Endangered spoon-billed sandpipers arrive in UK

Spoon-billed sandpiper (c) MJ McGill The birds sift through the mud for their food and seem to use their unusual bill as a shovel

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Conservationists have brought one of the world's most threatened bird species to the UK in order to start a captive breeding programme.

The 13 spoon-billed sandpipers arrived in the country on Friday, 11 November.

They were taken to the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) reserve in Slimbridge, Gloucestershire.

It was the final stage of an epic 8,000km journey for the birds, which have been brought from their breeding grounds in Russia's Far East.

Start Quote

Young birds are being killed on their wintering grounds”

End Quote Nigel Jarrett Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust

Having spent 60 days in quarantine at Moscow Zoo, the team say that all of the birds arrived at Heathrow Airport looking "bright-eyed, alert and active".

The WWT now hopes to start a breeding programme, which they say could save the Critically Endangered spoon-billed sandpiper from extinction.

Nigel Jarrett, head of conservation breeding at the WWT, led the team that gathered the eggs from the tundra of Chukotka in north-eastern Russia.

Spoon-billed sandpiper being fed by conservationist (c) MJ McGill The tiny chicks hatched in Russia and the team had to encourage them to feed

"We had to search an area of 100 square miles," he told BBC Nature. "We were walking about 10 miles a day through melting snow and ice and [at] the first nest we found there was a dead female spoon-billed sandpiper lying next to it."

"That was heart-wrenching, but within a few days of that, we found our first nest with eggs."

Having carefully gathered the eggs, they transferred them to incubator. All of these eggs hatched unexpectedly early, while the team was transporting them by boat to the town of Anadyr.

Having hand-reared the young chicks throughout their journey, Mr Jarrett eventually left them in the care of Moscow Zoo. He said that seeing them at Heathrow looking healthy and full-grown was "fantastic".

Losing ground

Spoon-billed sandpipers are under threat because of the loss of the crucial shoreline feeding sites along their 8,000km migration route from Russia to the wintering grounds in South and South-East Asia.

As well as these sites being lost to development, the birds are also hunted during the summer.

The trust and its partners are working with local communities in this part of Russia to help conserve these birds and other species that use the same migratory path.

Wading birds in a hunter's cage in the Russian Far East (c) Ren Nou Sou/Wild Bird Lovers Sittwe/Myanmar Wading birds are often targeted by hunters

But the spoon-bill population is already critically low and continuing to decline; there are fewer than 100 breeding pairs left in the wild.

"As well as declining, the population is also ageing," explained Mr Jarrett, "because young birds are killed on their wintering grounds."

Dr Evgeny Syroechovskiy from Birds Russia, said: "I wish all the best to these special Russian birds. It's hard to believe the problem is so bad that it has come to this, but we have been left with no choice if we want to save the spoon-billed sandpiper.

"The ultimate goal is to release the offspring of this captive population back to the wild. In the meantime, we must tackle habitat destruction and subsistence hunting, and give this enigmatic little bird a new beginning."

Quiet life

When they arrive at the Slimbridge reserve, the spoon-bills will be quarantined for a further 30 days. The team will then move them to purpose-built aviaries.

Rather than expose them to the potential stress of human visitors, the WWT hopes to stream live video from their aviaries to monitors in the reserve's visitor centre.

It took more than three months to bring these 13 birds to the UK too, but another expedition will be needed to collect enough birds for a viable breeding population of about 10 pairs.

This breeding programme is part of an international campaign to save the spoon-billed sandpiper, which involves several organisations including Birds Russia, Moscow Zoo, the RSPB and the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO).

Hear more about the spoon-billed sandpiper captive breeding programme on BBC Radio 4's Saving Species on Tuesday at 11.30GMT

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