Hope and heartbreak for Spoonies at Slimbridge

All the political news in the UK over the past month has obscured some other rather exciting news – the spoon-billed sandpipers at WWT Slimbridge in Gloucestershire have laid their very first eggs!

Whether this resulted in live births or not, this represented a huge milestone for the project, of which Leica is a proud sponsor. The team were on tenterhooks to see how things played out…

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The spoon-billed sandpipers at Slimbridge are the world’s only captive population of these globally endangered waders, which are on the IUCN red list as critically endangered. It represents a vital reserve in the fight to save the species from extinction. Since their relocation from the Siberian tundra, the tiny birds have been carefully cosseted in climate controlled, bio-secure conditions and subject to detailed monitoring.

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The spoonies haven’t laid eggs in previous years, so there was tremendous excitement when not one, but two clutches appeared. The success was all the more surprising since breeding behaviours in early spring hadn’t been as noticeable as in some past springs, though females had progressed into their russet summer plumage. By May, however, things had started to look up: the males were singing and nest scrapes were being made.

On 5 June, the first egg was found. Within a week, two breeding pairs had produced clutches – one of three and one of four. The latter looked a potentially more viable prospect than the former, which appeared a bit chalky and soft shelled.

The team had to wait and watch as the eggs were transferred to humidity-controlled incubators to give any embryos within them the best chance of developing. Eventually, the eggs were candled to check for development. The team had been careful not to count its spoonies before they hatched: previous experience with breeding waders at Slimbridge suggested that eggs were often not fertile the first year.

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The results of the candling exceeded expectations, however: two of the eggs – one from each clutch – were fertile and appeared to be developing well. Even more excitingly, on Saturday 2 July, the first fertile egg hatched, followed a day later by the second. The team were elated at the sight of two healthy-looking, live chicks.

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Sadly, however, even miracles like this are not guaranteed happy endings first time around. Neither chick survived for more than a couple of days, in spite of round the clock monitoring and care.

Even in the face of such sad news, the team have several reasons to remain upbeat and hopeful for the future of spoon-billed sandpiper, both in the wild and at Slimbridge. The fact that fertile eggs were laid and hatched this year is a huge milestone for the Gloucestershire-based captive breeding programme, and even as the crew was coming to terms with the demise of the Slimbridge chicks, they received news from fellow project workers in Russia that the first of this year’s chicks had hatched at base camp in Meinypil’gyno, 4,500 miles away. What’s more, spoon-billed sandpipers have recently been discovered breeding at a spot in Kamchatka to south of Chukotka, New Zealand, for the first time in more than a decade.

WWT Head of Conservation Breeding Nigel Jarrett was dismayed at the death of the first captive-bred chicks, but stressed that their birth was still a major step forward: “This is obviously very upsetting for the team. We’re absolutely devastated, but we’re trying to keep in mind that this has still been a positive step towards establishing a viable breeding population of spoon-billed sandpipers for conservation.

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“For the last two years – ever since all the spoonies came into maturity – we’ve been doing everything short of playing Barry White to get these birds in the mood for love. And for two years we’ve come up scratching our heads and feeling a bit deflated.

“So, when we found the first egg we almost couldn’t believe it. We’ve had two mums busy laying and the significance of it is only just starting to hit home. These are some of the rarest birds in the world and, because of their unique characteristics – their little spoon-shaped bill and the incredible migration that they make each year – they are much loved by many, many people. I’m so glad for all of them that we’re on the road to breeding spoonie chicks in captivity, which is really the ultimate insurance policy for the species in the wild.”

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The birds hatch with their distinctive spoon-shaped bills fully formed, making the species unique in the bird world. The fact they’ve never been kept in captivity before combined with their extreme lifestyle in the wild has presented Mr Jarrett and his colleagues with a huge challenge:

“In the wild they migrate from tropical Asia to Arctic Russia to breed, experiencing huge differences in temperature, habitats and daylight along the way. Each of those factors could play a part in getting the birds’ hormones surging, so we’ve done our best to recreate that experience in aviaries in Gloucestershire. I’m glad to say that, with the help of special lightbulbs and timer switches, along with a lot of sand and netting, we seem to have finally pulled it off.”

No one has ever attempted to keep, let alone breed spoon-billed sandpipers before. So WWT will continue to learn from this year’s unsuccessful breeding and try to produce vital young individuals again next year.

Over the past few years, the hard work and diplomacy has begun to pay off for the wild populations of spoon-billed sandpipers too, giving hope not only for the future of this species, but also others who face the same threats.

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WWT’s Chief Executive Martin Spray said: “Saving the spoon-billed sandpiper has brought the international conservation community together to work as one. It has been really remarkable and as a result we’ve made huge strides in a very short time. The illegal trapping and hunting has been reduced at several hotspots along their flyway. The authorities in China are seriously listening to our case for protecting the remaining wetlands along their coastline. And we’ve developed and made an incredible success of techniques to headstart wild chicks on the breeding grounds.

“What’s more, as well as helping the spoon-billed sandpiper, these successes directly help many other species that share the same flyway and the things we’ve learned we can use to help other birds in trouble around the world.”

Leica is extremely proud to be a sponsor of this amazing project. We’ve had some great feedback from the team in the field, who rely on our optics to perform critical counting, observation and monitoring work in conditions that make natural colour fidelity and sharp contrasts vital.

For more information about the project and to keep up-to-date with the latest news, visit http://www.saving-spoon-billed-sandpiper.com.

You’ll also be able to hear more about the project on our stand at the lake end of the Optics Marquee at Birdfair this year.

Photo credits: Ben Cherry / WWT

Merken