They are very small. They are very pretty. They are some of the most charming birds in the world. They are certainly some of the rarest birds in the world. And here they are in Gloucestershire.
Last week, I found myself right in among them: the flock of 25 spoon-billed sandpipers which, it is hoped, will breed and help stop the species going extinct in its Asian home range.
There are thought to be fewer than 100 pairs remaining in the wild of this tiny, critically-endangered wader, which is doubly notable: it is the only sandpiper with a spatulate bill, giving it a faintly comic air, and it has dropped in numbers by 90 per cent in a decade, putting it on the fast track to extinction.
A major international effort to stop it disappearing is centred on a conservation breeding programme at the headquarters of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust in Slimbridge, Gloucestershire. The first birds arrived, brought as chicks from their breeding grounds in Arctic Russia, in 2011; a second group came in 2012, and all is now coming to a head.
For this spring is the time when, fingers crossed, the birds will mate and begin nesting in their extensive, specially-constructed aviary which mimics the tundra of the Russian far north in the English countryside. And last week I was allowed into it – after an extensive biosecurity routine, involving overalls, disinfected clogs and a hairnet – to see them at first hand.
My guide was Nigel Jarrett, the head of conservation breeding at WWT and the man who has godfathered all the birds since they were eggs in the remote province of Chukotka, and he indicated the increasing signs of breeding activity – once I had got over the shock of not only seeing them, but of being right in with them. To be intimate with creatures which are so beautiful and so rare, but also so precious, carrying so many hopes, was powerfully moving.
Bright-eyed and graceful, fascinating, with their spoon-shaped bills, and quite unafraid, they were incessantly active, foraging around my feet through the aviary’s imitation tidal pools; they are just coming into breeding plumage, exchanging the grey of winter for the russet head of their lovely summer dress. Nigel pointed out the increasing skittishness of their behaviour, chasing each other, one male raising a wing as a territorial warning, and all diving for cover when an oystercatcher – perfectly harmless – flew overhead calling.
“Previously they’d been living together as a flock, quite happy with each other’s presence, but now there’s a surge of hormones going through their little bodies, causing them to moult, and be interested in each other,” he said. “They’re like highly-strung teenagers.”
In the wild, when the birds have bred, they then fly south for the winter, like many of the world’s waders. In the spoon-billed sandpipers’ case, the journey takes them 5,000 miles, via the coasts of China and Korea and south-east Asia, to the shores of Burma and Bangladesh. But this route, known in ornithological parlance as a “flyway”, is under severe threat, as the staging sites where the birds stop over to feed in mid-journey – the inter-tidal mudflats along the coastlines – are destroyed by industrialisation.
The situation has become critical around the coasts of the Yellow Sea between Korea and China, as the inter-tidal habitat is being ever-more rapidly reclaimed. Along with the spoon-billed sandpiper, a whole suite of migratory waders from Asia and Australasia which depend utterly on these sites are in increasing danger of extinction, in an emerging wildlife disaster to which the world is paying little attention.
Dr Debbie Pain, the WWT director of conservation and one of the prime movers of the breeding project – which is supported by BirdLife International, the RSPB, the British Trust for Ornithology and Birds Russia – said that the effort to save the “spoonies” was also to draw attention to the crisis for birds from all over Asia, in the Yellow Sea. “We want to highlight urgently the severe problems which are being faced by 50 million migratory waterbirds along that flyway, which are all losing inter tidal habitat,” she said.
Meetings are planned this year with the authorities in China and South Korea to try to ameliorate the situation.
There couldn’t be a better flagship species to highlight the emergency than those exquisite tiny waders I watched spellbound down in Slimbridge last week. Here’s hoping that, in the coming weeks, that skittishness and that rush of hormones will have a positive outcome.