Under gruelling conditions and amid fears it might be too late, a conservation breeding team in the remote Russian Far East has collected a clutch of spoon-billed sandpiper eggs, signalling an incredible step towards safeguarding the species from extinction.
The team has been in Russia since mid-May on an emergency mission to find nests to collect eggs for conservation breeding. They aim to create a population in captivity for future reintroductions and as a safety net, should the species die out in the wild before threats along their flyway can be addressed.
Spoon-billed Sandpiper © Trevor Feltham, from the surfbirds galleries.
Nigel Jarrett, Head of Conservation Breeding for WWT and leading the expedition in Russia said: “Finding a nest of eggs made the 35 sleep-deprived days so far, the gruelling 7000 mile journey hampered by transport problems, heavy snow, driving winds, and lashing rain – not to mention the ever present threat of becoming a hungry bear’s lunch – completely and utterly worthwhile.”
Now five weeks into the mission, at times it seemed doomed to failure. Peaks of excitement with sightings of adult male spoon-billed sandpipers in full courtship ritual and song, were swiftly followed by crushing disappointment as a predated nest and dead female were discovered.
With so few breeding pairs in existence, the loss of a female and her eggs through predation is a distressing event. However, it is natural for predation to occur like this. The real threat to the survival of the species are caused by humans: inter-tidal destruction along the spoon-billed sandpiper’s migration flyway and unsustainable levels of trapping on the wintering grounds in Myanmar and Bangladesh.
Part of the expedition team, Liza Tambovtseva from Birds Russia, said: “We know from previous years that there is a great risk of nest predations. In 2010 we found eight nests, four of which were predated before hatching. In 2009 the situation was even worse: there were four nests found and only one was successfully hatched – the other three were predated.”
Nigel said: “It was a cruel moment for everybody. That day we had trekked through snowdrifts and as we stepped onto the tundra my eyes were still streaming tears from snow-blindness. As my vision cleared the first thing I saw as I looked down, right in my path, was the broken body of a female spoon-billed sandpiper next to a nest littered with smashed eggshells. It was a devastating moment but it made us more determined to continue our search, vowing that we could not let this truly remarkable bird become extinct. ”
When, just a few days after finding the predated nest the team found a second nest, this time with a fresh clutch of eggs inside, the team decided not to risk leaving them to succumb to the same fate as before. Nigel explains: “Ideally, we leave freshly laid eggs in the nest for at least a week before collecting, but because the first nest we had come across was predated so quickly, we had no idea whether this would be the case with other nests.”
Liza continued: “Considering these statistics we recommended taking the clutch for incubation straightaway because we believed there was a greater chance for the spoon-billed sandpiper’s eggs to hatch in incubators than to remain in this nest. Also, by taking this clutch at an early stage we gave the bird a good chance to relay a second clutch. In this way we minimize the harm for the birds and for nature.”
So, late into the night just days ago, Nigel lifted the first clutch of eggs from their tiny nest in the rough, unforgiving terrain of the arctic tundra and carefully laid them in a portable incubator for the slow and careful dinghy and ATV (all terrain vehicle) journey back to base in Meinypilgyno. At this stage it is not known whether the collected eggs are viable. Infertile eggs are common with spoon-billed sandpiper, so only time will tell.
Thankfully, things started to look up. After successfully collecting the first clutch, the team went on to discover several more nests each with freshly laid eggs and with these, the plan is to leave them to be naturally incubated by their parents for several days more, all the time assessing the risks from nearby predators.
Nigel continued: “It is a carefully balanced waiting game. We are only able to monitor the nests from a distance as our presence near them naturally attracts predators like gulls, dogs, foxes and stoats. If we take eggs too early there is a chance they will not develop normally in an incubator, but if we leave it too late the eggs can get eaten by predators. Dogs are a particular problem in the area as the villagers tend to keep them as early warning systems for approaching bears. All we can do is watch and wait.”
The team have constructed a temporary incubation facility out on the tundra where they will hatch the chicks before transferring the fledged young via sea and air back to Moscow Zoo for quarantine. The chicks will then be transferred to a specially built conservation breeding unit at WWT’s headquarters in Slimbridge, Gloucestershire where staff will rear and breed the birds.
The expedition, led by staff from the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT) and Birds Russia, has support from the RSPB, BTO, BirdLife International, ArcCona, the Spoon-billed Sandpiper Task Force and Moscow Zoo. The 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.
The team plans to establish a population in a conservation breeding facility at WWT Slimbridge which will be the source for reintroductions over the coming decades, once the threats to the birds and their habitats along their flyway have been sufficiently addressed. Dealing with the threats to the bird on the flyway will help a range of other species destined to suffer a similar fate.
The spoon-billed sandpiper is a unique and remarkable bird, but its shocking drop in numbers indicates likely extinction within a decade if urgent action is not taken.