Rare spoon-billed sandpipers hatch in UK for first time

The "amazing" moment the first chick hatched

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Critically endangered spoon-billed sandpiper chicks have hatched in the UK for the first time.

Twenty thumbnail-sized eggs were transported from Arctic Russia to a reserve in Gloucestershire.

The first chicks hatched on Wednesday, 4 July in the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) centre in Slimbridge.

It is the latest stage in a breeding programme which aims to save the species from extinction.

"Every chick could be a saviour of its species," said Nigel Jarrett, head of conservation breeding at WWT, who was responsible for transporting the eggs.

"The more birds you've got… the less chance they're going to go extinct."

Spoon-billed sandpiper chick The chicks are around the size of a large bumblebee

Of the 20 eggs that were brought to the UK, 14 chicks had successfully hatched by Thursday, and four more are expected to hatch over the coming days.

These new birds will join 12 fully-grown spoon-billed sandpipers already at the centre, which were brought in at the start of the conservation breeding programme in November 2011.

The WWT said it hoped that the increased captive flock size would help trigger breeding behaviour in the birds when they reached maturity at two years old.

The conservation team collected the eggs in the Chukotka region of northeastern Russia, where the wild population of birds breed on coastal tundra.

The spoon-billed sandpiper is one of the world's rarest birds, with less than 100 breeding pairs left in the wild, according to WWT.

The sparrow-sized wading bird is the only species to be born with its distinctive spoon-shaped bill, which it uses to peck and probe in mud to find food.

Life on the tundra:

Tundra landscape
  • Tundra is the cold, tree-less region found in the Arctic and on mountains
  • Spoon-billed sandpipers: Breed on the sub-Arctic tundra in northeastern Russia
  • Arctic foxes: Live on both Arctic and alpine tundra, and can survive in temperatures below -50C
  • Lemmings: Despite their reputation, these small rodents do not commit mass suicide during migration
  • Arctic poppies: Yellow flowers bloom during the Arctic summer

"We felt that we could give the birds... a better start and more care and attention if they were in the UK rather than on the tundra where obviously there's a lot of risks," said Mr Jarrett

But transporting the fragile eggs from Arctic Russia was "risky", he told BBC Nature.

The eggs spent more than 17 hours in flight and were transported by both helicopter and aeroplane in a journey that took seven days to complete.

One of the eggs cracked during an airport inspection and had to be sealed using nail varnish, said Mr Jarrett. "(It) really upset me at the time."

But he said to see them hatching was a "fantastic relief... like watching a miracle".

The spoon-billed sandpiper chicks were about the size of a large bumblebee when they hatched and will remain in captivity at Slimbridge.

But WWT said it hoped that eggs from these birds would be sent back to the Russian Far East for hatching and release in the future.

According to the WWT, the species has declined by 90% in the past 10 years.

Spoon-billed sandpiper Spoon-billed sandpiper numbers have declined by 90% in the past 10 years

In their breeding grounds in northeastern Russia, the tiny eggs are at risk from severe weather and predators such as gulls, foxes and bears.

The birds then migrate 8,000km in winter to the tropics of south and southeast Asia, where hunting and habitat destruction also pose major threats to the species.

The team said that conservationists have had some successes working with local communities in places such as coastal Myanmar and Bangladesh to discourage people from hunting the birds.

The conservation breeding programme is a collaborative project between WWT, Birds Russia, the RSPB and other organisations.

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