It was a cold and blustery November day when I joined a privileged few for a sneak preview of an ambitious operation being run at WWT Slimbridge in Gloucestershire. A project to save one of the most threatened species in the world – the Spoon-Billed Sandpiper.
The Spoon-Billed Sandpiper, a small wader not much bigger than a sparrow, breeds in the East Siberian Tundra before migrating down the Pacific Coast, stopping over to refuel on the mudflats across Asia, and continuing on to their winter feeding in the Gulf of Mottimer, a 5000 mile trip they repeat twice a year. So how did it come to be in the wetlands of South West England?
Our tour of the project began with Geoff Hilton, head scientist on the project, giving us a bit of background on the whole operation. WWT’s involvement began in 2010 when a paper was released that stated that the Spoon-Billed Sandpiper would be extinct by 2020 if nothing happened. Discussions began as to whether or not it was worth the financial investment, with so little being known about the bird and the drastic position it now found itself in. It seems brutal but at the time it was considered ‘unsaveable’. Thankfully it was decided that this was a venture worth embarking on, and five years later we were invited to see how bright the outlook now looked.
The first thing to do was to identify why the Spoonies were threatened. It was recognised that one of the biggest blows had come when the Chinese had built a wall in Saeganum, in 2008, destroying a critical rest and refuelling site for the birds on their migratory route. Further threats to the surrounding mudflats from East Asian industrial expansion have been put on hold, but for how long we just don’t know. Hopefully global attention will increase awareness and put pressure on those with the power to properly protect these precious coastal mudflats.
The second threat and one that could be more accessibly addressed, was the local subsistence hunting of the birds. It was calculated that if the local hunters in Myanmar and Bangladesh killed the whole population in a winter, the total they would receive for their quarry would have amounted to only $25 USD. So it was a case of educating them and supporting them to find a new, sustainable and, hopefully more lucrative means of making a living. In 2011 working with partners on the ground and NGOs, WWT began a process of educating and offering micro grants to encourage alternative livelihoods (such as tailors, fisherman, watermelon and pig farming), in an effort to alleviate the hunting pressures on the Spoonies. Already progress is being made, but this aspect is of course an ongoing process.
The fear was that as a result of these pressures the Spoonies population was becoming so thinly spread that they wouldn’t be able to find each other when it came to mating season. A bold move was taken to re-locate a small flock as an insurance policy and to try to start a conservation breeding project for these beautiful little birds. It was an ambitious mission going into the tundra to extract the eggs, taking them to a local house to be incubated and getting them back to Slimbridge. But it was achieved in 2011.
In the early days it was a question of trial and error, getting the right conditions to simulate the Asian mudflats the birds would have migrated to, a lot of tinkering with microclimates and making sure the enclosure was biosecure. This was no easy feat at a nature reserve that is not only home to a captive collection but also an ever changing migratory population of birds.
Once that had been achieved they then had to create a totally different scenario to replicate the summer breeding grounds of the Russian tundra. Slimbridge now has 23 Spoon-Billed Sandpipers and, although they are yet to breed, the adult birds are doing well and showing all the right signs for mating. Originally the birds had not changed into winter plumage due to the UV lighting being at the wrong strength, which meant they weren’t moulting fully, but after a slight tweak this has been corrected. The males are singing and displaying as they should and it is now just a matter of waiting and seeing and hoping all other factors are conducive to successful breeding.
Observations of the captive birds have resulted in a plethora of information that has determined how the third arm of the Spoonie project is being carried out. Roland Digby alongside partners in the Russian tundra have been implementing a process known as ‘headstarting’ since 2012. ‘Headstarting’ is the term used for when a clutch is removed from the nest and hatched in captivity before being released back into the wild. It is done at a time when the mother can still re-lay and, due to the clutch being protected from such external threats as predators and weather, it has proven to be 5x more productive in getting a clutch to fledging than had it been left in the wild. Roland goes out to Russia each May to coincide with the Spoonies laying.
He then collects the eggs, hatches them locally, and then releases the chicks into a polytunnel set up in their natural habitat, the Russian tundra. After this it is all about timing and making sure the release of the captive reared chicks matches the fledging of the wild juvenile waders. So far it seems that Roland and his team are getting it spot on. The headstarting is boosting world production of the Spoonies by 30-40% and keeping the population above critical levels. What is even more encouraging is that one of Roland’s captive reared chicks, Lime 8, who was born in 2012, migrated and returned back to the breeding ground in 2014 where she went on to hatch two chicks in the wild.
With the global population now estimated at about 400 the efforts are clearly beginning to pay off, but this is merely an update on an ongoing operation. Thank goodness the conservation energies began when they did and we look forward to the next instalment of this encouraging story of recovery.
Photos by Luke Massey