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Saving the spoon-billed sandpiper

Spoon-billed sandpiper chick on nest

Image: RSPB - John O'Sullivan

In 2010, ornithologists were shocked that recent records suggested that the spoon-billed sandpiper population was undergoing a rapid decline of 26 per cent per year and, if current trends continued, 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. On these wintering grounds, they are susceptible to trapping by local people. 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 coast 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 support international efforts to prevent the spoon-billed sandpiper from becoming globally extinct. By doing so this would also have beneficial impacts for many other migratory birds that share its flyway. 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 a conservation breeding programme. A captive population of spoon-billed sandpipers has been established at the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) Slimbridge 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 in wintering countries. So far, by providing bird trappers with alternative livelihoods, hunting of waders has been halted at some critical sites. 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. So far, head-starting has increased 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 are working 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).

Progress so far

  • May 2011: we supported an expedition to Chukotka in the far north-east of Siberia to collect eggs and 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 on to WWT Slimbridge.
  • February 2012: the Spoon-billed Sandpiper Task Force met in Palembang Indonesia.
  • April 2012: 12 first-year birds were doing well in the conservation breeding facilities at WWT Slimbridge.
  • 2012 and 2013: surveys of bird hunters were conducted in Myanmar and Bangladesh, and they were then supported with alternative livelihoods while agreeing to cease hunting birds. Local conservation groups were also established, which included ex-hunters, to monitor local shorebird populations.
  • 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 hatched at WWT Slimbridge to supplement the future conservation breeding programme.
  • July 2012: an International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) desk study was published (supported by the RSPB), identifying key issues for migratory shorebirds along the coast of the Yellow Sea between China and Korea.
  • Summer 2013: the captive population at Slimbridge was doing well, and needed no further supplementation. However, a third expedition to Chukotka was carried out, focusing on head-starting.
  • 2013: Demarcation of a boundary for a potential Ramsar site in the Gulf of Mottama, Myanmar, was conducted with the involvement of national and local government officials.
  • October 2014: the Spoon-billed Sandpiper Task Force met near one of the most important migratory stop-over sites in Jiangsu Province, China.
  • Winters of 2013/14 and 2014/15: surveys were conducted in all wintering countries, with representatives from the RSPB supporting surveys in the most critical sites. Results indicated the population may be stabilising.

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 and monitor spoon-billed sandpipers and their habitats will continue in Myanmar and Bangladesh, and support is being extended to Vietnam.
  • 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.


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. In 2014, the birds started showing signs of breeding behaviour, and we are confident that they will start to breed soon.

Results from work on the wintering grounds are very encouraging, with most hunters in the Gulf of Mottama, Myanmar (the single most important wintering site) and all hunters in Bangladesh signing agreements to stop hunting and surrendering their trapping equipment, and no more records of hunting.

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. One has been recorded in the Inner Gulf of Thailand, and one on the south China coast.   

A strong international partnership of organisations and individuals is focusing on conservation efforts for this charismatic species.

Who to contact

Ian Fisher
International Information Manager


  • 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
  • Bangladesh Spoon-billed Sandpiper Conservation Project
  • Biodiversity and Nature Conservation Association (Myanmar)
  • Bird Conservation Society of Thailand
  • Viet Nature (Vietnam)


The Darwin Initiative of the UK Government provided a grant of £295,437.

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.