New hope for critically endangered spoon-billed sandpiper

The world’s rarest wader has been given a fighting chance thanks to the first ever successful captive breeding in Gloucestershire.

Spoonbill sandpiper chicks

In a milestone for conservation, two spoon-billed sandpiper chicks have been hatched in captivity for the first time. The chicks belong to the only captive flock in the world at WWT Slimbridge in Gloucestershire, which was established in 2011.

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With only 200 breeding pairs left in the wild, the spoon-billed sandpiper is critically endangered, and their population has seen declines of up to 25% every year.

Wading bird on ground

The captive flock at Slimbridge has been established as a safety net to preventing the birds’ complete extinction, should they become absent in the wild.

But the to road successfully hatching and rearing the chicks in captivity was a long one. Conservationists at Slimbridge tried for 8 years to successfully breed the birds before realising that the spoon-bills needed artificial light to help recreate conditions along their migratory flight path.

“In the wild they migrate from tropical Asia to Arctic Russia to breed, experiencing huge differences in temperature, habitats and daylight along their 8,000km route,” explains WWT Conservation Breeding Manager Nigel Jarrett.

“Each of those factors could play a part in getting the birds’ hormones surging, so we’ve done our best to recreate that experience in aviaries in Gloucestershire. I’m glad to say that, with the help of special lightbulbs and timer switches, along with a lot of sand and netting, we seem to have finally pulled it off.”

Bird drinking
In the wild, only around 200 breeding pairs are left on the Asia Pacific coast, following declines of up to 25% each year/Credit WWT

It is thought that this technique could well be a major breakthrough for conservation breeding, which could help to save other migratory species.

Prior to this milestone, the flock laid just 12 eggs at Slimbridge, with a mere 5 hatching, and no surviving chicks.

However, as the two latest additions to the flock at Slimbridge now have their juvenile plumage, it seems that they are adapting well to their environment, and it is hoped that they will go on to adulthood.

In the wild, the birds’ range covers a vast distance, from far east Russia along the Chinese coast, to Myanmar and Bangladesh. Conservationists and volunteer ornithologists have been monitoring the birds across this area, identifying the threats that they face in the wild and discovering the best means of countering them.

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Spoon-billed sandpipers have an epic migration for a bird that can fit in your hand – did you know they undergo a journey of up to 8,000km across Asia between their wintering and Arctic breeding grounds? One of our tracked spoonies, Yellow EH, recently flew 2,500km non-stop for 36 hours at an average speed of 70km/hour! That's as fast as a gazelle can run. Amazingly, we still don't know where 75% of spoon-billed sandpipers breed or where 50% of them winter. So in 2016, a project was started to fit tracking devices to some of these tiny flyers, to help us find their key sites. Incredibly, we've already found that spoonies visit the DMZ in Korea! You can track the progress of our plucky tagged spoon-billed sandpipers at saving-spoonbilled-sandpiper.com #spoonbilledsandpiper

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Alongside this small but pivotal step toward their continued survival in captivity, it is hoped that things could be looking up for the wild population of spoon-billed sandpipers, with their population possibly starting to recover thanks to the efforts of conservation organisations around the world, including the RSPB, Birds Russia, and WWT

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WWT bird rearing experts travelled to the remote Chukotka region in Russia — the only known breeding ground of the bird — each summer to take wild-laid eggs to hatch and rear in the safety of aviaries, before returning them to the wild on fledging. The technique — known as headstarting — has boosted the number of spoon-billed sandpipers bred each year in the wild by a quarter.