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Research team take rare eggs to save species from extinction

Under gruelling conditions and amid fears it might be too late, a conservation breeding team in the remote Russian Far East has collected a clutch of spoon-billed sandpiper eggs, signalling an incredible step towards safeguarding the species from extinction.

The team has been in Russia since mid-May on an emergency mission to find nests to collect eggs for conservation breeding. They aim to create a population in captivity for future reintroductions and as a safety net,
should the species die out in the wild before threats along their flyway can be addressed.

Nigel Jarrett, Head of Conservation Breeding for WWT and leading the expedition in Russia said: “Finding a nest of eggs made the 35 sleep-deprived days so far, the gruelling 7000 mile journey hampered by transport problems, heavy snow, driving winds, and lashing rain – not to mention the ever present threat of becoming a hungry bear’s lunch – completely and utterly worthwhile.”

Now five weeks into the mission, at times it seemed doomed to failure. Peaks of excitement with sightings of adult male spoon-billed sandpipers in full courtship ritual and song, were swiftly followed by crushing disappointment as a predated nest and dead female were discovered.

With so few breeding pairs in existence, the loss of a female and her eggs through predation is a distressing event. However, it is natural for predation to occur like this. The real threat to the survival of the species are caused by humans: inter-tidal destruction along the spoon-billed sandpiper’s migration flyway and unsustainable levels of trapping on the wintering grounds in Myanmar and Bangladesh.

Part of the expedition team, Liza Tambovtseva from Birds Russia, said: “We know from previous years that there is a great risk of nest predations. In 2010 we found eight nests, four of which were predated before hatching. In 2009 the situation was even worse: there were four nests found and only one was successfully hatched – the other three were predated.”

Nigel said: “It was a cruel moment for everybody. That day we had trekked through snowdrifts and as we stepped onto the tundra my eyes were still streaming tears from snow-blindness. As my vision cleared the first thing I saw as I looked down, right in my path, was the broken body of a female spoon-billed sandpiper next to a nest littered with smashed eggshells. It was a devastating moment but it made us more determined to continue our search, vowing that we could not let this truly remarkable bird become extinct. ”

When, just a few days after finding the predated nest the team found a second nest, this time with a fresh clutch of eggs inside, the team decided not to risk leaving them to succumb to the same fate as before. Nigel explains: “Ideally, we leave freshly laid eggs in the nest for at least a week before collecting, but because the first nest we had come across was predated so quickly, we had no idea whether this would be the case with other nests.”

Liza continued: “Considering theseSpoon-billed sandpiper eggs
statistics we recommended taking the clutch for incubation straightaway because we believed there was a greater chance for the spoon-billed sandpiper’s eggs to hatch in incubators than to remain in this nest. Also, by taking this clutch at an early stage we gave the bird a good chance to relay a second clutch. In this way we minimize the harm for the birds and for nature.”

So, late into the night just days ago, Nigel lifted the first clutch of eggs from their tiny nest in the rough, unforgiving terrain of the arctic tundra and carefully laid them in a portable incubator for the slow and careful dinghy and ATV (all terrain vehicle) journey back to base in Meinypilgyno. At this stage it is not known whether the collected eggs are viable. Infertile eggs are common with spoon-billed sandpiper, so only time will tell.

Thankfully, things started to look up. After successfully collecting the first clutch, the team went on to discover several more nests each with freshly laid eggs and with these, the plan is to leave them to be naturally incubated by their parents for several days more, all the time assessing the risks from nearby predators.

Nigel continued: “It is a carefully balanced waiting game. We are only able to monitor the nests from a distance as our presence near them naturally attracts predators like gulls, dogs, foxes and stoats. If we take eggs too early there is a chance they will not develop normally in an incubator, but if we leave it too late the eggs can get eaten by predators. Dogs are a particular problem in the area as the villagers tend to keep them as early warning systems for approaching bears. All we can do is watch and wait.”

The team have constructed a temporary incubation facility out on the tundra where they will hatch the chicks before transferring the 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 Slimbridge, Gloucestershire where staff will rear and breed the birds.

The expedition, led by staffWWT's Nigel Jarrett placing spoon-billed sandpiper eggs into the incubator
from the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT) and Birds Russia, has support from the RSPB, BTO, BirdLife International, ArcCona, the Spoon-billed Sandpiper Task Force and Moscow Zoo. The project is funded by WWT and RSPB, with additional financial contributions and support from BirdLife International, the East-Asian Australasian Flyway Partnership, the Convention on Migratory Species, and Heritage Expeditions.

