Leica Camera has teamed up with Wildfowl and Wetland Trust (WWT) to support their “Saving the Spoon-billed Sandpiper” project. The partnership was announced at Birdfair 2013, which was held August 16 – 18 in Rutland, England. We spoke to Debbie Pain, Director of Conservation, to learn more about this cause.
Q: Hi Debbie. Thanks for joining us! Can you tell our readers a little bit about the mission of WWT and your role in the organization?
A: WWT’s mission is to save wetlands for wildlife and people. Wetlands are beautiful and diverse habitats, supporting an astonishing array of wildlife. All life relies on them in some way – they really are the lifeblood of the planet. However, these habitats are being lost and degraded at an alarming rate. WWT addresses this both by inspiring people to care about wetlands and by taking direct conservation action to save them and their wildlife. As Director of Conservation, my responsibility is for the direct conservation action, but of course I try to inspire people along the way too.
© WWT/Martin McGill
Q: Leica has teamed up with WWT as part of the “Saving the Spoon-billed Sandpiper” campaign. For the non-birders out there, can you provide some background information on the spoon-billed sandpiper?
A: The spoon-billed sandpiper is a weird and wonderful species: a small wading bird that breeds in the far north east of Russia and migrates an epic 8,000 km south along a migratory flyway called the “East Asian-Australasian Flyway” to winter in coastal areas of Myanmar and Bangladesh. Uniquely in the bird world, it hatches with this incredible spoon-shaped bill. This adaptation appears to be related to how it feeds, but no one is quite sure exactly how it helps. Recently the population has been decreasing at an alarming rate, and we think there may be fewer than 100 pairs left in the wild.
Q: What are some of the reasons the spoon-billed sandpiper has become endangered?
A: The route of the spoon-billed sandpipers’ migration crosses the Yellow Sea and other parts of East Asia’s coastline. Many of the intertidal wetlands that it uses for refueling on its long journey are rapidly being reclaimed for agriculture, industry and other forms of development. This loss of coastal wetlands has been devastating for many species of bird that use this flyway and we think that this is affecting the spoon-billed sandpiper too. Another important threat to the species is wader trapping, particularly on the wintering grounds but probably also elsewhere along its migration route. Wader trapping has been carried out in many areas by poor local communities, searching for food and a way to make a living. While they target larger waders, the small spoon-billed sandpiper ends up as bycatch.
Q: Why is it important to embark on a conservation campaign for the spoon-billed sandpiper?
A: No one could sit back and let this unique and charismatic species become extinct. Importantly though, the spoon-billed sandpiper’s fate is tied up with that of the tens of millions of other waterbirds that share its migratory flyway, many of which are affected by the same threats of habitat loss and trapping. It is therefore a wonderfully symbolic flagship for the species that use this flyway. If we can save the spoon-billed sandpiper, we will be helping many other species along with it.
© WWT/Martin McGill
Q: What is your goal for this campaign? What results do you hope to see?
A: Ultimately we want to increase the spoon-billed sandpiper population to a level where it can sustain itself, but first we need to address the threats it faces. There’s already been a lot of progress helping bird trappers in Myanmar and Bangladesh to set up in other businesses, such as fishing, and this really seems to be working. We hope to see a knock-on effect soon in the number of spoon-billed sandpipers returning to the breeding grounds. The big challenge is addressing coastal development in China and Korea. The coastal mudflats that the birds rely on to refuel and rest during migration need to be protected.
We’re carrying out a ground-breaking project up on the Russian tundra, to give young birds a head start on their breeding grounds. This involves taking eggs from nests, hatching them, rearing the chicks in big outdoor aviaries, then releasing them back on the tundra when they can fly. Because we keep the vulnerable eggs and chicks safe from predators, we can rear and release about five times more young birds than their parents would manage. Alongside this, we’ve set up a captive population at our Slimbridge headquarters in the UK to act as a safety net, and breed birds for reintroduction to the wild if needed.
