Up close with Godwits – An interview with Amelia Bennet-Margrave

In our latest blog, WWT Engagement Officer Jess Owen interviews Amelia Bennet-Margrave who joined Project Godwit’s head-starting team for the 2019 breeding season at WWT Welney as an Assistant Aviculturist. Jess asked Amelia about her experiences of working up close with the godwits.

 

How did you come to be on the 2019 head-starting team? What attracted you to the job?

‘I had just finished university and was excited to be out in the field! I loved that Project Godwit was encompassing so many aspects of conservation, creating habitat for the long-term survival of the species, head-starting to increase breeding success, monitoring wild birds and providing fascinating insights on black-tailed godwits and their migration. It was a really exciting project and one that has been fascinating to watch; over the three years, head-started birds have returned to breed at project sites and now comprise an estimated one quarter of all pairs breeding in the Fens!

I was also excited by the idea of gaining experience in animal husbandry for wildlife conservation – it’s incredibly rewarding caring for animals and something I love doing. And I love wading birds! In the UK we have so many lovely waders arriving to winter on our extensive shoreline. It’s one of our most beautiful wildlife spectacles – with huge swirling flocks, beautiful plumage and those wonderful calls filling the landscape! Currently, many British breeding waders are in decline, so I was really interested in the opportunity to work on a conservation project trying to change this! And finally, I really admire the WWT and their work to conserve species and habitats around the globe.’

What first sparked your interest in nature and wildlife conservation?

‘Butterflies! We used to get a lot of butterflies – especially peacock and red admiral – in our garden, and I loved watching these when I was little! I was given a Dorling Kindersley book on butterflies of the world when I was eight and that was it! (I’ve always wanted to see a Swallowtail butterfly since and I finally did last year on one of my days off whilst working at Project Godwit – they are just beautiful!!) We had a park near our house with long grass and wildflowers too, so I was always out and surrounded by it! And like many other people, by watching David Attenborough’s wonderful documentaries and programmes like the BBC’s Lost Land series with George McGavin!’

What kind of experiences and jobs did you have before you worked on the head-starting programme?

‘I had experience in animal husbandry from college, where I did a BTEC Level 3 course in Animal Management (equivalent to A-levels). The course covered subjects such as nutrition, welfare, legislation, biology, biochemistry and more, and there was a lot of hands-on experience with a wide variety of bird, reptile, mammal, fish and invertebrate species. For my work experience placement, I helped at a local wildlife rescue centre. After this, I did a degree in Zoology and Conservation at Bangor University. While at university, I became a trainee in bird ringing and went out most weekends to learn, working with a large range of passerine and wader species, some seabirds and wildfowl. It was a real privilege to learn and to see such beautiful birds up-close.

I also did a lot of volunteering! It’s a wonderful way to enjoy wildlife and learn from really inspiring people! I volunteered at a great local nature reserve on their weekly work party, gaining experience in habitat management and creation, working in teams and learning how to use a variety of tools. For six years I was a volunteer with The Lake District Osprey Project, interacting with visitors and helping to monitor the ospreys breeding there – I loved it! I also had the amazing opportunity to volunteer for three weeks with the RSPB as a relief warden, helping to monitor an arctic tern colony on a beautiful island, which was fantastic!’

What was the best moment for you on the job?

‘There were so many!! It’s really hard to pick just one…! Watching the first chick hatching after incubating the eggs for several weeks was an incredible moment!’

What was the hardest part of the job?

‘Finishing! I loved the job so much!

But also, the hot plastic suits we had to wear for biosecurity…’

What do you like and find most interesting about godwits?

‘I think migration in all species is really interesting, with so many factors involved, such as stop-over sites, wintering grounds, diet, timing and so much more. And godwits are no exception! There was a first for Project Godwit recently, as a 2019 head-started bird was seen in Morocco!

And black-tailed godwits are such beautiful birds, with lovely bright summer plumage and their fantastic “wickering” calls!’

What was the most interesting thing you learnt whilst head-starting?

‘There were so many things! I learnt so much from the amazing team here!

I think my favourite was learning about egg development and all the aviculture techniques used to monitor and care for eggs. It was incredible to see candling for the first time (using a light to examine the stage of development) and watch the chick breaking into the air space of the egg just before hatching!’