The team plans to establish a population in a conservation breeding facility at WWT Slimbridge which will be the source for reintroductions over the coming decades, once the threats to the birds and their habitats along their flyway have been sufficiently addressed.Dealing with the threats to the bird on the flyway will help a range of other species destined to suffer a similar fate.

The spoon-billed sandpiper is a unique and remarkable bird, but its shocking drop in numbers indicates likely extinction within a decade if urgent action is not taken.



Schools demand access to the outdoor classroom

Teachers are calling for more outside facilities to ensure all children and young people have the opportunity to learn outdoors and have contact with nature.

Tomorrow (Friday 24 June), more than 50 sites will respond to this demand by hosting visits from their local school and MP as part of a UK-wide initiative to get every child outdoors.

Some of the UK’s biggest environmental education organisations, the RSPB, the Field Studies Council and the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust, have joined forces and will be opening the doors to all their teaching sites and centres.

For the first time, school children have invited their local MP to come and share an outdoor learning experience with them and see first-hand the benefits contact with nature brings. MPs will also hear from teachers how valuable these opportunities are educationally.

Tomorrow’s initiative comes in response to new research, commissioned by the RSPB, from Ipsos MORI that asked teachers what resources or support would encourage them to do more of their teaching outdoors.

After additional funding, primary teachers most often said that the thing they need to do more of their teaching outdoors was greater access to outside classrooms and outdoor facilities.

Kate Humble, TV wildlife presenter, said: “If a child hasn’t ever got their hands dirty, climbed a tree or been wowed by weird and wonderful pond creatures, how can we expect them to care enough to protect wildlife? Having access to discover, learn and play outdoors in nature is surely an essential part of childhood.

“Learning in the outdoor classroom, whether in their own school grounds, on a day visit to a nature reserve or during a residential stay, is proven to be of enormous educational advantage. Children of all ages benefit from real life “hands on” experiences where they can see, hear, touch and explore the world around them.”

Each year, the RSPB, the Field Studies Council and the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust welcomes nearly a quarter of a million children and young people to their centres providing outdoor learning facilities to schools and universities.

All their sites already hold, or are working towards gaining, the Council for Learning Outside the Classroom’s Quality Badge – a kite mark recently introduced to demonstrate the high quality of outdoor learning that takes place as well as their health and safety procedures.

Despite all the evidence about the positive impacts contact with nature brings to a child’s education, health and wellbeing, many children are still missing out on these crucial experiences.

The RSPB, the Field Studies Council and the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust believe that every child should have regular contact with nature, whether in their school grounds, local environment, further afield, or with family and friends.

To begin to address teachers’ concerns about funding, the Government has indicated that the newly created Pupil Premium could be used to give fairer access to nature for pupils from deprived backgrounds, for example funding school trips to experience the natural environment.

Rob Lucas, Chief Executive of the Field Studies Council, said: “Schools, parents and MPs agree that getting children outdoors in nature is a good idea. We are encouraged by the recent commitments made by Government in their Natural Environment White Paper to remove unnecessary rules and barriers to learning in the natural environment. [note 3]

“This event reinforces the enormous benefits to be gained from regular contact with nature for children. We hope Government, schools and local authorities work together with providers of learning in the natural environment to find ways to get every child outdoors. We will continue to monitor progress in achieving this and hold the Government to account on its commitments in the White Paper.”



Emergency mission to save remarkable bird from extinction

An international team of conservationists
has flown out to the Russian Far East on an emergency mission to help save one of the world’s rarest birds from extinction. The spoon-billed sandpiper is a unique and
remarkable bird, but its shocking drop in
numbers indicates likely extinction within a decade if urgent action is not taken.

The conservation breeding team, led by staff from the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT) and Birds Russia, is working with colleagues from the RSPB, BTO, BirdLife International, ArcCona, the Spoon-billed Sandpiper Task Force and Moscow Zoo to help save this species. [Follow the expedition blog]

Recent research suggests that the breeding population of spoon-billed sandpiper (Eurynorhynchus pygmeus) was between 120-200 pairs in 2009, with the species believed to be declining at approximately 26% per year, due to extremely low survival of juvenile birds. If this trend continues, the spoon-billed sandpiper could be extinct within a decade.