Through all of these actions, we’re optimistic that we can help this remarkable species to recover in the wild.
© WWT/Martin McGill
Q: What are some of the challenges you face in your efforts to save the spoon-billed sandpiper?
A: A big challenge for the head starting programme and captive breeding is working in the species’ arctic breeding grounds in Chukotka. It is incredibly remote. It’s only accessible by helicopter and the occasional boat. We have to ship out everything we need, so it is very expensive. We are fortunate to have some very hardy field staff, who can cope with the demanding field work for months at a time.
The challenges of dealing with the threats along the flyway are massive, but we’re fortunate to be working as part of a fantastically committed partnership of organizations all working with the same goal in mind.
Q: You recently went on a trip to Siberia, correct? Can you tell us the purpose of this trip?
A: I was fortunate to be invited by Rodney Russ of Heritage Expeditions on the Spirit of Enderby ship on a voyage north from Anadyr along the coast of Chukotka. I joined colleagues from our partners in the project from Birds Russia, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), and the Spoon-billed Sandpiper Task Force to stop at various locations and carry out searches for spoon-billed sandpipers in areas where habitat was thought to be suitable. We’d hoped to find the birds breeding in some very remote locations that hadn’t been visited for a long time – or had never been visited. While we had some wonderful experiences in this remote region, sadly we didn’t discover any spoon-billed sandpipers.
Heritage Expeditions, who run the trip, have been generous supporters of the spoon-billed sandpiper project for several years. In 2011 they helped the conservation breeding programme by transporting the first chicks bound for Slimbridge from remote Meinypilg’yno to the capital of Chukotka, Anadyr. This was a crucial step in getting them back to the UK – and five eggs even hatched on board the ship!
Q: Can you tell us about the latest developments in the breeding labs in the UK?
A: We have two generations of spoon-billed sandpipers in the breeding programme at Slimbridge Wetland Centre, our headquarters in the UK. They live in specially designed aviaries where we have precise control over lighting and temperature, in order to create conditions similar to those that they would encounter in the wild on their breeding and wintering grounds. Spoon-billed sandpipers have never been kept in captivity before and we want to ensure that we don’t miss any trigger that could stimulate them to breed. Our hope is that they will breed for the first time in captivity next year.
Q: What makes the partnership with Leica a good fit for WWT and this campaign?
A: There is a natural synergy between Leica and WWT. Many of our supporters are birdwatchers and bird enthusiasts, and use Leica equipment. We also need to have access to excellent optical equipment for surveys in the wild, which Leica offers us. Leica has generously provided binoculars and a telescope, Ultravid 8×32 HD and an APO-Televid 65 W, which we used to undertake surveys.
Together we can work to bring attention to the plight of one of rarest birds in the world to a wider audience. We need to save amazing wildlife like the spoon-billed sandpiper for future generations to see and enjoy.
Q: How, and for what purposes, will WWT be using Leica optics?
A: This high quality equipment will be of immense value to the team as they work in the far north east of Russia. The equipment was used this field season to undertake surveys looking for spoon-billed sandpipers in the field. Knowing where birds remain is key to helping protect the few spoon-billed sandpipers left in the wild.
Q: How important is the quality of the optics you use for your work? Does the Leica equipment fulfill the needs of your team? If so, how?
A: Yes, the equipment was ideal. It was light enough to carry along with our other essential equipment in the restricted hand baggage on the flights to arctic Russia, and was of excellent optical quality making it ideal for the surveys.
Thank you for your time, Debbie!
– Leica Internet Team
For more information, visit WWT’s website and Saving the Spoon-billed Sandpiper website.
Editor’s note: The spoon-billed sandpiper conservation breeding program is a collaboration between WWT, Birds Russia, Moscow Zoo and the RSPB working with colleagues from the BTO, BirdLife International, ArcCona and the Spoon-billed Sandpiper Task Force. These and other organizations and individuals are working along the flyway to help save the species.