How did you feel when the godwits were released?

‘A little nervous, but it was really exciting to watch them go! There was a real sense of achievement too. It’s been such a huge privilege to watch these birds grow. Seeing them feeding and flying around the reserve was fantastic!’

Did you have a favourite godwit?

‘I loved them all! It was really amazing to watch as they all developed. But I admit there were two that were definitely my favourites! It’s been really exciting to hear about the sightings of birds from 2019 recently, I hope people keep sending them in and that we might see some of the 2019 class back this year!’

Photo by Amelia Bennet-Margrave – Head-started black-tailed godwit chick in breeding facility at WWT Welney Wetland Centre.

 

Good godwit news

It hasn’t been easy for the team at Project Godwit to get a good handle on what the godwits have been up to so far this season, for obvious reasons. When the coronavirus crisis emerged many team members became furloughed and most of the remaining team were confined to quarters. Thankfully, however, we’ve been able to get a good idea of how the birds are faring thanks to site staff at the project sites, WWT Welney, RSPB Nene Washes and RSPB Ouse Washes. While staff have been undertaking essential site work on the reserves, such as checking livestock and managing water levels, they have been keeping a record of the godwits they spot.

Guess who’s back?

There are 16 head-started birds from the project back at the time of writing (8 from 2017, 8 from 2018). Here are highlights of some of the birds back so far.

Remi was first recorded back at Welney on 30th March and last seen 3rd April. Remi is from the Class of 2017, as is Ramsey (back at Welney since 12th April) and Anouk (back since 29th April at Welney).

Earith

Earith was spotted on 24th April back at the RSPB Pilot Project site (adjacent to the Ouse Washes). Earith paired with a wild-reared male in previous years and fledged a chick – a female, who is now two years old and also back in the Fens (at Welney). Earith is currently paired with an unringed male at the Pilot Project – fingers crossed they will breed again this year!

Head-started female Earith, photo by Jonathan Taylor at RSPB Ouse Washes

Also back at the Pilot Project are Nelson and Lady (aka ‘Lord & Lady Nelson’) . This pair have previously nested at Lady Fen, Welney in 2018 and 2019.

Chip

The last time this godwit was seen was in July 2019 in Senegal! Chip was the first head-started godwit to be seen in Africa on its wintering grounds, identified by his colour rings at Djoudj National Park, Senegal. Chip has since been spotted on 29th April feeding at a pool on Lady Fen at Welney.

Chip at WWT Welney in June 2018

Chip’s sister Wedge is also back, first spotted back at Welney on 12th April and again on the 29th. You may remember these birds were amongst the muddy egg cohort to be rescued from arable farmland in spring 2018 when the Nene Washes flooded. Dill was also amongst those rescued eggs, as was Estragon, both recorded back at Welney as of 12th April.  

Cornelia

Some major news which deserves a fanfare: the first geolocator to be retrieved from a head-started godwit has recently been analysed by the team at Project Godwit. Cornelia had a geolocator attached to her as a chick in 2018, which was retrieved in 2019.

The data reveals she took around just 48 hours to leave the Nene Washes on the evening of 13th August 2018 and arrive in the wetlands of south-eastern Mauritania during the night on 15th August. This incredible journey may even have been a non-stop flight! Cornelia returned to the Nene Washes on 19th April this year.

Cornelia in June 2018 at WWT Welney

Denver

A well travelled godwit, Denver has been seen at the Giganta Ricefields in Portugal (in February 2019), near Leiderdorp in the Netherlands (in February 2020) and closer to home at Welney on 1st April.

Denver as a chick at WWT Welney in June 2017

It seems there was a reunion with some of the head-started birds at the Giganta Ricefields in Portugal back in February. Delph was also there with Denver at that time (seen back at Welney 8th April), as was Morgan, who first returned to Welney on 8th April but moved to the Pilot Project on 27th April. Such a gathering is no surprise, considering these ricefields plus the nearby Tagus estuary in Portugal hold around 70,000 black-tailed godwits in late winter of both the limosa and islandica races.

Stay tuned for updates.

Thank you for your support.