Photo Credit: Nikolai Yakushev

Giving Spoon-billed Sandpipers a head-start on the long journey back from the brink of extinction


Marking World Migratory Bird Day 2016, Rebecca Lee of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT), an SOS grantee, reflects on the transformation in survival prospects for this Critically Endangered and diminutive migratory bird. Thanks to a sustained and innovative head-starting programme, more adult birds are making the 8,000 km round-trip from breeding grounds to wintering grounds. Even more ambitious conservation goals can be achieved provided collaboration among conservationists along the bird’s flyway continues she advises.


The global population of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper (Calidris pygmaea) declined from an estimated 2,000–2,800 breeding pairs in the 1970s to less than 100 pairs by 2011. The species was up-listed to Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species in 2008 and shortly after, the international effort to halt the decline began. Working in partnership with Birds Russia, WWT and other organisations from around the globe, commenced action throughout the birds' flyway.

One part of this international effort is a “head-starting” programme. With the help of SOS funding, the first expedition was undertaken in 2012. Four years later, we are preparing for the fifth expedition while hoping to have released over 100 birds by the end of this summer (2016). Head-starting involves collecting and artificially incubating eggs, rearing the chicks in captivity and releasing fledglings back on to the breeding grounds. This protects the eggs and chicks during the particularly dangerous incubation and rearing stages. For “Spoonies” as they are affectionately, known, head-starting may represent 40% of the total number of fledglings produced each year by the global population.

The process results in over five times the number of fledglings as would be expected through parent-rearing in the wild. For example, a breeding population of 10 pairs would be expected to produce six fledglings, but with head-starting this can be increased to 30 fledglings plus the other parent-reared fledglings that result from second nesting attempts. Being able to successfully rear and release Spoonies is an achievement, but of course, what happens on their 8,000km migration, is what really counts.

To attempt to track their survival and breeding, the birds are fitted with alphanumerically engraved leg-flags. Through the efforts of over 100 observers across the flyway, 71 sightings of headstarted birds have been reported and over 40 photos contributed that not only show the presence of a flag, but are clear enough for the code to be visible. From these sightings, 17 different individuals have been identified in countries throughout the flyway, including China, Japan, Myanmar, South Korea and Thailand. Thus 21% of all released birds have been confirmed alive at some stage of migration or on the wintering grounds.

In addition to being seen at staging and wintering sites, head-started birds have been returning to and breeding at the Meinypil’gyno site in Russia – five were observed in 2015 and three nested producing eggs and chicks. And on 13 September 2015, the first offspring of a headstarted bird being seen on migration – a bird marked light green H3 was seen on the Nakdong River Estuary in Busan, South Korea!

These results suggest that not only is head-starting producing healthy birds able to survive and breed in the wild, but also that the conservation efforts throughout the flyway to reduce mortality and protect key staging and wintering sites are working. The rate of population decline appears to have slowed.

But of course the work to save the species has only just begun. The most important and challenging aspect of these efforts is maintaining and protecting habitat at key sites, particularly at staging sites in the Yellow Sea. At least one key staging site remains unidentified, however. The distance between breeding grounds in Russia and the Yellow Sea is too great for the birds to fly non-stop. Toward that aim, WWT and BirdsRussia, with support from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), are preparing for the next head-starting expedition to identify where that might be. The team will depart for far-east Russia over the next two weeks.

The success of the head-starting programme so far is the result of the extraordinary efforts of the many staff and volunteers involved in the expeditions as well as the observers throughout the flyway. It would not have been possible without the funding provided in particular by SOS, Leica Camera AG, the UK Darwin Initiative, the RSPB and many other donors. Looking ahead we have set an ambitious target to increase the population by 50% - to 300 pairs - by 2025. Our collaborative model can make this happen.

This blog post is part of a series highlighting frontline conservation work from grantees of SOS – Save Our Species, a global initiative created by the Global Environment Facility (GEF), the World Bank and IUCN, since joined by numerous other donors. Managed by IUCN, SOS aggregates and redistributes much-needed funding to high-impact species projects implemented by conservation organisations worldwide.


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