Project Godwit in 2017

As the year draws to a close I thought I’d take the opportunity to reflect on the last twelve months of Project Godwit, and pick out a few of my own personal highlights. As we look forward to 2018, we know we have more to do to bring godwits back from the brink – but we’ll be working hard to give them a fighting chance.

In 2017 we have…

  • Released 26 juvenile godwits into the wild at WWT Welney. You can relive the moment the fledglings were released via the video here. Headstarting has enabled us to boost productivity (the number of chicks produced per pair) to one of the highest levels in recent years.

    Black-tailed godwit chick in early-stage rearing facility. Photo Bob Ellis WWT
  • Fitted tiny geolocators (tracking devices) to sixteen black-tailed godwits. When we see these birds again in spring, if we can catch them, we’ll be able to download the data and find out where they’ve been spending the winter.
  • Made the Nene Washes and Ouse Washes even better for black-tailed godwits – by creating wet features and pools. We’ve already seen many birds enjoying the new scrapes and we hope the godwits like it when they return in spring. We also installed a new pump at the March Farmers section of the Nene Washes which will enable us to manage even more habitat for godwits in the breeding season.
One of the new scrapes that has been created at the RSPB Nene Washes – photo James Cooper.

 

  • Installed over 3500m of electric fencing at the Nene Washes to help protect nests from predators. We saw a significant increase in nest survival in fenced areas, but we need to fence more areas of black-tailed godwit habitat in 2018.
  • Received a resighting of a female breeding bird (YR – RL(E)) from the Nene Washes from Senegal. What’s remarkable is that she has been spotted in Senegal for the third winter in a row. You can read more about her here.
  • Introduced over 130 people to the black-tailed godwits through special guided tours at WWT Welney. Keep your eyes peeled for 2018 dates.
  • Became part of the Back from the Brink Programme. Back from the Brink is one of the most ambitious conservation projects ever undertaken. Through 19 projects delivered across England, 20 UK species facing extinction will be brought Back from the Brink thanks to a £4.6 million grant from the National Lottery. Natural England, the government’s wildlife advisory body, will work in partnership with Amphibian and Reptile Trust, Bat Conservation Trust, Buglife, Bumblebee Conservation Trust, Butterfly Conservation, Plantlife and the RSPB. https://naturebftb.co.uk/

I’d like to also take this opportunity to wish you a Merry Christmas on behalf of the team – and to thank the team for their incredible work throughout the year. I’d also like to extend this thanks to the birdwatching community who have been keeping an eye out for the godwits. Thank you very much for your support.

Some of the fantastic people behind Project Godwit

New water pump will help us create even more habitat for godwits

Now that the black-tailed godwits are enjoying the warmer climes of Portugal, Spain and West Africa for the winter, our focus turns to ensuring their habitat is in tip-top condition for when they return in the spring. Black-tailed godwits need invertebrate rich, well managed wet-grassland habitat.

Creating more habitat for godwits

At the Nene Washes we have been working to restore a 260 hectare block of former arable land, (known locally as March Farmers) into ideal wet-grassland habitat for godwits and other birds. March Farmers is enclosed by earth banks that were originally designed to allow farming to continue when the washes were in flood. However, these banks frequently over top and leak, and the water becomes trapped in the low-lying farm.  We have now installed spillways and discharge pipes that allow flood water in and out of March Farmers in a controlled manner, but that still leaves one million cubic metres of water which needs pumping out if we are going to provide the grassland that the godwits need for nesting. The farm’s electric pump broke in 2014 and since then we have been hiring in expensive and inefficient diesel pumps to evacuate the water. We are in the process of installing a new Dutch built fish-friendly pump, capable of pumping 1440 cubic metres per hour.

The new pump is guided into place.
Once operational the pump will be capable of pumping 400 litres per second.

Good for godwits – and safe for eels

The new pump weighs a whopping 1.5 tonnes and was manufactured in Winterswijk, in The Netherlands. Water control structures can cause big problems for eels – they can get caught up in them as they try to navigate through freshwater systems. The European eel has a fascinating life-cycle. Mature eels congregate to breed in the Sargasso Sea (in the western Atlantic Ocean). Once the larvae reach coastal waters, they transform into small transparent eels known as ‘glass eels’ and move into estuaries to begin their inland journey. When they enter freshwater they become miniature versions of the adults, known as ‘elvers’. They grow into yellow eels and reach sexual maturity after six to 20 years when they become silver eels. They then migrate back downstream to the sea and make the 4,000 mile journey back to the Sargasso Sea to breed. The Nene Washes are known to be an important habitat for eels but they can become trapped in March Farmers and the new eel-friendly pump is a means by which they can leave the farm and get back into the River Nene.

The pump is designed to allow fish to pass through it safely.

