch. So the result is that we have a clutch of four eggs in captivity, from which we can safely expect to rear at least three young birds to fledge successfully, and the pair has their own clutch to incubate and rear, from which they’ll get one chick to fledging, if they’re successful. So we’re around tripling the number of fledglings coming from these nests. It’s not a tactic we plan to use long-term, but with the species at such low numbers it is making a big, big difference and so far all the signs are that it’s working.
Once the first pair has laid, the team brings in clutches of eggs each day and I’m essentially married to the incubators. What’s in them is invaluable in biological terms, but that means nothing to the local power supply, which can cut out without any notice. I’m always on hand with the backup generator. But the real fun starts for me once the eggs start hatching.
The chicks weigh just a couple of grams when they hatch and every single one is a little miracle with its minute spoon bill. Within three weeks they’re full-size and fully feathered. With all those clutches laid on different days, there comes a time when I’ve got eggs in the incubator as well as young birds at all different stages of development, requiring different care. It’s a couple of weeks of mayhem for me.
As soon as a bird is out of its shell and eating, I move it to the outdoor rearing pen on the tundra. This way their lives are as natural as possible, albeit with much less chance of being taken by a skua or a fox. This means that I’m shuttling from the incubators in the village to the pen on the tundra several times a day. I’m lucky if I get as many as four hours of sleep each night.
Once all the birds are in the release pen, life starts to quieten down slightly. If I’m lucky, I don’t have too many run-ins with bears. Normally the bears are wary of humans, but they are around. One afternoon up at the pen, a fully grown bear came toward me. It was worried, but I did what the Russians advised: I stood still and made myself as large as possible. Apparently running triggers a predator-prey instinct that overrides any common sense that bears might have. Thankfully the bear stopped about eighty metres from me so I didn’t have to get the bear spray out. I’ve been told that bear spray will stop a charging bear nine out of ten times, whereas a gun will only work six times out of ten. Not odds I ever want to put to the test.
In the release pen, we attach tiny engraved plastic flags to the birds’ legs. The colours and codes on them are a really successful way to get reports of their progress once they’ve migrated. The birds range from Chukotka all the way to tropical Myanmar, Thailand and Bangladesh each year, so you can imagine how hard it is to keep track of a total population of just a few hundred! Also, Spoon-billed Sandpipers tend to mix with other, similar looking waders in vast flocks on the coastal mudflats. The leg flags have led to a spate of re-sightings all the way down to Myanmar, giving us clues as to the routes they take, where is important to them and most importantly, that ‘our’ birds are doing okay.
But that’s just one of the successes. Spoon-billed sandpipers are first able to breed at two years old. It’s always been suspected that they return to their birthplace to breed – part of their innate navigation system that gets them halfway round the world with no guidance. This Summer, Nikolay found one of the birds that we’d reared in 2012 back at Meinypil’gyno. It was the best news we could have hoped for. What’s more, it looked heavy, meaning it was likely a gravid female and there was a chance she could breed successfully herself.
And she did just that. She settled down with a male and incubated and hatched a clutch. Between them they managed to rear a chick to fledging and, once I knew it had set off safely on migration, I felt like an honorary granddad.
The adult females tend to migrate first, leaving the males to help their brood through their first couple of weeks. Once the young are fully grown the adult males get restless and head south themselves, leaving the new generation alone. These young birds tend to flock together in the early evenings, particularly down by the lake shore near the rearing pen. At this time our hand-reared birds start showing signs of restlessness, and we know that it’s time to release them. We simply open the door to the pen and let them be free. They join the other young birds and hang around for a couple of days. We keep track of them by their leg flags and we leave some food out for them, but they very quickly take to entirely wild behaviour and never return to the pen.
Their behaviour becomes more and more animated. They can’t possibly know, but it seems that they’re excited about the journey of thousands of miles that lies ahead of them. Little do they know that it is fraught with such dangers. Places to stop and rest are few and far between these days and they are susceptible to the nets and poisons laid for other creatures. But they can and do survive the journey and, as the chick from 2012 has shown us this Summer, the extra birds we rear can become a fully functioning part of the population and go on to produce their own young.
Suddenly the whir of their wings ceases and their calls stop and they’re all gone. This year twenty-four young Spoon-billed Sandpipers that we’d hand-reared set off on migration, which is equivalent to 40% of the fledged young produced by the wild population. Several have been seen on migration already, identified by their leg flags. In a few short Summers it feels like we’re getting somewhere. Alone, this isn’t the whole answer, but it’s buying some time while all their other problems are ironed out. We won’t be doing this forever, but I’ll be back next summer and I’m hoping to see a few more of ‘our’ birds return to have young of their own.
To learn more about Roland and his team’s efforts, visit the Saving the Spoon-billed Sandpiper website.