The Russian Far East is the only place (so far!) where Spoon-billed sandpipers (Eurynorhynchus pygmeus) breed. A lucky thirteen fledged birds have now arrived at Heathrow airport en route to WWT (Wildlife and Wetlands Trust) headquarters. Hatched from collected eggs on the tundra, they will now have perfect weather and conditions, plus 24 hour care, to begin a breeding programme. Trapping of the bird still persists while many of its intertidal breeding sites used in migration throughout Asian coasts have been lost.
The normal spoon-billed sandpiper winter habitat of tidal mud flats is being systematically developed and destroyed. They have been quarantined in Moscow Zoo and now undergo another 30 days in UK, but nothing compares to the fate that awaits the 100 pairs remaining as they fly 16,000 km each year through hazards they can't hope to survive much longer. Their decline each year is 25% with poor fledging records (0.66 young per pair) and obviously very little recruitment to the ageing population.
Spoon-billed Sandpipers arrive at Heathrow; Credit: © WWT
In the future, the aim of any captive breeding programme is to release into the wild. For the moment, funding is barely covering the aviaries and care costs in Slimbridge, Gloucestershire where so many species of birds survive in the wetland reserve. Money is needed for next year when more nestlings will join the first UK contingent. Russian conservationists, including Birds Russia and the RSPB conducted the emergency mission this year.
WWT Head of Conservation Breeding, Nigel Jarrett, commented, "Taking one of the world's rarest birds across 11 time zones by boat, plane and now by road has been the most nerve-wracking job I've ever done. The hopes of the conservation movement worldwide have been riding on this mission and it is an incredibly difficult thing to do successfully. But we couldn't sit back and do nothing while there was a chance to prevent the loss of this unique species."
He further remarked on the need to prevent the subsistence hunting and habitat loss that has caused the near-extinction. Dr Evgeny Syroechovskiy of Birds Russia acknowledged the extreme situation and wished the thirteen birds the best of luck, as this is the first time the species has been kept in captivity.
Meanwhile the RSPB are pointing out the huge cost of conservation in time and money. Luckily, the species is well-known to "twitchers" and has become an icon for conservation with this worldwide effort. Survival at this early stage is vital and all concerned will be striving to protect the young at all costs.