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The first Spoon-billed Sandpoper chick hatched in Britain will hopefully augur a larger captive population with which to bolster the wild birds' numbers. Photo: WWT.
The first Spoon-billed Sandpoper chick hatched in Britain will hopefully augur a larger captive population with which to bolster the wild birds' numbers. Photo: WWT.Enlarge image

First ever Spoon-billed Sandpiper chicks hatch in Britain


Posted on: 13 Jul 2012

Fourteen Critically Endangered Spoon-billed Sandpipers were hatched in captivity at WWT Slimbridge Wetland Centre in Gloucestershire this week, a first for British conservation.


These latest chicks are part of an emergency conservation breeding mission to insure the species against imminent extinction in the wild, and only the second flock ever to have been born in captivity. Four further eggs are expected to hatch in the coming days and, if successful, will bring the total flock size at Slimbridge to 30. The size of the flock is critical to triggering breeding behaviour in the birds, which are mature enough to reproduce at two years old.


The birds were hatched from eggs taken from the tiny remaining wild population which breeds on the sub-Arctic tundra in the Russian Far East. They were flown by helicopter and plane on a week-long journey via Anadyr, Moscow and Heathrow before arriving at the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) at Slimbridge.


WWT Head of Conservation Breeding, Nigel Jarrett, travelled with the eggs and is overseeing care for the tiny chicks, which are the size of bumblebees when freshly hatched. He said: “Spoon-billed Sandpiper is a beautiful and unique bird, but whatever it looked like we couldn’t stand by while it went extinct. We hatched the first of our conservation breeding flock on the tundra last year and brought them back when full grown. With all we learned then, it made sense to transport them as eggs this year and the huge privilege for the UK is to have these amazing little chicks hatch here for the first time.”


The dramatic decline in spoon-billed sandpiper numbers was first observed in 2000. Now fewer than 100 pairs are thought to remain. Russian and international field workers travel each year to the breeding grounds in Chukotka to monitor numbers and have been critical in raising the alarm.


Dr Christoph Zockler from ArcCona Consulting, who led the expedition this summer to Meinypil’gino, the main breeding site on behalf of Birds Russia, said: “The number of pairs returning to Meinypil’gino dropped again this year, to fewer than 10 pairs. It is very worrying and reflects the wide-ranging conservation problems along the birds’ flyway. We did have some good news though. With more volunteer fieldworkers this year, we were able to search more remote areas away from the village for the first time and we found five further pairs.”


Although the long term decline of the spoon-billed sandpiper is thought to have been driven by inter-tidal habitat loss in East Asia, the roots of the current problem have been identified some 3,500 miles away in coastal Myanmar and Bangladesh, where the birds spend the majority of the year outside the breeding season. Bird trapping by some villagers is suspected to have driven the steep decline in numbers. Local and international conservationists have had some success in stopping this practice by helping villagers find and fund alternative livelihoods. Once these threats have been tackled, birds from the conservation breeding programme will be returned to the wild to increase the remaining wild population.




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