Spring in northern Russia comes quickly and the natural world must respond to take advantage of the short northern summer. We’ve been following the fortunes of the expedition to Chukotka to start to build a positive future for the critically endangered spoon-billed sandpiper.
And if ever a bird needed a positive future – it’s this one.
Spoon-billed sandpiper - one of the most endangered birds on Earth. Photo Martin McGill (WWT)
You can follow the progress of the expedition here – the pace is hotting up as the team, led by the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust experts, are now gathering eggs from nests on the tundra and starting the pains-taking work of nurturing them in incubators.
Sounds like a dramatic way to save a species?
It certainly is, and it speaks volumes about the parlous state of spoon-billed sandpipers. With fewer that 220 pairs left the risk of extinct in the short term is so stark that the conclusion was reached that a captive breeding population should be founded in order to buy time to tackle the issues that are bringing spoonies to the brink.
In the short term the impact of hunting is really driving the decline (running at around 26% a year) – subsistence hunters aren’t targeting spoon-billed sandpipers, they are a macabre by-catch of supplementing diets by catching migrant shorebirds. The impact is significant as it’s the juvenile birds (who spend longer on the wintering grounds than the adults) who are hit hardest.
In the longer term the big issue is the headlong rush to re-claim coastal wetlands throughout the East Asian – Australasian flyway. But that’s a story for later, today we can mark a significant milestone in the desperate race to save spoonie – but in reality, the hard work is just beginning.
The conservation breeding team, led by staff from the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT) and Birds Russia, is working with colleagues from the RSPB, BTO, BirdLife International, ArcCona, the Spoon-billed Sandpiper Task Force and Moscow Zoo to help save this species.
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The frantic preparations to get an expedition together to go to Russia’s remote Chukotka region is a good indication of the seriousness of the status of the bird at the centre of the trip – the spoon-billed sandpiper.
Spoon-billed sandpiper chick - photo by John O'Sullivan
Back in February the costs and logistics of mounting a multi-national expedition to collect and hatch spoonie eggs looked daunting (to say the least!) Fainter hearts may well have pressed for a postponement until next spring – giving time to plan, get permits and raise the funds.
But time is one thing spoon-billed sandpipers don’t have – and even a year’s delay could (with a rate of decline of 26% a year) have meant we were too late.
The team have been in the remote community of Meinypylgyno for some time but the news of the expedition could only be released once all the permits and permissions were in place.
Spring takes its time in Chukotka - photo by Lisa Tambovtseva
The team is led by the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust who’s world-leading expertise in the conservation breeding of endangered birds is at the centre of this emergency mission – and you can read my introduction to the project here.
Despite the creaky internet connection from Meinypylgyno, the team are managing to let us know the flavour of life in the arctic and the challenges they are facing through the expedition blog – and here’s the link.
No-one is under any illusion that there is a degree of jeopardy in this project – not to the remaining population of spoon-billed sandpipers, that’s been carefully thought through, but success is not certain. And even if a founder population of captive-bred spoon-billed sandpipers is successfully established – making progress on reducing the unsustainable trapping of waders and the, so far, inexorable loss of coastal wetlands essential. A successful conservation breeding programme buys time – it does not fix the problem.
You can listen, here, to Dr Debbie Pain WWTs Conservation Director talking frankly to Charlie Moores on a recently recorded Talking Naturally podcast.
Getting the expedition off the ground has been a wonderful example of co-operation between a range of organisations and individuals – the RSPB stepped up and injected extra funds into the project (and you can help directly as we’ve launched an appeal).
As the arctic breeding season is now in full swing – the expedition team will be getting busier and busier – we’ll be working with the rest of the gang to bring you the news.
This project is funded by WWT and RSPB, with additional financial contributions and support from BirdLife International, the East-Asian Australasian Flyway Partnership, the Convention on Migratory Species, and Heritage Expeditions.
Andre Farrar usually writes on the Saving Special Places blog. Here he shares an insight into the plight of the spoon-billed sandpiper - conservation doesn’t get much tougher than this!
I’ve never seen a spoon-billed sandpiper – in the grand scheme of things that’s not terribly important. I seem to have spent a lot of time talking about them recently for one simple reason, this engaging little wading bird is simply falling off the planet. Spoonies put the critical into critically endangered ... recent surveys have shown that there are now fewer than 200 pairs left and unless things change they are committed to extinction.
So things need to change.
And fast – otherwise the fate of an entire species can only be measured in a few years.
Spoon-billed sandpipers have never been common. They breed in a relatively small area of eastern Russia and migrate to their wintering grounds in China, Bangladesh, Myanmar and other countries on the great East Asian – Australasian flyway.
Their plight is a familiar one – and it affects their fellow travellers along the flyway; hunting and the loss of vital coastal wetlands that are the links in the chain of life that sustains these long-distant migrants. The massive losses of key sites that have occurred and are still planned is a critical issue that must be tackled country by country – no easy task.
Spoonies are caught by subsistence hunters, not deliberately but as a macabre by-catch as people seeking protein to supplement meagre diets net migrating birds. Community-based projects in Myanmar have shown that with education and help to develop options for replacing migrant birds (such as providing fishing nets) the toll of spoon-billed sandpipers can be reduced. And it needs to be – substantially - as loss of juvenile birds is thought to be driving the catastrophic decline running at some 26% each year.
But time is not their side. Long term education and site-based projects are vital, and the safeguarding of at least some of the vital coastal wetlands is essential – but they won’t happen in time.
This bleak conclusion has led to the rapid organisation and deployment of an expedition to their breeding grounds to take a small proportion of the spoon-billed sandpipers hatching this year into captivity. Just writing these words hits home to me just how parlous the future is for this bird.
The expedition is being led by the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) who’s world-leading expertise in breeding endangered birds has been crucial in building confidence that this is a realistic conservation strategy. Alongside WWT are experts from Birds Russia, BirdLife International and ArcCona Consulting, the Spoonbilled Sandpiper Taskforce, Moscow Zoo and Russian orithologists. The RSPB is financially underpinning parts of the costs of the expedition and Heritage Expeditions are providing support and key logistical back-up.
The team is already in the remote settlement of Mynapilgyna in Chukotka – we can only announce the project now as the helter-skelter of planning, gaining the permissions and getting underway had to be completed first.
Step one will be establishing a breeding programme at WWT’s Slimbridge facility – but that is seen as only the start. Returning birds to the wild is the ultimate aim and this must sit alongside a range of other conservation initiatives throughout the bird’s range. Holding the species in protective captivity is not the goal – this is an insurance policy to buy time to safeguard a species and it’s place in our world.
We’ll be regularly updating the story as the expedition unfolds (and we do know that the team arrived before the first spoonies).
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