The Spoon-billed Sandpiper is one of the world’s rarest birds, and searching for one is like looking for a needle in a haystack. Which is one of the reasons passengers working with researchers on a recent voyage in the Russian Far East, operated by Heritage Expeditions in association with BirdLife International, were delighted when they located a previously unknown breeding population of this Critically Endangered bird.
On the recent expedition, the research team and passengers located a nest with three eggs, while another bird was seen behaving in a manner that strongly suggested it was one of another breeding pair. A further lone bird was sighted briefly by another search team in a different part of Olyutorskiy Bay on Russia’s remote Koryak Coast. Passengers on this voyage have also been treated to other world class wildlife experiences, with sightings of various whales, brown bears, seals, Steller’s Sea Eagles and numerous other bird species as well as special encounters with the indigenous Koryak and Chukchi people.
The Spoon-billed Sandpiper breeds only in Northern Kamchatka and Chukotka, but its migratory route takes it 8,000 km along the East Asian-Australasian flyway each year from Russia to Myanmar and the Bay of Bengal in Bangladesh. Recent research suggests that the global population of the birds is much lower than previously thought – possibly fewer than 200 breeding pairs – and declining. The main reason for the catastrophic decline, and low survival rate of young birds, is because of unsustainable levels of subsistence hunting, particularly in the bird’s wintering areas in Myanmar and Bangladesh.
“If this decline continues, these amazing birds won’t be around for much longer,” said Evgeny Syroechkovskiy of Birds Russia, lead BirdLife Species Guardian for the Spoon-billed Sandpiper.
“The BirdLife Partnership is working in many countries to make sure that this and many other species have safe havens along their migratory routes. We are now also undertaking conservation breeding for the first time as part of the larger conservation effort to save this emblematic bird,” he said.
The conservation breeding team, led by Birds Russia, the Spoon-billed Sandpiper Task Force and the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT), is working with colleagues from BirdLife International, the RSPB (BirdLife in the UK), British Trust for Ornithology and Moscow Zoo to protect this species, which would most likely become extinct within a decade if this urgent action was not taken.
Currently the team is in Russia constructing an incubation facility to hatch eggs before transferring fledged young via sea and air back to Moscow Zoo for quarantine. The chicks will then be transferred to a specially built conservation-breeding unit at WWT’s headquarters in Gloucestershire, UK, where staff will rear and then breed the birds. They plan to establish a captive population and reintroduce the species over the coming years, once threats to the birds and their habitats have been addressed.
Heritage Expeditions is a BirdLife Species Champion for the Spoon-billed Sandpiper. In 2012, the company will run another 15-day ‘In the Wake of Bering – Search for the Spoon-billed Sandpiper’ voyage departing from Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy on 24th June. The expedition follows in the footsteps of legendary Danish explorer Commander Vitus Bering, observing wildlife and a wilderness that few people have seen because of the region’s remoteness and the fact that it was a ‘closed area’ until the early 1990s. Prices start from US$7,300 per person.