Last Days with Spoon-billed Sandpipers
Adult male Spoon-billed Sandpiper brooding newly hatched chicks on the nest. The male attends to the nest during the day, the female at night. Chukotka, Russia. July. (Gerrit Vyn)
Adult male Spoon-billed Sandpiper brooding newly hatched chicks on the nest. The male attends to the nest during the day, the female at night. Chukotka, Russia. July. (Gerrit Vyn)

From here on out, each time I see a Spoon-billed Sandpiper, I wonder if it will be my last. Most of the adults who failed to breed have departed and the few that remain are quietly leading hungry, growing chicks through a landscape under constant aerial surveillance by predatory gulls, jaegers and ravens. One male whose territory was closest to the village and was especially confiding has departed. He was the first spoonbill I filmed and the first known to arrive on June 3. We sat together that day in cold pelting rain and I filmed him several more times in the weeks that followed. I regret not having gone to see him one last time before he left.

In early July the only remaining nest known to us was due to hatch. The weather was not ideal – almost constant 30-40 mph winds – but over the course of several days I was able to capture the first intimate footage and sounds of Spoon-billed Sandpipers at their nest. The footage includes adults incubating and brooding the young, the young spoonbills emerging from the nest, and their first stumbling attempts at capturing prey. I also recorded several interesting vocalizations including a rousing series of calls given by the pair during an incubation exchange (males sit on the nest during the day and females at night) and a quick jrrrrt call that is used by the adults to freeze their well camouflaged chicks in their tracks so they avoid detection by predators. It was difficult to watch the young depart the nest for the last time. Their tiny bodies look so vulnerable in what is a seemingly unforgiving landscape – it is a wonder that any of them survive.

A few days after filming the nest I went to an area we searched many times for Spoon-billed Sandpiper nests but had failed to find any. I was hoping to film an Emporer Goose nest there but it too had hatched and the family departed. Amazingly, an adult spoonbill popped out of the tundra delivering the jrrrrt calls used to warn chicks of danger I had just observed. I stood back and after some time four puff-ball chicks on spindly legs emerged from various spots and began making their way over the lichens and willows to the adult. They were no more than a day off the nest. It was somehow refreshing to know that at least one nest had existed and hatched unbeknownst to us.

Spoon-billed Sandpiper chick camouflaged on the tundra. Chicks crouch and freeze in place when the adult gives a certain warning call. Chukotka, Russia. July. (Gerrit Vyn)
Spoon-billed Sandpiper chick camouflaged on the tundra. Chicks crouch and freeze in place when the adult gives a certain warning call. Chukotka, Russia. July. (Gerrit Vyn)

My time in Chukotka is winding down and this will likely be my last blog post (of what have been few I know!). Next week I’ll begin the long journey back to the states – first, three rugged days overland by Vezdekhod (imagine a home-made armoured personnel carrier) during which we’ll do the first ornithological surveys of several remote mountain valleys. Then a boat ride from the town of Beringovsky to Anadyr through waters rich with Beluga whales and seabirds. And finally the long flights through Moscow and New York to Seattle. Capturing part of the life of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper has been a success and its been a great adventure but I am definitely looking forward to being back home!

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