The European Eel is Critically Endangered, with the UK supporting a significant proportion of the global population. So what makes the new pump eel- friendly? The impeller and guide vanes have a special design that creates an optimal water flow, allowing the fish to pass through the pump safely. The edges are rounded and the space between the impeller blades is much wider, which reduces impact risk. This pump allows more than 97% of fish and even 100% of eel to pass through unscathed. It even has a telemetry system that will send a text-message to the site manager notifying them of any faults.

We have also been working with UK Power Networks to underground 650 metres of powerlines that cross March Farmers and create a significant hazard for swans, cranes and ducks. Due to the undergrounding of the cables we will need new, much taller poles to span the River Nene. These will be arriving from Wales and are so long they require their own police escort!

We are looking forward to the new pump being up and running and helping us create even more habitat for godwits in the spring.

We’re very grateful to our partners Aquatic Control Engineering, Stirling Maynard, Natural England, the Environment Agency, UK Power Networks and the Childers Estate. This work has been supported by a £250,000 grant through the Landfill Communities Fund of Waste Recycling Group (WRG) administered by the Environmental Body WREN.

Results from the wild in 2017

Increasing productivity in the wild is a key focus of Project Godwit – so how did the wild godwits fare in 2017?

Black-tailed godwit at the Nene Washes (Mark Whiffin/RSPB).

Challenges at the Nene Washes

The Nene Washes hold 80-90% of the UK breeding black-tailed godwit population. We found 35 breeding pairs on site in 2017, a decline from 42 pairs in 2016. Our monitoring tells us that there is a strong relationship between breeding success and population change – it will not come as a surprise to most that better breeding success leads to a boost in the population in subsequent years. We know that breeding success has been low for this population over the last couple of years, which probably explains the decline observed in the population this year. Black-tailed godwits are long-lived birds, and most don’t return to breed until they are two years old, so there can be a time-lag before a population change occurs.

Black-tailed godwit pairs need to successfully fledge one chick every other year in order for the population to sustain itself, or half a chick per pair each year. In the last three years, the number of chicks fledging at the Nene Washes has been below this level, which is a cause for concern. A big focus of Project Godwit will be to boost the breeding success of godwits at the Nene Washes, and increase the number chicks that successfully fledge.

Predated black-tailed godwit nest (Mark Whiffin/RSPB)

Trials and tribulations

In recent years the main driver of poor breeding success at the Nene Washes has been predation, and our research has shown us that different predators have had varying impacts in different years. It’s a complex picture, and one which will require a range of predator management solutions resolve. We are monitoring black-tailed godwit nests at the Nene Washes (under a special licence from Natural England). Our monitoring tells us how many nests have hatched and (in most cases) the cause of failure when they don’t. We are also radio-tagging a sample of chicks once they have left the nest. Our approach to predator management is based on the evidence we gather from this extensive research and monitoring programme.

One solution we are trialling is the exclusion of ground predators from key breeding areas using temporary electric fencing. Exclusion fencing has been shown to boost wader productivity at other wet grassland sites but this is the first time this has been tried at the Nene Washes. In 2017 we found that there was a significant boost to nest survival for waders which nested within the boundary of the fencing. However, unfortunately we had a number of godwits nesting outside of the fencing this year, and those nests did not fare so well. We’ll be upping the ante in 2018 – providing exclusion fencing over a larger area. Five chicks fledged successfully at the Nene Washes in 2017, we hope this figure will increase in future years of the project.

Tommy and Josh installing the temporary exclusion fencing at the Nene Washes.

More good news from Welney!

The good news is that the three pairs present at Welney in 2017 successfully fledged two young in 2017. This small population has been very productive in recent years, which bodes very well for the headstarted birds which will hopefully return there to breed in future years. We have released 26 birds through the headstarting programme in 2017. This has provided a huge boost to the number of young godwits in the population this year. If we can match this success with improved wild breeding success at the Nene Washes, alongside the continued successes at WWT Welney, then we should be looking at a much brighter future for our black-tailed godwits.

Where are they now?

It’s been a few weeks since you heard from us – the godwits have been keeping the team busy as we aim to keep track of their movements after release. Here’s an update on all the comings and goings from RSPB Senior Research Assistant, Mark Whiffin.

Now that the busy breeding season is drawing to close, my attention is turning to the important question – where are the colour-ringed godwits?

Time does have a habit of flying by at this time of year; it’s been five weeks since the 25 headstarted godwits were released at WWT Welney. It was amazing to see them leave their release aviary, settle on pools and begin to feed, as if they had always been there.

We really had no idea what the birds would do after release, would they stay around the washes or just depart up to the coast? We hoped that they would initially remain in the relative safety of the Welney area and were excited to see that they did remain close to home, splitting in to small parties and touring the pools on the washes and on the adjacent WWT Lady Fen wetland, with some of the more adventurous birds exploring further to the RSPB Ouse Washes reserve.

