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Pairing and Parenthood on the Tundra

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by Gerrit Vyn
 

I spent much of this summer belly down on the tundra of eastern Russia, my lenses focused on the critically endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper. As a producer in the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Multimedia program, for two months I had the rare opportunity to join an expedition, along with ornithologists from Birds Russia and the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, to the breeding grounds of this unique shorebird. I sent back my observations and photos in a series of blog posts, excerpted here:

June 17: Arrival

Our destination for this project is the village of Meynypilgyno—about 500 people living on a long gravel spit at the edge of the Bering Sea. Nearby is the largest known core breeding area of Spoonbilled Sandpipers, a species whose entire population now hovers around 100 pairs. Lately, the snowdrifts have shrunk enough for us to venture into the rolling moraine hills, where at least 12 pairs bred last year. In the two weeks we’ve been here, the birds have returned and many are now incubating eggs.

July 8: Courtship on the Tundra

Tonight the winds were calm and the sun was shining for the first time in a week. I had been hoping to film courtship, and I found a female standing motionless on the tundra beside a snowfield, bill tucked neatly into its russet and black scapular feathers. The male—a beautiful russet-headed bird—was there too, intently foraging. When a different male began giving display calls in flight, the male of the pair quickly took a position atop a tussock, stood tall, and craned its head forward, calling. Its spooned lower mandible vibrated wildly with each trill. The intruder responded but with less vigor, and the female indicated she was committed to her selection by walking close to her male. As Sky Larks and pipits sang overhead, the pair drifted away among the tussocks.

July 17: Chicks Emerge From the Russian Lichens

Most of the adults that 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. In early July the last nest I knew about was due to hatch. Amid 30–40 mph winds, I was able to capture the first intimate footage and sounds of Spoon-billed Sandpipers at their nest. I also recorded several interesting vocalizations, including a rousing series of calls during an incubation exchange and a quick jrrrrt call adults use 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 looked so vulnerable in the unforgiving landscape.

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For more about Spoon-billed Sandpipers and the threats they face, visit our blog.