Photo essay | Saving the world’s rarest shorebird
There is new hope for one of the world’s endangered birds—in a first, two birds have laid eggs in captivity
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For the first time, the critically endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper (Eurynorhynchus pygmeus) has laid eggs outside its traditional breeding grounds in Russia. Earlier this month, two Spoon-billed Sandpipers laid seven eggs at the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT) in Slimbridge, Gloucestershire, UK. The birds are part of a captive flock that was brought together in 2011 as a back-up in case conservationists were unable to save the wild population from extinction.
The tiny 14-16cm wader is one of the fastest declining long-distance (8,000km) migrants in the world. The last reliable (and optimistic) global population estimate of the “spoonies” by BirdLife International, a non-profit, stands at an alarming 240-400 mature birds.
The bird breeds in the Russian Arctic, primarily in the Chukotka Peninsula, and winters in the intertidal habitats of Bangladesh, Myanmar, China and Thailand, among other places. Between 2002-09, populations at monitored breeding sites declined by more than a quarter annually, to 120-200 pairs. Without immediate and effective intervention, it was believed the species would be extinct by 2020.
The primary threats are mostly along its migratory flyways and wintering ranges, where tidal flats are being reclaimed for industry and aquaculture, and the birds are hunted by locals. Though the bird isn’t targeted specifically, shorebird hunting is a significant threat, if not the biggest one, to the sandpipers in their wintering grounds of Myanmar (Gulf of Martaban), Bangladesh (Sonadia Island) and China (the Jiangsu coastline).
The situation was so dire that creating a captive population was believed to be necessary. This was easier said than done, though, for collecting eggs was a logistically nightmarish proposition.
The captive birds in Slimbridge showed no signs of breeding for two seasons. So the news that two of them have laid eggs comes as a big relief. There are seven more potential breeding pairs.
Each Spoon-billed Sandpiper usually lays four eggs in a clutch, over a week. The eggs weigh a total of 32g, more than the mother’s body weight (31g or less)—so it’s an incredibly energy-draining affair for her.
In the wild, conservationists would take the eggs from nests, prompting the bird to lay eggs again. This was considered necessary because just around 15% of the wild chicks survive. The hand-reared chicks had a survival rate of 85%.
Non-profits like BirdLife International, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, WWT and local country partners are all part of the effort to try and save the Spoon-billed Sandpiper and other migratory waterbirds. A Spoon-billed Sandpiper Task Force was formalized in 2010 by the East Asian-Australian Flyway Partnership to consolidate and streamline the effort. The task force coordinates conservation activities along the entire flyway.
Conservationists working with villagers in Myanmar and Bangladesh have begun to offer alternative livelihood options—such as watermelon plantations and tailoring—to hunters.
The biggest challenge ahead is undoubtedly to ensure safe stopover sites in the countries along the flyways and the wintering grounds.
But there is hope.
Sayam U. Chowdhury is a Dhaka-based conservation biologist who leads the Bangladesh Spoon-billed Sandpiper Conservation Project. Ramki Sreenivasan is a Bengaluru-based technology entrepreneur, bird photographer and amateur conservationist.