If ever a species needed help to face down imminent extinction it’s the little spoon-billed sandpiper
(or ‘Spoonies’ to their friends)
No larger than bumblebees when newly hatched, and barely the size of house sparrows as adults, migratory spoonies may be tiny wading birds but – boy – they’re brave.
Spoonies breed in the vast wilderness of the north-eastern Russian tundra. They travel immense distances too: an astonishing 8,000km extending to wintering sites across South East Asia. But spoonies are perilously close to extinction. There are estimated to be fewer than 150 breeding pairs left worldwide.
Spoonies are falling victim to man-made threats like illegal hunting and the destruction of coastal wetland habitats all along their migration route. These tiny birds can’t overcome these odds against survival without our help.
WWT specialists alongside our partners undertook audacious multi-national expeditions to the wilderness of the north-east Russian tundra – bringing back spoonie chicks and eggs to WWT Slimbridge.
We now have a protected population of 24 spoonies here in the UK. And if they breed successfully, the ‘ark population’ will be a vital lifeline for the survival and future reintroduction of the species should they become extinct in the wild. In fact, within the next month or so, there’s every chance of a world first for spoonies: the first generation of captive-bred spoon-billed sandpipers will hatch.
This alone is not enough to save the spoonie from extinction. Breeding could fail this year. We urgently need to buy them as much time as we can. And we’ve discovered a brilliant way to do it.
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- our live webcast from the spoonies’ home at Slimbridge.
Giving Spoonies a headstart in life
It takes place on the Russian breeding grounds. It’s called headstarting. And it works.
By retrieving eggs from incubating birds – early on so they’re able to lay a second clutch - we're able to raise the chicks in a specially constructed enclosure right in the heart of the spoonies' breeding grounds.
Last year, in areas where we did headstarting, the number of fledged birds in the wild populations increased by 25%.
But headstarting doesn’t just help boost the wild population and buy us vital time. Our work is helped by 'Flagging' spoonies - where very lightweight coloured identification flags are attached to the birds before they’re released.
And thanks to a network of spotters on the ground, we are quickly able to find out about sightings of these birds all along their flyway. With this data, we're building a detailed picture of both migratory routes and bird numbers - vital information for tackling the man-made risks to the spoonies' survival.
Headstarting and our ‘ark population’ buys the spoonies vital time. Time which WWT - alongside our partners - can use to continue conservation work on the ground.
Working with our international partners we’ll share our findings with governments, local communities and businesses along the Pacific coast of Asia and into the Bay of Bengal to continue reducing the many threats faced by spoonies and millions of other waterbirds, including illegal hunting and the destruction of intertidal wetland habitats.