Last night the winds were relatively calm and the sun was shining for the first time in at least a week. The tundra, which was brown when we arrived, has now greened up. Sedges, grasses and the leaves of small willows and other plants have emerged from the crusty carpet of mosses and lichens. In most places the ground is covered with the small dancing heads of a variety of arctic wildflowers.
I hiked up into the rolling moraine hills where the last snow is still clinging to life in the draws and on the hillsides where winter winds left the largest deposits. Along the edges of these snowfields is often where you’ll find a Spoon-billed Sandpiper, or a pair, quietly feeding on invertebrates and small seeds which they pick up with their spatulate bill. The spoonbill’s odd bill appears to be used in the same way as any other small sandpiper on the breeding grounds and is surely adapted for foraging strategies it uses elsewhere or somewhere in its evolutionary past.
The last few weeks had been rather quiet in the moraine hills. The pairs that were to be formed were formed and the rhythmically repeated calls of displaying males gave way to the quiet and secretive periods of egg laying and incubation. In total, six nests were found by the team in the vicinity of the hills, and another two were found further up the coast. The first nest found was lost, along with the female who laid it, to an unknown predator. Seeing a Spoon-billed Sandpiper lying dead on the tundra, especially a female whose value is greatest, was a sobering event. It was a reminder of how vulnerable a small population like this is. At this point even a random natural event, like a lingering flock of northward migrating jaegers due to weather conditions, could push the population over the brink. Whether it was a jaeger, a gull, a weasel, or even a dog from town couldn’t be determined and didn’t really matter. For the Spoon-billed Sandpiper, whose aging adults are not being replaced by younger individuals (they are not surviving on the wintering grounds), every one that is lost amounts to the population sliding further toward extinction.
I went to the hills hoping for one last chance to film some courtship behavior. Because the captive breeding team has removed the spoonbill’s eggs from the nests there, some individuals have began to sing and display again – an attempt to start the process over and try for a second clutch. It looks like most of the females who lost their clutches have departed and will not renest but in the area where I was heading at least one displaying male and one receptive female had been seen the day before.
When I reached the area I located the female standing motionless on the tundra beside a snowfield – its beak was tucked neatly into its russet and black scapulars. I saw the male too – a beautiful russet headed bird that was intently foraging but always aware of potential predators – freezing momentarily and head cocking skyward whenever a gull would pass in flight. The two were clearly bonded. The male keeping a tight watch on the female and the female following the male in her own unhurried way.
So far, filming Spoon-billed Sandpipers has been more difficult than I anticipated. Skittish, sparsely distributed birds, challenging weather and lighting conditions, and a number of other factors have all contributed to far more filming failures than successes. This evening however, was one of those that makes up for all of the long hours, frustrations and hardships you endure on a trip like this. With calm winds, gentle evening light, and a confiding pair, the conditions were ideal.
I spent several hours watching and filming the pair as they worked their way around the edge of the snow field and up a small knoll. As they neared the top another male began giving display vocalizations in flight and landed close by. The male I had been watching quickly took a position atop a tussock and began delivering calls at a constant rate. It stood tall with its head craning forward and its spooned lower mandible vibrating wildly with each trilled burst. The intruder responded but not with the vigor of the paired male and the females behavior showed she was well committed to her selection. She walked close to her male and with wings raised, tail cocked and a burst of calls he ran toward her in a bid to copulate. She avoided his advances this time but remained close. Perhaps her body was not yet willing to expend the energy necessary to produce a second clutch. Or maybe this particular moment was not to her liking.
As this was going on another bird appeared. A pale frosted male that I recognized. He had been mated to the female that was killed and had held a territory only a few hundred meters away over the next hill. He entered the scene and gave a few spirited series of advertising vocalizations before quickly departing. For him the breeding year is over. The only female available had made her selection and there were no others to be had. I could only hope that things will improve for this species on the wintering grounds and that perhaps next year or the year after that a young female will make its way north and he too will have the chance to try again.
As Skylarks and pipts sang overhead and the pair drifted off among the tussocks I took a moment to remind myself just how rare these birds are and to savor what I had just seen. When you are in a place where a species can be readily found with enough effort it is easy to loose sight of the fact that you are in one of the only places on earth where that can be done. I had just spent an intimate couple of hours in the middle of nowhere Chukotka, with 4 of the remaining 400 or so Spoon-billed Sandpipers on earth. I felt very lucky for the experience and to have been put into a position to bring a piece of it back to share with all of you.