2011 will be remembered for many things. Here’s one story that should be high up that list.
I’ll start at the end (it’s not really the end – but I’ll come back to that). I took Jack (7) to Slimbridge yesterday to be part of a celebration organised by the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust to mark the point that 13 tiny spoon-billed sandpipers finish their quarantine. We have now completed the first stage in an epic project to save this entrancing little bird from extinction.
Jack has heard quite a lot about these little waders over the year, as the mission to bring them back from the far east of Russia has been a regular topic of conversation – so he was keen to find out more.
Kate Humble (President of the RSPB and vice-president of WWT) hosted a chat-show style conversation with three of the key people in this story Nigel Jarrett, Martin McGill and Roland Digby, Mounting an expedition to Chukotka and bringing back a precious cargo of spoon-billed sandpipers doesn’t exactly sound straight-forward.
The speed at which plans were brought together, the welter of details that had to be tackled, equipment ordered and dispatched, paperwork and officialdom, distance, weather, intermittent electricity, bears, harsh landscapes, more bears, logistics, set backs, lack of sleep and a very, very rare bird all added to the challenge.
Distilled to 45 minutes in a lecture theatre in Gloucestershire – it still sounded daunting. The regular rounds of applause from the invited audience were genuine – the team has really delivered.
The culmination of the day was the unveiling of the live cctv link to the heated and cosy winter quarters. Nicky Hiscock, WWT’s conservation breeding assistant is mum-in-chief to the diminutive flock and she was providing the sandpipers with mealworm treats as we watched live over the link. You can get an impression of the breeding facilities from this BBC news report.
It was a day of mixed emotions. This has been a massive collaborative effort that has got successfully to this important milestone, and it was a moment to celebrate and mark the achievement. But no-one is ant doubt that this is just a milestone. Spoon-billed sandpipers remain in grave danger and unless there is substantive progress in fixing some of the core problems of hunting pressure and habitat loss then the future remains somewhere between uncertain and bleak.
What did Jack think? His overwhelming reaction was of being happy to be part of a special day, but we talked of the possibility, one day, of him being able to see the distant descendents of these birds for himself in the wild.
I told him about Tina – a schoolgirl in China who joined Wildlife Explorers after meeting my colleague Barrie Cooper earlier this year and has become an enthusiastic fan of spoon-billed sandpipers and has recently seen one on the Min Jiang estuary.
Is saving spoonie the right thing to do? Jack and Tina are in no doubt!
Nicky Hiscock and Nigel Jarrett are at the front line of saving spoonies - giving an iconic bird a chance in the world in which Jack will grow up.
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This project to save spoonie is led by WWT, Birds Russia and the RSPB with BTO, Moscow Zoo, ArcCona consulting and the Spoon-billed sandpiper Task Force. Keep up with the project blog. You can support the project here.
As promised, a brief update now that we have downloaded some of the tracking data. Liz, Richard and Catherine managed an amazing 15 out of 15 retrievals with the data loggers! After a long afternoon and evening re-trapping our masked boobies, they had a night walk back out from Letterbox and arrived back at to a Landrover shrouded in fog.
One of the birds making a guest appearance was Rocky - a slightly confused male who spent several weeks incubating a rock, and by some miracle had an egg with his rock by the time we left. We think he stole it (grin).
The data collected will help us start to understand how the seabirds use the oceans around Ascension and further afield, and point us in the right direction for setting up Marine Protected Areas. Obviously a sample of 15 is small, but funding is being sought to do much more extensive work in the next few years. Here's where Rocky went while not incubating his rock.
For the moment, that's it for our Ascension adventures. I'll make sure that anything exciting happening with the decoys ends up here on the blog - so fingers crossed (although I was slightly disappointed to learn that it can take years to set up a colony - patience was never one of my strong points).
A final thank you to everyone in the Conservation Department on Ascension, Liz and Richard, Nigel and Andrew who built the sound systems, and Ian in the IS department who saved our bacon when we needed some software while on-island. And especially to Emily who turned me into a blog-convert.
I'm on my way home today, so I asked Catherine Supple to provide us with some details of the OTEP (Overseas Territories Environment Programme) project that is studying restoration of native and endemic plant communities on Ascension Island. Catherine has only been here a few weeks, and will be on-island for a couple of years.
The project focuses on key plants that are under threat from invasive species or have restricted or uncertain populations, and will include restoring endemic and native plants on sites located on the lava plains and in the Green Mountain National Park. Stedson Stroud is the pioneer of plant conservation on Ascension, and hopefully this OTEP project will be one of many more steps in the recovery of the native ecosystems. The project will survey key areas, produce plant checklists, create Species Action Plans, and produce a plant collection that will ensure long-term survival.
The keystone species on Ascension are the Green Mountain bryophytes as they form the main micro-habitat for endemics such as Xiphoteris ascensionense. The focus for endemic plant species is on: Euphorbia origanoides, Pteris adscensionis, Sporobolus caespitosus, Marattia purpurescens (spores shown in photo below), Asplenium ascensionis, Xiphopteris ascensionensis and Anogramma ascensionis.
Currently the team is collecting seed from local plant populations and propagating them. They will then be included in Stedson already impressive stock (here is Catherine on watering duty at the nursery on Green Mountain).
Restoration sites are being set up around the island and ecological factors assessed and logged. The plants will be in both grazed and fenced off plots, with continual care and monitoring. Some of these plants exist in seemingly completely inhospitable environments, such as out on the lava gravel. Below you can see protective cages around Euphorbia to keep the grazers at bay.
One of the great things about the team here is that everyone has a chance to be involved in several work areas – Nathan and Dane watch out for endemic plants as they go about their bird monitoring, and Catherine came out to Letterbox to learn about tagging, ringing and bird surveys. Jolene and Natasha manage to be involved in everything! I come away from Ascension filled with hope and inspired, as always, by my colleagues there.