The incredible spoon-billed sandpiper is hurtling towards extinction perhaps faster than any other bird species, with probably fewer than 100 pairs remaining and the population in freefall. Without urgent action, it will be gone within a decade.
The spoon-billed sandpiper is one of the world’s rarest and most unusual birds. It is a wading bird, barely larger than a sparrow, born with a spoon-shaped bill. No other bird hatches with such an adaptation.
Breeding in Chukotka, on coastal tundra in Russia’s Far East, and wintering 5,000 miles away in the tropics of South and South-East Asia, the spoon-billed sandpiper faces a multitude of threats.
Chief among them is hunting in Myanmar, Thailand and Bangladesh which is devastating the population of young birds, and the reclamation of migration-route stopover sites for farming and development.
Spoon-billed sandpipers and millions of other waterbirds depend on large tidal areas like the Saemangeum in South Korea to rest and refuel on migration. Their loss has contributed to a 90% decline in the species in just 10 years.
Saving the spoon-billed sandpiper
Spoon-billed sandpipers now number around 100 pairs worldwide. The population of nene geese, a favourite of WWT founder Sir Peter Scott, fell even lower before his pioneering breeding programme at Slimbridge saved the species from extinction.
WWT and other groups are attempting to do the same for the spoon-billed sandpiper. With none ever kept in captivity before, there was no safety net in case of extinction in the wild. But now our experts as part of an international team have managed to secure eggs from the few remaining nests at the spoon-billed sandpiper's remote breeding grounds and have taken the first step to creating a conservation breeding programme for the bird.
Last summer the team brought back thirteen young birds, which are now fully grown and thriving in specially designed quarters at WWT Slimbridge. This summer, the team returned to the Russia tundra to boost numbers for the breeding programme.
This should buy time to tackle hunting and the loss of wetlands. Once we are ready to release birds into the wild, the Slimbridge flock should be breeding successfully.
You can follow the team’s progress on our spoon-billed sandpiper expedition blog.
The bigger picture
The spoon-billed sandpiper and many other species rely on the soft mud along natural shores for their food. We will be working locally to protect the tidal wetlands they use that remain.
The other challenge is to help communities in their wintering grounds to find alternatives to hunting for waterbirds. We know that spoon-billed sandpipers are caught as bycatch in nets which people use to catch bigger birds for food. They are too small to provide much food so they tend to be thrown away.
But this isn’t just about one cute species. Rather, it is the tip of an iceberg. If we save the spoon-billed sandpiper we will be improving the survival chances of millions of birds from more than 250 other species of which nearly 30 are globally threatened.
All of them use the same migration route, extending from the Arctic Circle in Russia, where the spoon-billed sandpiper breeds, south through East and South-east Asia where it overwinters. Some species continue even further south to Australia and New Zealand.
More than 50 million migratory waterbirds share this flyway with 45% of the world's human population.
Your support is vital
We are entirely dependent on your support to see through our hopes of saving the spoon-billed sandpiper.
Alternatively you can call our fundraising team on 01453 891250.
The spoon-billed sandpiper conservation breeding programme is a collaboration between WWT, Birds Russia, Moscow Zoo and the RSPB working with colleagues from the BTO, BirdLife International, ArcCona and the Spoon-billed Sandpiper Task Force.
The project is supported by WWT, RSPB, Darwin Initiative and Save our Species, with additional financial contributions and support from BirdLife International, the East-Asian Australasian Flyway Partnership, the Convention on Migratory Species, Heritage Expeditions, the Australasian Wader Study Group of Birds Australia, the BBC Wildlife Fund, Avios, the Olive Herbert Charitable Trust, the Oriental Bird Club, British Airways Communities & Conservation Scheme, Swarovski Optik and many generous individuals.