During an expedition in Eastern Russia, we at Starling discovered together with Heritage Expeditions and the Spoon-billed Sandpiper Recovery Team, a new breeding site of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper. At the same time, it's the second largest population of this extremely rare species.
Spoon, bill, sandpiper?
Spoon, bill, sandpiper? Actually, we are talking about the Spoon-billed Sandpiper, an iconic species on many a birdwatcher's list. It breeds in north-east Russia and winters in south-east Asia. There are only an estimated 120 to 200 breeding pairs of this bird to be found in the wild.
Winter versus summer
There are several ways to spot the Spoon-billed Sandpiper. In the winter, and during migration, you can admire a handful of birds along the coasts of south-east Asia. Thailand and Myanmar are the better known areas, but observations have been made in South Korea, Malaysia, Vietnam, Japan and China. Having taken the necessary precautions, you are guaranteed to spot it, clad in austere winter plumage, in reasonably accessible locations.
During the summer, observing the Spoon-billed Sandpiper is a totally different matter however. With its reddish summer colouration the spoon-billed sandpiper forages in the vast and desolate tundra which is almost impossible to reach, in the north-east of Russia. Only one breeding population and some individual breeding pairs are known. STARLING went on an expedition to investigate, together with Russia Birding and Heritage Expeditions.
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Late June - early July 2016, together with STARLING we travelled to eastern Russia in search of new breeding habitats of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper. A perilous undertaking with numerous highlights in the field of nature observations took us along the coast and the adjacent hinterland of Kamchatka and Chukotka.
During the trip we made observations which included a singing Yellow-breasted Bunting, dozens of Humpback Whales, the endemic subspecies of Arctic Fox, a close-up of the imposing Steller's Sea Eagle, endless fields of flowers with as cherry on the cake Spotted Lady’s Slipper. Sea otters with their pups on their stomach, eye to eye with Brown Bears, hundreds of growling Walruses, thousands of seabirds in all shapes and colours with no less than 15 species of Razorbills ... Too many to name them all here.
The landscape? Impenetrable fens, peaceful lakes and fjords, foggy hills, endless swamps, mysterious rocky coasts and steppes where no evidence of humans could be found. An unforgettable expedition in the pure wilderness which surprised us every day with amazement and wonder.
This trip and other expedition cruises can now be booked individually or tailored to your wishes. In the future, Starling will also organise guided tours to these and various other imaginative locations.
And the search continues
On 2 July, we landed along the Koryak coast. Completely unknown territory for the members of the expedition team. In the morning we saw dozens of Gray Whales and Beluga Whales, and we observed some wonderful sightings of Kittlitz’s Murrelet, Dall's Porpoise and Harlequin Ducks.
In recent days, the expedition had made numerous unsuccessful attempts to find a new Spoon-billed Sandpiper breeding ground. We looked at qualitative tundra plains near lagoons or large lakes. A diverse structure of dry tundra crisscrossed by small streams and pools with grassy banks where young sandpipers could forage perfectly. We did not give up and soldiered on ...
Found the holy grail
In the afternoon we explored unknown territory yet again. Morale was very high and everyone believed in it. This was it. With the proper attire, the perfect equipment and even some superstition, we went in search of the ornithological Holy Grail. We traversed a phenomenal area by zodiac. It looked perfect and promising. Thousands of Steller's Eiders, hundreds of Emperor Geese and several Sandhill Crane couples accompanied us, and these are just some of the many species we spotted there ...
To increase our chances of success we decided to split into three groups. The suitable habitat seemed endless. We strolled through the plains of the tundra along lakes and valleys with willows. Brooding Dunlins, Arctic Skuas and Pacific Golden Plovers crossed our path. Suddenly the atmosphere in our group changed abruptly. One of the Russian investigators had briefly spotted SPOON-BILLED SANDPIPERS in two different places. He had lost sight of the birds but everyone was euphoric and we got instant goose bumps. Jackpot! Already the mission was a great accomplishment and an unprecedented success. We kept searching frantically, now that we were so close to our target. And we were rewarded for our efforts...
Eye to eye
A few hundred meters further along, suddenly, out of the blue, emerged a Spoon-billed Sandpiper out of the grass onto the flats. Too close, just a few metres away from us, it filled the viewfinder. Surprised by all the sudden attention, the bird moved to a safer area. A short but very intense and emotional encounter. The thrill and adrenaline boost were ENORMOUS! Shortly thereafter, we spotted the same bird again. And there we were. Alone in the world, eyeball to eyeball with this rare beauty which we dreamed of seeing for so long. Full of admiration, this was pure enjoyment ...
Accomplished: second most important breeding population
In total, that day the three groups observed at least eight Spoon-billed Sandpipers. Two active breeding pairs were recorded and four separate individuals. For the ornithological world this is by far the most impressive discovery about the Spoon-billed Sandpiper in recent years. It is also the second largest breeding population known in the summer region. STARLING is therefore very proud to have contributed to this exceptional discovery together with Russia Birding and Heritage Expeditions.
Would you like to be part of such an amazing experience?
Starling Reizen is the only travel agency in Flanders specialised in offering Heritage Expeditions nature cruises. From now on you can book all the Heritage Expeditions trips through us, at net purchase prices (also the trips that are not on our website). You will receive free travel and breakdown insurance or a personal discount and training for the expedition (half a day, with theory and practice, including a free boat ride). In future STARLING will also organise group trips in collaboration with Heritage Expeditions.
We would like to thank all our partners who have made this expedition possible. Nikon, Foto Coudenys, Benro, Natuurkijkers, Swarovski Optik, Mr. Jan Gear, Mammut and de Berghut
For the report,
David ‘Billy’ Herman and Annelies Jacobs