Friday, 22 November 2013

Hand-reared Spoon-billed Sandpipers seen in Thailand and China

One of this year's hand-reared Spoon-billed Sandpiper has been seen for the first time in the wild, more than 8,000km from where it was released. Twenty-five of the critically endangered birds have been raised over two years by an Anglo-Russia conservation team on the Russian tundra, before being released to join their wild-born counterparts in migrating to South-East Asia. Until now, it was unknown whether any would be seen until they returned to Russia to breed aged two years, but this month one has been observed on the coast near Bangkok (Thailand), and another in southern China.

 Hand-reared juvenile Spoon-billed Sandpiper (photo © Roland Digby/WWT)

WWT Head of Species Conservation Department, Baz Hughes said: "This is really exciting news! We now know that Spoon-billed Sandpipers, raised by our avicultural staff on the Russian tundra, can migrate with their wild counterparts to wintering areas a quarter of the way around the globe."

Conservationists take eggs from wild Spoon-billed Sandpiper nests, prompting the parent birds to lay a further clutch. The hand-reared chicks are safe from predators and, with the wild-raised chicks from the second clutch, it increases the total number of birds fledging by up to ten times.

Mr Suchart Daengphayon from the Bird Conservation Society of Thailand saw the sandpiper at Samut Maneerat on 7th November. The hand-reared birds are all marked with small white plastic leg flags - marking birds allows them to be identified later and helps reveal information about their movements and behaviour.

Christoph Zöckler, Coordinator of the East Asian- Australasian Flyway Partnership's Spoon-billed Sandpiper Task Force said: "We've learnt an enormous amount about the sandpipers' movements over the last few years but there are big gaps. While we still don't know all the places they stop over on migration, we can't protect them or address any threats they face there."

Wader expert Nigel Clark from the British Trust for Ornithology added: "Marking Spoonies tells us many things. Studies in the early 2000s gave us some understanding of what was going wrong - not enough young were returning to breed. By marking birds now, we will be able to tell if what we are doing to conserve them is working."

Surviving predators on the breeding grounds is the first in a series of perils that have claimed most of the species. Coastal wetlands along their migration route have been reclaimed, leaving the birds without sanctuary or food, and illegal trapping in nets is widespread. Incredibly, within a week, a second hand-reared Spoon-billed Sandpiper was spotted by Jonathan Martinez of the Hong Kong Birdwatching Society at Fucheng, in southern China. He also reported a vast number of illegal nets on the 500km coast north of Fucheng, which the bird had evidently avoided on its southward migration.

Dr Rob Sheldon, RSPB's Head of International Species Recovery, said "Just when we thought we'd solved the problem of illegal hunting in Bangladesh and Myanmar, it now appears that trapping of waders is a widespread problem in China too. BirdLife International and its new partner, the Chinese Ornithological Society, will be working hard to address this serious issue in future."

Evgeny Syroechkovskiy, Chair of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper Task Force said: "The plight of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper has rallied extraordinary levels of support from all around the world. But conservation is costly and the Spoony needs this support to continue if it is to survive. We, as conservationists, are looking at every opportunity to focus our limited funds where they will make a difference."

Guidance on reporting Spoon-billed Sandpiper sightings is available from the East-Asian Australasian Flyway Partnership Spoon-billed Sandpiper Task Force. To follow the progress of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper conservation breeding programme visit

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Subalpine Orientation

One of the interesting identification discussions of the Autumn was in relation to the male Eastern Subalpine Warbler at Mid-Yell, Shetland between 1st and 8th October. With apparently differing views emerging at the time as to whether this individual was 'Eastern' or 'Western', we plumped for simply reporting it as 'Subalpine Warbler' to reflect that.

As time has passed and with the publication of a new paper by Svensson in this month's BB, there should be no doubt that this was an Eastern Subalpine Warbler. You can see Martin Garner's post here for further details and images.

At the same time as the Yell individual, another male was found by Martin Kitching of Northern Experience Wildlife Tours while on a busman's holiday birding in Druridge Bay on 4th October. It  remained until the following day. Being just down the road, I caught up with this male on its first afternoon and enjoyed some brief views as it moved around the blackthorn and roses. Aware of the potential three-way split in the, perhaps not too distant, future I was keen to see if we could 'do' this one to sub-specific identification. There was much discussion of identification features while on site with Martin and one or two other birders in attendance.

Both Martin and I gained an impression of a bird with quite whitish underparts with a pinkish tinge around the upper breast and flanks. We also thought the white sub-moustachial stripe looked quite broad. It didn't call during the hour or so I was there. Confusingly, some of the images that began to emerge later that evening seemed to show a richly-coloured individual contrary to our observations in the field. It's fair to say this prompted a fair bit of head-scratching and re-reading of existing literature. Snippets of the yet unpublished Svenson paper suggested tail pattern could be all-important in determining the sub-species (and the possible future armchair county tick!).

Martin was able to get back the following day and with a great deal of diligence captured a flight shot that highlighted the all-important tail-pattern feature described by Svensson as part of his proposed split of cantillans into iberiae (a subspecies of Western Subalpine Warbler S. inornata) and cantillans sensu stricto (now the nominate subspecies of Eastern Subalpine Warbler) thus "In central and south Italy, adults and many first-years have a narrow white wedge on the inner web of the penultimate retrix, whereas the Franco-Iberian population has a small square white tip to this feather, not a narrow wedge" (Svensson 2013. A taxonomic revision of the Subalpine Warbler Sylvia cantillans. Bull BOC 133(3): 240–248).

Eastern Subalpine Warbler, Druridge Bay, © Martin Kitching

As can be seen from Martin's image above the 'penultimate retrix' (or tail feather) on the Northumberland individual clearly shows a narrow white wedge extending up the lower half of the inner web. Combined with our observations in the field on the extent of underpart colour  and the thickness of the sub-moustachial stripe, this would suggest that if/when the proposed split is adopted this individual would fit neatly into the 'Eastern' side.

Currently Northumberland has only one record of Eastern Subalpine Warbler (S. c. albistriata): an individual trapped in November 1963 at Hauxley. This could, of course, be subject to change post any split/review.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Autumn in the Dordogne

BirdGuides webmaster Dave Dunford has just returned from a surprisingly productive week in the Dordogne region of France: birding highlights included Southern Grey Shrike and Black-winged Kite on the Faux Plateau - both rare this far north - and superb sightings of newly arrived wintering Wallcreepers at Le Grotte du Grand Roc and Les Eyzies in the Vézère valley. It's hard to believe that the latter can be seen more conveniently anywhere in Europe. Details of these and many other sites are available in Birding Dordogne by David Simpson, published by BirdGuides; a new and expanded edition is in preparation and is expected to be published in the New Year. Quite a few butterflies were still on the wing, including lots of Clouded Yellows, rather fewer Berger's Clouded Yellows, Grayling, and (pictured) a very late Oberthür's Grizzled Skipper.
Reptiles still around included European Wall Lizard (below) and Western Whip Snake.
David's wildlife tours and superbly sited and appointed gite are warmly recommended: see for more information.