The team plans to establish a captive population which will be the source for reintroductions over the coming decades, once the threats to the birds and their habitats along their flyway have been sufficiently addressed.

Currently the team is in Russia waiting to locate and collect eggs from the breeding grounds. They will construct an incubation facility out on the tundra where they will hatch the chicks before transferring the 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 Slimbridge, Gloucestershire where staff will rear and breed the birds.

The bird’s migratory flyway takes it 8,000 km along the East Asian-Australasian flyway each year from Russia to the Bay of Martaban, Myanmar and the Bay of Bengal in Bangladesh. On that journey and during winter they have been reported from Japan, North Korea, the Republic of Korea, China, Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar, Bangladesh and India.

It is believed that the main reason for the catastrophic decline, and especially the incredibly low survival among juveniles, is unsustainable levels of subsistence hunting, particularly on the wintering areas in Myanmar and Bangladesh. However, with a migration flyway that runs along some of the most rapidly developing coastlines of Asia, there are several other critical threats, in particular the wholesale degradation and reclamation of the inter-tidal mudflats where the species feeds.

The spoon-billed sandpiper was first listed as Critically Endangered in 2008 by BirdLife International on behalf of the IUCN. Over the last years the dramatic speed of decline has been realised, and thus the need for emergency action, without which the species stands a high risk of extinction. There are currently none in captivity, so there is no safety net against extinction in the wild.

Dr Geoff Hilton, Head of Species
Research at WWT said:

“Spoon-billed sandpipers are facing imminent global extinction and last-ditch efforts are now underway to found a captive population through a conservation breeding programme.

“Its imminent disappearance is all the more tragic because it is a truly remarkable species: it is a small arctic wader, with a bill shaped like a spoon. This adaptation, entirely unique to its family, makes it one of the most weird and wonderful bird species on the planet.

“It is absolutely clear that the spoon-billed sandpiper cannot be saved without action to reduce the threats to the wild population, but it is going to be difficult to achieve a turnaround quickly enough to avert extinction. Creating a captive population now may buy us some time. Establishing a captive population is not a success in itself, but this conservation breeding programme will provide insurance against the species going extinct in the wild before actions to reverse the downward trend have taken hold.

“No one has ever reared this species in captivity, but we are global experts in rearing wetland birds and if anyone can do it, our conservation breeding team can. It is not an option to sit back while we know we have the skills to stop extinction in its tracks. After months of R&D in anticipation of the project, the experts will become ‘parents’ to the captive birds and will learn everything they can about the species.”

The Spoon-billed sandpiper is a flagship species and if we can tackle the threats it faces along the flyway we will have helped the dozens of other migratory waterbird species that are subject to similar threats.

But, to save the spoon-billed sandpiper WWT urgently needs to raise £350,000 to help fund this mission.

WWT Director of Conservation, Dr Debbie Pain said:

“This is a costly and difficult mission which faces logistical problems every step of the way. But the challenges are worth it – after all, what better legacy can we leave than to have helped save a species from extinction? However, we badly need your support to help sustain the commitment WWT and our partners have made. What is more, this species is just the tip of the iceberg. Species throughout the flyway suffer similar threats, so saving the spoon-billed sandpiper and raising the profile of the threats it faces could ultimately help to safeguard the future of many other species of waders too.”

Tim Stowe, the RSPB’s director of international operations said:

“Spoon-billed sandpipers risk being one species that might not make it until 2020, the year targeted by governments around the world to stop the loss of wildlife. Establishing a conservation breeding programme will buy this enigmatic shorebird some time – but let’s not be under any illusions, leaders in countries that can act to save spoon-billed sandpipers need to step up and address the levels of habitat loss and hunting that have brought this bird to the brink.

“Effective action for spoon-billed sandpipers will have immense additional benefits – not only for the millions of other birds that share the migration flyway, but also by ensuring vital coastal wetlands are safeguarded, bringing protection and sustainable futures to coastal communities”

The BTO’s shorebird expert, Dr Nigel Clark, said:

“Having spent weeks looking for spoon-billed sandpipers in Myanmar and seen the development and hunting pressures the species faces, it is clear to me that this cute little bird is in imminent danger. There is only one wader that eats with a spoon and we need to try everything we can to save it from extinction.”

Follow the teams progress on the spoon-billed sandpiper Chukotka expedition blog.