OG-GL(E) mixing with adults on the pools at Welney – image by Mark Whiffin.

In the first days and weeks following release, WWT staff kept a very close eye on these special birds, accounting for all of the birds, noting their associations and interactions with other waders as well as their reactions to potential danger. Having been raised on their own away from adults, we were delighted that the youngsters started to mix with adult birds, feeding alongside them and hopefully picking up a lot of the life-skills they will need to survive in the wild. Visitors to Welney and the Ouse Washes have helped enormously in the monitoring effort by providing many more pairs of eyes to help us keep track of where the birds were.

As time has marched on, some of the birds have taken their cues from the adults and started to depart the washes on the next leg of their journey. We owe a huge thanks to the many people who have reported sightings of these first adventurers. At the end of July we have a good idea of the extent to which the birds have dispersed. While there are still some birds on the washes, birds are being reported from further afield. The first to be spotted was WL-GL(E), she was found up on the Norfolk coast at Cley. She was followed shortly afterwards by LL-GL(E). He has amazed everyone; instead of flying north-east to the coast, he flew to the south-west and was spotted on the WWT Steart Marshes in Somerset! This is the first time a journey like this has been recorded for a UK-bred godwit.

LL-GL(E) resting up on the Steart Marshes, Somerset – image by Joe Cockram.

Further exciting sightings of headstarted birds have more recently come from Suffolk, with GG-GL(E) being seen at Trimley Marshes and both LN-GL(E) and OY-GL(E) being spotted at Old Hall Marshes in Essex and, in what is an even more remarkable twist to the tale, these two birds are actually siblings, I wonder if they know?

GG-GL(E) at Trimley Marshes, Suffolk – image by Paul Holmes

We are delighted that five birds have been seen while undertaking the first legs of journeys which will hopefully see some of them fly all the way to Africa and perhaps return to the washes next spring. We are grateful to everyone who has reported their sightings. With other birds still to leave Welney and the washes, please keep your eyes peeled for other black-tailed godwits with the distinctive green and lime E rings on their right legs. Perhaps we’ll get a record from Spain or Portugal in the next few weeks and a winter record from African would be even better. We’ll keep you posted.

Good luck godwits!

The first of our headstarted chicks are released into the wild.

Watching the black-tailed godwits fly by.

Yesterday marked a significant milestone for the Project Godwit team. After months of preparation and hard work, our headstarted godwit chicks were released into the wild at WWT Welney.

The chicks have all passed a health screening prior to release, and have spent the last few days flexing their flight muscles in the pre-release aviary at the release site. It’s hugely rewarding to see the chicks take their first steps into the wild, particularly for honorary godwit parents Nicky, Louise and Rosie, who have been working around the clock to provide for the chicks over the last few weeks at WWT Welney.

Our “class of 2017” have all been fitted with their own unique set of colour

The black-tailed godwits explore their new home (Bob Ellis – WWT).

rings so that they can be followed after their release. This year’s headstarted chicks have all received a green colour ring above a lime colour ring with the black letter “E”, on the right leg, above the knee. Two additional colour rings on the left leg above the knee, complete the combination. We’re appealing to bird watchers to help us keep track of the birds after their release. If you see a colour ringed black-tailed godwit, please let us know about it! You can report it to us on our sightings page here https://projectgodwit.org.uk/get-involved/report-a-sighting/

The hope is that the birds will join post-breeding flocks of wild black-tailed godwits,before starting their southerly migration to the wintering grounds

One of the class of 2017 (Bob Ellis – WWT).

in Spain, Portugal and West Africa. In two-year’s time, the expectation is that the released birds will return to the Ouse Washes to breed, boosting this fragile population, where we have been working to create safe, flood-free habitat for them.

You can read more about the godwit’s release, and the likely places the birds could be spotted next on the wadertales blog here: https://wadertales.wordpress.com/2017/06/13/special-black-tailed-godwits/

Godwit chicks are growing up fast

It’s been a busy few weeks for the Project Godwit team, but I’m very happy to be able to give you an update on our headstarted godwits.

We collected 32 black-tailed godwit eggs from the Nene Washes back in April, under a special licence granted by Natural England. We now have 26 black-tailed godwit chicks in the rearing facility at WWT Welney. This is a fantastic result for the aviculture team, who have been busy working around the clock to care for the chicks. The first few weeks of life can be tough for a young wader, so we’re giving the birds a helping hand during this crucial period. We hope that headstarting will allow us to boost the number of juveniles that fledge and therefore fast-track population growth at the Ouse Washes, where flood-free, wet grassland habitat has been created with godwits in mind.

These very special chicks spent their first week of their lives inside their early-stage rearing facility. They were then given a taste of life outside when they were moved to their mid-stage rearing enclosure at around nine days old. This aviary has been constructed within the wet grassland habitat at Welney, giving the chicks access to the sights and sounds of the fens as they grow. The chicks are already well able to feed themselves and have been observed feeding on wild invertebrates (worms are a particular favourite) just as they would do in the wild.

