Spoon-billed sandpiper “headstarting” success

With only about 100 breeding pairs remaining in the wild, the Spoon-billed Sandpiper (Eurynorhynchus pygmeus) is in crisis. To help save this species from extinction, SOS – Save Our Species, in which IUCN is a partner, is supporting an innovative conservation project to boost the numbers of juvenile Spoon-billed Sandpipers at their summer breeding grounds in Chukotka, Russia.


Ringing spoon-billed sandpiper

Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) an IUCN member, working in partnership with Moscow Zoo and Birds Russia has achieved incredible success by hatching, rearing and releasing nine Spoon-billed Sandpiper chicks, a species listed as Critically Endangered on The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™.

The nine chicks hatched from 11 eggs carefully taken from breeding grounds on the tundra of the Chukotka region in eastern Russia. Next they were carefully monitored, hatched and nourished in the nearby village of Meinypil’gyno before being released. This intense phase in the project required constant attention and coordination from the team as they worked ceaselessly to give the hatchlings every opportunity for survival. Fledglings gained strength living in a purpose-built open-air aviary designed to shelter the birds from predators with the added protection of a guard who kept vigil night and day.
From Russia the birds will begin an 8,000km migration to South East Asia to their inter-tidal wintering grounds. This pioneering work is all the more remarkable considering that in the wild just three Spoon-billed Sandpipers, out of every 20 eggs laid, survive long enough to start the migration.

“We worked around the clock to keep the chicks alive and healthy,” said Roland Digby, project manager, Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust. “It was wonderful to release them and watch them as they found their way into the wild, but it was definitely tinged with anxiety, knowing the terrible threats they face.”

Their journey is made more difficult by the loss of inter-tidal habitats along the route which provide important re-fuelling points. Arriving in Southeast Asia, the Spoon-billed Sandpiper faces further threats from human hunters forced by economic pressures to hunt shorebirds. WWT and partners continue to work on strategies to develop longer-term economic and environmental solutions to help people in the South East Asia region give up their reliance on such destructive forms of hunting while extending protection to the Spoon-billed Sandpiper across its range.

A further 20 eggs destined for a Spoon-billed Sandpiper conservation breeding programme were brought from the breeding grounds to WWT’s facility at Slimbridge in the UK. It is hoped that these eggs will add to the stock of laid by these birds can one day be carefully relocated back to Russia for hatching in their natural habitat, boosting fledgling numbers that will make the long trek south for the winter.

Meanwhile, with nine out of 11 eggs hatching, the success of this first season of “headstarting”, demonstrates how innovative conservation and international collaboration can work to deliver measurable and meaningful results, although more funding is required to run the project again in 2013.

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