The spoon-billed sandpiper is one of the most endangered birds in the world (and arguably one of the cutest!). Fewer than 100 breeding pairs of the rare birds exist in the wild, but thanks to months of careful work from the UK's Wildfoul & Wetlands Trust (WWT), and nearly $550,000 in donations, that number is starting to grow once again. 

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The spoon-billed sandpiper is one of the rarest birds in the world. Image: Roland Digby/WWT

Nearly one year ago, WWT staff travelled to the birds' Arctic home in the Russian Far East to collect a clutch of eggs, and later hand-reared the birds that hatched back in England. It was am impressive feat – one they weren't sure would work.

"The art of fostering birds is still in its pioneering stages," explains WWT Head of Conservation Breeding Nigel Jarrett. "For the spoon-billed sandpiper, which is unique in many ways and migrates ten thousand miles, we inevitably started off with unknowns. But because the situation was so dire we decided we had to act."

The precious cargo was flown by helicopter and plane on a week-long journey via Anadyr, Moscow and London before arriving at WWT headquarters. Months later, the 14 fledglings that hatched travelled to south-east Asia, to rejoin their flock at its winter feeding grounds. It was an encouraging victory, but only half the battle had been won. 

"The most crucial thing for the project – the real test of the birds we reared – has always been whether or not they would come back to Siberia to breed," says Jarrett. 

But this week, WWT staff and birder enthusiasts around the world breathed a sigh of relief: five of the 14 sandpipers have been spotted in the Arctic, completing their 10,000-mile journey home. Three of them went on to mate and produce their own eggs, which will help to stabilise the population of this very tiny bird. 

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When they first hatch, the tiny birds are only about the size of a bumblebee. Image: WWT
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That unusual spatula-shaped bill is unique among the world's wading birds. Image: Nicky Hiscock/WWT
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Image: Roland Digby/WWT
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The birds breed in the hostile and remote sub-Arctic tundra in the Russian Far East. Image: Egor Loktinov/WWT

As if that's not enough cuteness for one day, check out this video of the chicks!