Photo Credit: TBD

Stealing eggs to save a species in Chukotka


Recently in Chukotka, far-eastern Russia, SOS grantee Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) began another season of collecting eggs from Spoon-billed Sandpiper nests – in a bid to help save the species. Reporting from the field, Roland Digby explains why conservationists are stealing bird’s eggs: 32 this season so far.


As part of the WWT’s successful head-starting programme for “Spoonies” as they are affectionately known, the project began collecting eggs each season since 2012. They incubate them nearby in a controlled environment hoping to hatch juveniles for rearing. This was done in a bid to boost the number of hatchlings making it to adulthood for the 8,000 km two year round-trip migration to South East Asia.

Each year the collection rates and hatch rates have improved. As birds are ringed to facilitate subsequent identification, the project team has also recorded some of those head-started birds returning to the breeding grounds having completed their first migration.

A 32 egg tally represents a good collecting season according to Roland. Yet, not all the collection trips have gone smoothly with the quad-bike transporting the last clutch breaking down at the western oil drills in the vicinity of the breeding grounds.

On the other hand the team spotted another head-started bird, White T8: referring to the colouring and lettering on its leg ring. White T8 was head-started in 2014, so it is the second of that cohort and the fifth head-started bird to be spotted so far this year.

The 32 eggs comprise eight complete clutches of four which are now safe in an incubator at base camp. Twenty of these are fertile and developing well. It is too soon to tell if the other 12 are also viable but signs are good according to Roland.

The team hopes to collect one more clutch giving them a total of 36. If Roland and the team can achieve the same high levels of hatching and rearing success they have in previous years and all 36 eggs are viable, it may be possible to release 29-30 fledgling Spoon-billed Sandpipers, a new record for the project.

The last collection trip didn’t go entirely to plan however, Roland explains. Team-members, Nikolai and Ivan went back to an area of the western oil drills to look for the nest of a pair that had not been found on the last survey. Having found the nest, Nikolai and Ivan decided to collect the eggs straight away to avoid any risk of predation from foxes or stoats.

Unfortunately, their quad-bike broke down on the 25km return journey and by the time it was repaired, they didn’t get back to base camp until 2am. Fortunately, the team always carry a back-up incubator battery (a car battery), so the eggs at least did not mind the long delay and when candled (using a light source to check for embryonic development) - the embryos were large and well developed.

“This is definitely a case of me counting our eggs before they’ve hatched and this could be a special year. Over the last four years, 81 birds have been released so if 19 or more are released this year we’ll have reached the 100 mark. A milestone that felt very far away when the programme began back in 2012 with the pilot release of nine birds”, say Roland.

The latest global population estimate is around 200 pairs. For a population that size, 30 head-started fledglings represents about 20% of all the fledglings produced by the entire global population.

This is just one of 109 conservation projects supported by IUCN’s SOS initiative to date. With your valuable support we can continue to find and fund the best frontline conservation tackling issues like habitat degradation, invasive species, wildlife crime, species recovery and alternative livelihoods. Please donate now and help SOS save more species.

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