Leica Birding visit to Slimbridge

There’s a lot more to birding than bright colours and big wingspans – it’s often the unobtrusive, smaller species that can give the most pleasure and awe-inspiring observation experiences. This was the case when Leica took a group of journalists and dealers to WWT Slimbridge Wetland Centre at the end of November 2015.
Blog-Geoff-1025x683It was a dark, grey day, and a strong, curling wind was stripping the few remaining leaves from the trees and bushes. It was about as bleak as it gets at the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust’s Gloucestershire headquarters, but this was, in water off a duck’s back (or the back of a pintail, widgeon, scaup among a myriad of other species present), and didn’t dampen our spirits.

As it happened, the particular birds we were there to see were completely oblivious to local weather conditions. These were the spoon-billed sandpipers. The small flock of these amazing – but critically endangered birds – lives at Slimbridge under specialist care in a purpose built bio-secure aviary. Everything about the birds’ environment is carefully controlled – from the temperature to the number of hours and intensity of actual and simulated sunlight.

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It was a rare privilege to be able to view these birds up close, even in captivity – the population at Slimbridge represents an invaluable insurance policy for their wild counterparts. In 2011, the IUCN estimated that fewer than 100 breeding pairs remained, and the outlook for the birds was bleak: with the population declining at a rate of 26 per cent per year, extinction within 5 – 10 years was a real possibility. The main threats were illegal hunting and trapping on the birds’ wintering grounds, and habitat loss at key staging sites along their flyway.

Before getting to see the birds themselves, Dr Geoff Hilton, WWT’s head of species research and chief scientist, gave us a brief overview of how the project was going. He explained that, though the future looks considerably brighter than it did in 2011, things are still on a knife-edge.

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The birds we were about to visit represented not just a lot of hard work from WWT and its partners, but also possibly the last hope for their wild cousins. After careful consideration and impact assessment, eggs were taken from the wild and the population in Gloucestershire was established. This required a great deal of determination, patience and persistence on the part of the project team, but it paid off, and there are now 23 spoon-billed sandpipers living in the Slimbridge facility. Thanks to on-going research and monitoring, the team hopes that this captive population will breed successfully in the next few years, strengthening the species’ insurance policy even further.

Of course, the captive population on its own can’t help to safeguard the spoon-billed sandpiper’s future. Work to tackle the causes of its decline head-on is just as important. The work here has also seen positive results since the project started.

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Hunting pressure in the birds’ wintering grounds in Myanmar and Bangladesh has been reduced to almost nil thanks to the education work carried out by SBS conservation teams. This has highlighted the availability of conservation driven alternative ways to generate income to those who had previously relied on trapping the tiny waders and selling them as food.

A trickier task is dealing with the threats to habitat – such as the reclamation of inter-tidal staging sites on the Yellow Sea for industrial use. The political, bureaucratic and economic hurdles are higher due to the nature of the large industrial interests involved, but recently there have been hopeful signs here too.

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To better understand the threats, and to be able to tackle them better, Geoff and his colleagues are engaged in research and monitoring at the birds’ wintering grounds, breeding grounds, and at known staging points between them. Leica Sport Optics is very pleased to support this work with the provision of equipment, including spotting scopes and binoculars for use ‘on the front line’.

It’s in situations like this, when trying to pick out a tiny spoon-billed sandpiper from hundreds of other wading birds, that top quality optics really make a difference. Both Geoff and project aviculturist Roland Digby commented on how their Leicas had made all the difference in the field, helping to track migration movements and monitor the success of the various conservation steps being taken.

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We didn’t need to don our binoculars to see the spoonies in their dedicated aviary at Slimbridge. We did, however, need to put on clean overalls to cover our own clothes, slip our stockinged feet into specially disinfected welly-clogs, and make sure our hair was secured underneath nets. Bio-security is taken very seriously here – too much is at stake to leave things to chance.

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Not that the birds themselves seemed to be aware of that. They appeared to be as merrily unaware of their precarious situation, of all the work that has been done and is still being done to save them, as they were of the British weather outside their climatically controlled home. They were the epitome of blissful ignorance and innocence, hopping about in the sand of their artificial estuary.

Only those with the hardest hearts could deny their inherent ‘cuteness’ – they are tiny, fluffy and in possession of unique (amongst waders) spoon-shaped bills. It’s hard to image that even a full team of Disney animators working overtime could come up with anything quite as captivating. Seeing how small and frail they are, however, it’s all too see why survival rates are so low.

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In the wild, chicks have only around a 15 per cent chance of surviving to adulthood – on average only 3 adult spoon-billed sandpipers result from every 20 eggs laid. To improve the odds for the spoonies, for the past few years the team has been using a technique known as ‘headstarting’. This involves specialists taking eggs from incubating birds into captivity, raising the chicks by hand to fledging age in the Russian Far East, before releasing them back into the wild. This dramatically increases the chances of survival to around 85 per cent. Currently, the birds released are hatched and reared in Russia, but it is hoped that in the not-too-distant future it will be possible to use eggs from the captive flock at Slimbridge to supplement the wild population further.

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All too soon, our time with these special birds was up. They are highly sensitive, so visitors are kept to a minimum. We took off our ceremonial overalls and hairnets, and, like only slightly less glamorous versions of Cinderella, slipped off our special shoes, and returned to reality. The magic wasn’t completely gone though – it never is where there is such passion and determination. We were treated to lunch at the Scott House, where Roland and Nigel Jarrett, WWT’s head of Conservation Breeding, told us more about the project and hopes for the future.

As Geoff Hilton had said that morning, the project will require constant input from the conservation and community liaison workers involved, along with research to discover more about the spoonies’ habits and flyways. As they’re too small for even the lightest of currently available satellite tags, this research is heavily reliant on the observations of the project team and the reports of local birding networks along the birds’ migration routes.

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It was heartening to see the positive results of other Slimbridge projects as WWT’s Ellie Wise gave us a brief birding tour of the reserve that afternoon, which gave the journalists a chance to try out Leica’s range of Ultravid HD-Plus binoculars, as used by the spoon-billed sandpiper team in the field in Russia and the far east.

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Right on the doorstep of the state-of-the-art visitor centre was evidence of the success of one of the very first projects led here by Sir Peter Scott: Nene geese, or Hawaiian geese. Back in the 1960s, a Slimbridge rearing project was critical in helping the recovery of the world population of these striped waterfowl, which had dropped as low as 30. It currently stands at more than 2,000.

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The writers were also treated to the sight of a pair of Eurasian cranes battling with the high winds through their Leica Ultravid HD-Plus. In 2010, The Great Crane Project at Slimbridge successfully hand-reared and released 21 Eurasian cranes into the wild in South-West England. Prior to this success, the species had been absent from the region for 400 years.

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The spoon-billed sandpiper rescue team will have to battle with more than strong winds to secure the birds’ future, but they have made a good start and with continuing support from international agencies and companies such as Leica, the spoonies now have a fighting chance.

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With thanks to all at Slimbridge for organising the visit and letting us spend time with these captivating birds.

 

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*Photographer’s note:
all credit to the Leica V-Lux (Typ 114) for capturing a set of images in dark conditions and often through double-glazed glass and biosecurity netting!

For more information about WWT’s spoon-billed sandpiper project, visit http://www.saving-spoon-billed-sandpiper.com
For more information about WWT Slimbridge, visit http://www.wwt.org.uk/wetland-centres/slimbridge/