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Saving the spoon-billed sandpiper

Spoon-billed sandpiper chick on nest

Image: RSPB - John O'Sullivan

The available data suggest that the spoon-billed sandpiper population is undergoing a rapid decline and, if current trends continue, the species could be extinct within a decade.

The key problem relates to low juvenile survival. Spoon-billed sandpipers breed in Arctic Russia and migrate down the East Asian coast before wintering in countries such as Myanmar and Bangladesh. Here they are susceptible to trapping by local people, primarily for food. The juveniles are particularly at risk as they don't return to the breeding grounds until their second year.

The rapid development of coastal habitats along the East Asian-Australasian flyway could also be playing a role in the decline due to the loss of important stop-over sites that migrating birds require for feeding and roosting. This habitat loss is likely to be detrimental to a whole suite of migratory wading birds that use this flyway.

Our overarching goal is to prevent the spoon-billed sandpiper from becoming globally extinct. The key objectives for this work need to tackle the problems across the complete annual cycle of the spoon-billed sandpiper.

Project objectives

  • Due to the dramatic and continued population decline we are supporting the development of a conservation breeding programme. A captive population of spoon-billed sandpipers is being established at Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) Slimbridge, and will act as a safety net in case the species goes extinct in the wild. When the environmental conditions are right, captive bred birds could be released into the wild to supplement extant wild populations, or re-establish the species if it becomes extinct. This work is being undertaken in partnership with the WWT, Birds Russia, Birdlife International and the British Trust for Ornithology.
  • Reducing the number of waders killed by bird trappers is essential if we are to increase juvenile survival rates (and thus the number of birds returning to the breeding grounds). Trapping of waders is being tackled through working with a wide range of partners. Pilot work has shown that by providing bird trappers with alternative livelihoods, hunting of waders can be halted at the local level. We'll be working to expand this approach to other critical sites across the wintering grounds, and the migration routes if necessary.
  • Boosting productivity on the breeding grounds is also vitally important. Therefore, we are supporting a programme of work known as 'head-starting'. This involves moving eggs from nests on the tundra into incubators. Once the eggs hatch, the chicks are kept in aviaries until they are able to fly and are then released back into the wild. Findings from hand-rearing work at Slimbridge suggest that head-starting has the potential to increase the number of chicks fledged per clutch by as much as 400 per cent.
  • In the long term we need to ensure that a network of key intertidal staging posts are available for all wading birds, not just spoon-billed sandpipers. We'll work with partners on protecting habitats through site designation (eg Ramsar), international flyway policy, possible casework and even through habitat creation and management (managed re-alignment, that is increasingly common in Europe, could be an option at some sites in the future).

Key dates so far

  • May 2011: we supported an expedition to Chukotka in the far north-east of Siberia that aimed to collect eggs to establish the conservation breeding programme
  • June and July 2011: the first eggs were collected, transferred to an incubator and hatched
  • August-November 2011: chicks were transferred to Moscow Zoo for 30 days' quarantine, and then onto WWT Slimbridge
  • February 2012: the Spoon-billed Sandpiper Task Force meet in Palembang Indonesia
  • April 2012: 12 first-year birds are doing well in the conservation breeding facilities at WWT Slimbridge
  • June-July 2012: the RSPB supported a second expedition to Chukotka to collect eggs and bring them back to the UK, and also to carry out head-starting for the first time. Seventeen chicks hatch at WWT Slimbridge to supplement the future conservation breeding programme
  • July 2012: an International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) desk study is published (supported by the RSPB), identifying key issues along the East-Asian flyway.
  • Summer 2013: the captive population at Slimbridge continues to do well, and needs no further supplementation. However, a third expedition to Chukotka is carried out, focusing on head-starting.

Work planned or underway

  • The captive population at Slimbridge will be maintained, and is expected to start breeding soon.  Head-starting work will continue.
  • Work to protect spoon-billed sandpipers and their habitats will continue in Myanmar and Bangladesh.
  • An advocacy officer has been appointed to work in the region to work with NGOs and government agencies to improve habitat conservation across the flyway.

Results

The population at Slimbridge now consists of 26 birds. Thirteen of these birds are thought to be male, nine are thought to be female and four are of unknown sex – which means that we may well be able to hit our original target of establishing 10 breeding pairs. Changes in plumage and behavior show that the birds are progressing towards sexual maturity, and we are confident that they will start to breed soon.

Results from work on the wintering grounds are very encouraging, with as many as 80–90 per cent of hunters in the Bay of Martaban, Myanmar (the single most important wintering site) and all hunters in Bangladesh signing agreements to stop hunting and surrendering their trapping equipment.

Initial head-starting work has been successful. Nine chicks were successfully raised and released in 2012, and 16 were raised and released in 2013. All of these birds migrated as normal, and two have been seen in south Asia – one in the Inner Gulf of Thailand and one on the south China coast.   

A strong partnership of organisations and individuals from all over the globe is focusing on conservation efforts for this charismatic species.

Who to contact

Rob Sheldon
Head of International Species Recovery Team
E-mail: robert.sheldon@rspb.org.uk

Partners

  • The Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust 
  • Birds Russia 
  • BirdLife International 
  • British Trust for Ornithology 
  • East Asian-Australasian Flyway partnership 
  • Spoon-billed Sandpiper Task Force 
  • ArcCona Consulting 
  • Moscow Zoo
  • Heritage Expeditions

Funding

We need to raise £140,000 urgently to help fund this important work. You can do your bit to save spoon-billed sandpipers by making a donation.