Meanwhile, back at the Nene Washes, many of the black-tailed godwit pairs from which eggs were collected have laid replacement nests. Based on the distribution of nests and the timing of laying, we think that all the pairs from which eggs were collected have laid again. We can be certain that at least five pairs have relayed as these pairs contain individually colour marked birds.

Last week Project Godwit staff fitted the headstarted chicks with their own colour rings. Each bird has received an individual colour ring combination, so that we can follow their progress after they have been released. This year’s headstarted chicks have received a green colour ring above the knee on the right leg, situated above another lime colour ring with the black letter “E” stamped on the ring. If you see a colour ringed black-tailed godwit, you can report it to us on our sightings page here https://projectgodwit.org.uk/get-involved/report-a-sighting/

The godwit chicks are growing up fast. The next step for them will be a veterinary health check. If all is well, the chicks will then be transferred to their release aviary, where they will stay under our care under they are ready to fly in a couple of weeks time. We’ll keep you updated on their progress.

Black-tailed godwit chick in early-stage rearing facility. Photo by Bob Ellis WWT
Inside the mid-stage rearing aviary
A black-tailed godwit chick is carefully fitted with colour rings by the project team

Godwits Being Given a Head Start

This year we will be trialling the rear and release of black-tailed godwits in an effort to boost population numbers, using a process known as “headstarting”.

Thirty-two black-tailed godwit eggs have been collected from nests at RSPB Nene Washes – under a licence granted by Natural England. The eggs have been safely transported to specialist facilities at WWT Welney, where they will be incubated until they are ready to hatch. WWT staff will then rear the birds in captivity, until they reach the point of fledging when they will be released to join the black-tailed godwits in the wild at Welney.

Photo by Bob Ellis.

Because black-tailed godwits often will lay replacement clutches when nests are lost, we hope that the godwits from which eggs were taken will also go on to lay and rear another brood successfully in the wild. This will give the godwits a temporary boost in productivity, crucial at a time when the UK population of godwits is teetering on the edge at around 60 pairs.

It will be a few weeks until the eggs are ready to hatch and we’ll keep you posted on their progress.

Will Tiny Tracking Devices Reveal Godwit Migration Secrets?

Two tiny geolocator devices were fitted to black-tailed godwits at the Nene Washes today in a bid to find out more about the birds migration movements.

This is the first time that godwits breeding in the UK will have been tracked to their non-breeding grounds. This research will help us to identify key non-breeding sites for the godwits and also provide more information about the timing of the godwit’s migration.

Godwits undertake long and often complex migrations, but they generally return to the same site to breed each year. Black-tailed godwits of the limosa subspecies found breeding in Western Europe spend their winters in Portugal and Western Africa. Over the last two years, we have been marking individual birds from the washes using lightweight colour rings. These have already yielded some interesting sightings from the non-breeding ground, but we hope that we will find out even more by tracking a sample of the birds.

The geolocators – weighing 1g – are attached to colour rings which can then be carefully fitted to the bird’s leg. Geolocators record light levels – these can be used to determine latitude and longitude: essentially providing a location of the individual bird’s whereabouts at a snapshot in time.

We are hoping that we’ll be able to fit more birds with geolocators in the coming weeks. We’ll have to be patient to see the results though – as we won’t be able to retrieve the data until next year when the birds return to the washes to breed.

Project Godwit Gets Underway

Welcome to our new website!

Project Godwit is a new partnership project between the RSPB and WWT, with the aim of securing the future of breeding black-tailed godwits in the UK. Black-tailed godwits have a small breeding population in the UK, of about 60 pairs, and our new project is aiming to turn around their fortunes. With funding from the EU LIFE Nature programme, we’ll be undertaking a range of activities at the Nene and Ouse Washes including:

  • An extensive research and monitoring programme of black-tailed godwits at the Nene Washes.
  • Maintaining and enhancing black-tailed godwit wet grassland habitat at the Nene and Ouse Washes, providing the right conditions for the species to thrive.
  • A range of steps to reduce the impact of predation on black-tailed godwits, with the aim of increasing nest and chick survival.
  • Using colour ringing and tracking to improve our understanding of the local and migratory movements of black-tailed godwits.
  • Trialling a rear-and-release programme, known as “headstarting”, in a bid to supplement the small population of black-tailed godwits breeding at sites adjacent to the Ouse Washes.
  • Running a range of events for local communities and schools, to raise awareness of black-tailed godwits and their special wetland habitats.

I hope you enjoy exploring our new website. For latest news from the project, you can sign up for our email alerts. Or if tweeting is your thing you can follow us on twitter @projectgodwit.