Just like Cleopatra’s nose?

It was a dreary morning and I felt a bit grumpy as I made my way past Birmingham on the M42 heading south.

It was rainy and drizzly and the traffic was difficult.  I was surprised to see snow on the Malverns to my right and not at all surprised that I could hardly make out Cleeve Hill and its habitat for Dukes of Burgundy to my left.

I arrived at Slimbridge and had a quick look for the female lesser scaup – I saw a funny looking tufted duck but relied on my rule that ‘if you know your birds then if you see a new bird you know it’s a new bird’ to dismiss the possibility of a UK tick.

And then on to the main event, via a kiss from Kate Humble (not to be overlooked), which was to celebrate the 13 spoon-billed sandpipers that we were shown by CCTV from their aviary somewhere nearby.

These 13 birds were eggs in the very northeast of Russia, near Anadyr, in mid-June this year – isn’t that amazing?  Conservationists from the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust went out there, found some nests, collected some eggs, incubated them, raised the chicks and brought them back to Slimbridge.  Simple as that!

Except that sitting there in the cinema at Slimbridge we heard, through the gentle questioning of Kate Humble, the inside story from three of the people most involved in doing that ‘simple’ task: Nigel Jarrett, Martin McGill and Roland Digby are the somewhat unlikely heroes of this story.

Russia’s not the easiest place to work, the Arctic is not the easiest area of Russia, spoon-billed sandpipers are not the easiest birds and nobody had done anything quite like this before – maybe it wasn’t so easy.

We heard of the moments of despair when a malfunctioning weighing machine made it seem as though the eggs had lost far too much weight all of a sudden, of the sadness as an adult sandpiper was found dead by its predated nest, as well as the team stripping to their underpants to attract mosquitoes to serve as food for baby sandpipers, and the feelings of joy when the eggs hatched.

There were lots of problems and challenges but they did it, and 13 birds are now at Slimbridge and may in future form a breeding stock for releases into the wild or, if the worst comes to the worst, they may be the last remaining spoon-billed sandpipers on Earth.   How sad would that be?

Just as the course of history might have been changed if Cleopatra’s nose had been an inch longer the course of history for the spoon-billed sandpiper might not hold any hope at all if it weren’t the cutest wader ever with the cutest chicks with the cutest spatula bills.  Who wouldn’t donate to a programme of work to save this bird from habitat loss and hunting on its 8000km migration from Russia to Myanmar?

The Today programme, as I ticked off the miles to Slimbridge to see these birds, mentioned the birds I was travelling to see but majored on the news of the death of some bloke who was in charge of North Korea.  Spoon-billed sandpipers have been flying over North Korea for thousands of years but it is only recently that our species has loosened the spoonies’ hold on Earth – there are now maybe only about 200 birds left in the wild.  And now there are 13 in a cage in Gloucestershire.

After everyone left the cinema I stayed and watched the birds on the CCTV for a while.  I could see the variation in size between the birds, and one (White-left) was in full winter plumage whereas the others were still moulting.  I watched the birds sticking their cute bills into the gravel in their cage.  And occasionally one would whirr its wings or stretch.  And sometimes the flock would crouch for a moment before resuming feeding.

As I headed off to lunch I realised that for a few moments I might have been the only person on Earth knowingly watching spoon-billed sandpipers, and that in maybe a decade they might not exist in the wild.

Over lunch I had the lesser scaup pointed out to me and it was indeed the ‘funny looking tufted duck’ that I had seen earlier.

It was a dreary evening but I felt greatly uplifted as I made my way past Birmingham on the M42 heading north.

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16 Replies to “Just like Cleopatra’s nose?”

  1. Thanks again for a blog from the heart – you ol softy. Hard message delivered with great feeling. Hope you and family have a great Christmas Mark, and look forward to reading your blog in 2012, all the best

  2. Mark, I always thought I was the only person who, looking at birds and being unsure whether it was the rarity or not, will opt for for the common species because I then don’t get as disappointed when I am wrong.

    From both of us have a have a good Xmas and I also look forward to next years blogs (Although I do have a feeling that you might be keeping a few good ones back for this year yet).

  3. Great piece Mark – you nearly had me in tears. let’s hope this wonderful little bird can be saved. It is not on my list yet.

    Happy Christmas and even more power to you elbow in 2012

  4. Hi Mark. Good to see you again yesterday, and a wonderfully measured post as always.
    At the risk of being moderated for advertising (and I won’t hold it against you if you do) may I offer readers who might like to know more about the reasons for the captive breeding prgramme going ahead the URL for a podcast I made with WWT’s Director of Conservation Dr Debbie Pain which actually converted me from being sceptical about what WWT was planning to being 100% supportive: http://www.talking-naturally.co.uk/tn44-dr-debbie-pain-spoon-billed-sandpiper-conservation-breeding-programme/

    Thanks and all the best

  5. Isn’t it strange that for every dedicated killer of birds we have equal number dedicated to saving them.From your teachings Mark I shall say that it is the pleasure they get out of saving them as it certainly is never economic.When on Mull this September a typical case was Dave showing us where first re-introduced WTE nested and although now Mull gets lots of tourist money from these Eagles doubt it is economic over a period.One youngster(Kellan) badly injured and went to Scottish RSPCA and must have been very costly operation etc and was successfully released into wild on Mull,survived for some time but do not know whether still surviving but a typical case of heart over economics.

  6. Mark – as a commuter into Birmingham I share your feelings of the M42!
    Have been listening to the news and following this with fascination and am heartened that of all the places in the world, it’s this country and the WWT of course, that have run with this. That really is some positive news for a change.

  7. Well written Mark, let’s hope that they can be saved. I do not fully understand the reasons behind their demise but it is a fair guess that mankind is responsible. We should all be very proud of the actions of WWT.

    I first tuned into your blog a few months ago and I am glad that I did. As a one-man band agri-environment adviser with a young family, it is sometimes difficult to find the time to keep abreast of wider developments in the environmental sphere and your well-informed and humorous blog is proving invaluable in this respect. Keep up the good work!

    I hope your do not mind me picking up Dennis on his comments that cast doubt over the value of sea eagles to the Mull economy. I have been to ‘Eagle Island’ on numerous occasions and have friends who are live there, so I have seen for myself the value of wildlife tourism to the Mull economy. A report published in June found that the eco-tourism generated by the flourishing sea eagle population is worth over 5 million to the Mull economy each year and has helped to create over 100 jobs. Not bad for an island with a population of little over 2600.

    To my mind this is one of the great conservation success stories and in the words of Simon Barnes: “conservation – it bloody well works!”

  8. Great write up Mark. It was a fantastic day and a pleasure to see the birds and the team who have worked so hard on this project.



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