Slimbridge’s Spoon-billed Sandpipers unveiled

Written by Charlie Moores, 19 Dec 2011:

I’m just back in from an extraordinary day at Slimbridge, the Gloucestershire HQ of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust. I’ve been to Slimbridge many times over the years and know some of the key conservationists there quite well. I’ve also been active in Spoon-billed Sandpiper conservation for many years through Birds Korea, and the campaigns against the closure of the massive seawall at Saemangeum which (on its final closure in Apr 2006 after more than fifteen years of construction) enclosed around 400 sq km of critically important tidal flats and estuaries. Enclosing Saemangeum, as Birds Korea’s Director (and my brother) Dr Nial Moores predicted in the late 1990s, removed one of East Asia’s key shorebird staging sites, threatening not only Spoon-billed Sandpipers but Great Knots, Bar-tailed Godwits, and a mass of other migratory shorebird species. Why, we both asked continuously through the first half of the last decade, was international protest so muted?

One of those who was warning of things going awry – and obviously going awry very rapidly – was Dr Christoph Zockler, who had been monitoring the loose ‘clusters’ of breeding Spoon-billed Sandpipers in northeastern Russia for a decade. He noted that fewer and fewer birds were returning to the breeding grounds, that whole areas previously occupied by breeding birds were empty of Spoon-billed Sandpipers in the summer. Nial and Christoph’s data were key to the decision by the IUCN to upgrade the Spoon-billed Sandpiper from Vulnerable (listed as such in 2001 in BirdLife’s Threatened Birds of Asia) to Endangered in 2004, and finally to Critically Endangered in 2008 when the global breeding population was estimated to only be a couple of hundred of pairs.

Back to today, and I’m sitting with Christoph in the cinema at Slimbridge listening to WWT Vice-President and broadcaster Kate Humble interviewing WWT’s heroic trio of Nigel Jarrett, Martin McGill and Roland Digby about their incredible work to bring back to the UK Spoon-billed Sandpiper chicks hatched from eggs laid in the wild just a few weeks before in Chutotka…


Kate Humble

Kate Humble and (l to r) Nigel Jarratt, Martin McGill, and Roland Digby


Highlight of the afternoon for most of the packed auditorium (aside from Nigel’s ‘heartbreak to happy ending’ story about an incident with the unhatched eggs in Russia which included the memorable line, “It’s not like you can go out and get more and chuck the old ones in the hedge…”) was perhaps Kate’s unveiling of a live CCTV link up with the specially-constructed Slimbridge aviary (finished just the week before). At the other end of the live link was WWT staffer Nicki Hiscock, the Spoon-billed Sandpiper’s ‘mum’ as she was introduced, one of the very, very few people allowed to go into the aviary and then on inside the heated space where the birds live. The curtain pulled back, the camera flickered into life, Nicki’s voice came over the loudspeakers, and suddenly there they were: 13 of the rarest birds on the planet, one mostly moulted into winter plumage, scampering around after mealworms, running over a bed of river sand, crouching under small pine branches…


Photos of images on the CCTV screen


It was a classic moment, a beautifully-produced promotional event that is – now – the way conservation needs to sell itself. Without public involvement and public investment these sorts of conservation projects are simply too expensive to develop: this breeding project has already cost £400,000 and it’s only just beginning. The CCTV link will go officially ‘live’ tomorrow for all visitors to Slimbridge to see, but we – paying public, supporters of WWT, campaigners, activists and others – were the first to watch it, the first outside a select few to have any glimpse at all of these precious, charismatic, beautiful little birds.

For some of us, though, the day wasn’t over. Because of my work with Birds Korea I – along with the good and the great like Janet Barber, Mark Avery, and some of the key partners from the RSPB (including Andre Farrar and Nicola Crockford) – had been invited to actually pay a visit to the aviary itself by Dr Baz Hughes, WWT’s Head of Species Conservation! While we wouldn’t be going inside the heated enclosure with the birds themselves (their welfare is of course paramount and extraordinary security and biosecurity measures have been in place since the birds were ‘collected’ as eggs) we were going to be shown around the aviary by Nigel Jarratt and Dr Hughes, and be one side of a large one-way glass window with the birds just feet away on the other side…


Christoph Zockler, Janet Barber, and Nicola Crockford


As we filed into the aviary (wearing disinfected rubber boots) I really wasn’t sure what to expect, or how I’d feel. I’m one of the very fortunate few to have seen a flock of Spoon-billed Sandpipers in the wild – in 2002 as they fed along the tideline at Saemangeum a few years before the gates closed and destroyed a habitat used by hundreds of thousands of shorebirds – and I couldn’t imagine what it might be like seeing them again, behind glass, in a building in a field in Gloucestershire. Truth be told, I’m not even sure how I feel now, back home hours later. There is such incongruity in seeing Spoon-billed Sandpipers removed from the East Asian – Australasian Flyway and confined like this. There’s an inevitable feeling of ‘why has it come to this?’, of thinking of the tens of thousands of people driving past on the M5 just a few miles away who have never heard of a Spoon-billed Sandpiper and will never understand why the birds are here instead of a tidal-flat in Myanamar. That if the decline in the wild population isn’t reversed, these few birds might be the last of their kind. Ever. That’s not a comment on the amazing work being done here – after initial scepticism I support the project to breed them in captivity 100% – but just that I wish with all my heart (like so many of the people working on Spoon-billed Sandpipers) that the population hadn’t reached such a fine balance between survival and extinction that such a programme has become necessary…

We are, though, where we are: there is a good chance that the birds will breed here and can perhaps be re-released on the East Asian – Australasian Flyway where they should be; that Birds Korea can work with other regional and national NGOs to slow down the rate of reclamation in the Yellow Sea (and perhaps even halt it, especially at Rudong in China, where over a hundred Spoon-billed Sandpipers were found recently); and that Christoph Zockler’s work in Myanmar and Bangladesh will halt the incidental (or ‘bycatch’) killing of young birds on the wintering grounds that seems to have been an accelerant in the recent disastrous rush to extinction (*see comment below*); I hope so. Part of me even believes that it will be so – quite something after feeling the situation was almost beyond recovery for so long. In the meantime, though, here are a few images taken through the thick glass (without using flash of course) of an aviary I was so privileged to visit today.

Beautiful, charismatic, vulnerable, delicate, fragile, and so very, very rare…


3 comments on “Slimbridge’s Spoon-billed Sandpipers unveiled

  1. Thats fascinating Charlie, thanks. I suppose the hope is that any future captive-bred birds would learn to migrate with the wild birds?

  2. Hi Tim. Thanks.
    WWT are confident that shorebirds have an innate ability to follow migration routes, based mainly on the fact that a) juveniles tend to migrate later than adults in many species so find the way without guidance, and b) Corncrakes reintroduced by the RSPB to the Nene Washes in the UK from German-bred captive breeding birds at least ten generations removed from the wild have found their way to the regular overwintering sites in Africa, and then made their way back to the UK the following spring. Quite remarkable really.
    I think though that the principle hope is that the birds will not have to be re-introduced because measures taken to protect the wild population will mean that’s not necessary.

  3. It was lovely to hear Chris tnlkiag about our wonderful experience of searching and finding Spoon-billed Sandpipers in Chukotka. After the tough walk into the area where we were going to search to see the lovely little bird and to see it’s amazing behaviour and hear its call was VERY special. Thanks Chris and Charlie for a brilliant podcast.

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