Anyone who doesn’t have at least some degree of admiration for the feat of bird migration either isn’t aware of the challenges involved or must lack any sense of wonder and imagination. It’s World Migratory Birds Day this Saturday 10 October and with excellent timing a new wave of sightings of black-tailed godwits from outside the UK has flooded in to the team at Project Godwit.
Black-tailed godwits which breed in the UK are of the Limosa limosa limosa sub-species and mainly breed in the East Anglian Fens of Cambridgeshire and Norfolk, plus a few sites in the south-east and north-west of England. A small number of the sub-species L. l. islandica also breed in Orkney and Shetland.
While L. l. islandica winters in Iceland, black-tailed godwits of the L. l. limosa race migrate south to Spain, Portugal or West Africa – to countries like Senegal, Mauritania and Guinea, 2800 miles away.
Black-tailed godwits use ‘staging areas’ (stop-over sites) on their migration route to rest and feed, in places such as the crucially important Tagus estuary in Portugal, which connects breeding sites across the northern hemisphere to wintering areas in Africa. It’s not just godwits from the UK that come here – Icelandic black-tailed godwits, plus godwits from the Netherlands (where the majority of the north-west European population breed) also gather here. Around 300,000 waterbirds of a plethora of migratory species including 80,000 black-tailed godwits stop here to regain energy and forage on the rice fields and mudflats of the Tagus estuary.
The Tagus estuary is designated as a Special Protection Area (SPA), a Wetland of International Importance (Ramsar site) and an Important Bird Area (IBA). Despite the vital importance of the area for biodiversity, the Tagus estuary is threatened with the development of an airport for Lisbon. This is another risk this species with its Near Threatened global status can really do without, especially when the UK population is already so small and vulnerable, not to mention the multitude of other reasons this airport should not be built.
Amongst some of the godwit sightings recently to have arrived in the team’s inbox is that of a female godwit reported from the Tagus estuary by Hugo Areal. This female was ringed as a chick at RSPB Nene Washes nature reserve, Cambridgeshire (the stronghold for the UK breeding population) an amazing 19 years ago and was spotted in what would be a part of the airport experiencing the highest levels of noise pollution and disruption if it goes ahead. This godwit has been seen regularly at the Tagus estuary over the years, in autumn and spring.
This female was observed breeding at the Nene Washes again this year. There have also been multiple sightings of this bird on the north Norfolk coast, at reserves like RSPB Titchwell and Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s Cley Marshes in late summer/early autumn, feeding up before migrating south.
Birds ringed by Project Godwit have a lime colour ring on the right leg stamped with the letter ‘E’ and can be reported to the team here.
One-year-old female godwit ‘Sky’ was reported at a national nature reserve near Yves in Western France in September by Jérémy Dupuy. Sky was head-started as a chick at WWT Welney Wetland Centre in June 2019 and released at the Nene Washes. This is the first observation of Sky since her release in well over a year – fingers crossed she will return to the UK next year to breed in the Fens.
Head-started birds have been reported in 10 countries along the species’ migration flyway, including Portugal, Spain, France, Belgium, Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, Morocco, Senegal and Mauritania. Head-started godwits are also breeding in the UK, pairing with ‘wild-reared’ adults as well as with other head-started birds.
A male black-tailed godwit was spotted in September in the Algarve, Portugal – ringed as a chick at the Nene Washes in 2003. This godwit breeds at the Nene Washes every spring and was seen with its partner and chicks in May this year by a member of the team. Thanks to Dr José Tavares for reporting this sighting to Project Godwit.
Another one-year-old godwit head-started in 2019 has just been reported this week from Senegal, in Djoudj National Park near Debi. Female godwit ‘Rainbow’ was last spotted in Senegal in October 2019, therefore she may have stayed on the wintering grounds this whole time. This behaviour is common for juvenile godwits, whereby they often don’t return to the UK breeding grounds until the age of two years.
Project Godwit and all our colleagues working to protect godwits are indebted to all who go to the trouble of reporting colour ring sightings. These volunteer recorders are making a significant contribution to conservation science, helping us better understand the movements of these migratory waders all along the migration flyway.
Project Godwit is a five-year partnership project between the RSPB and the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust with major funding from the EU LIFE Nature Programme, HSBC 150th Anniversary Fund, Natural England, the National Lottery Heritage Fund through the Back from the Brink Programme, Leica and the Montague-Panton Animal Welfare Trust.
Conservationists and keen cyclists Jen and Mark Smart may have hung up their cycling helmets, emptied the panniers and given their leg muscles a well-deserved rest after they finished their Funds for Waders cycling fundraiser last week, but there’s still plenty to say about the black-tailed godwits that were behind this challenge.
Readers of the previous blog from Project Godwit will recall that Jen and Mark wanted to visit all 11 nature reserves in England where head-started black-tailed godwits reared and released by Project Godwit have been spotted before migrating to Africa. The dynamic duo took on this endurance challenge of cycling 600 miles in 8 days to raise funds for Project Godwit and the International Wader Study Group (which gives out small grants each year to support wader projects around the world).
Nature reserve: WWT Steart Marshes, Somerset
Head-started godwit spotted here: Nelson
Jen and Mark kicked off their adventure departing from WWT Steart Marshes in Somerset – where head-started godwit Nelson was once spotted. This male godwit visited Steart Marshes in July 2017. He was one of the first head-started birds to be released as a chick at WWT Welney in June 2017 – therefore it was quite a surprise to the team at Project Godwit to discover this youngster on the other side of the country, at just one month old! Nelson spent the breeding season this year on the Ouse Washes, after pairing with Lady, another godwit head-started in 2017. The pair have met up each spring for the last three years.
Nature reserve: Titchfield Haven National Nature Reserve, Hampshire.
Head-started godwit spotted here: Morgan
The second day of the challenge took Jen and Mark to Titchfield Haven National Nature Reserve in Hampshire. The godwit to have been spotted here is Morgan, seen in July 2018 and again two years later recently in July. Morgan is a male godwit who was head-started and released at WWT Welney in June 2018. Since then he has been regularly spotted each spring at RSPB Ouse Washes in Cambridgeshire.
No ‘godwit stops’ to a reserve where godwits have been spotted today – but with dreadful stormy weather over 72 very hilly and soggy miles, plus a puncture, Jen and Mark had enough to contend with. This wasn’t enough, however, to deter Jen and Mark from doing a radio interview over the phone for BBC Radio Somerset whilst sheltering under an underpass nearly Crawley. Who ever said conservation wasn’t glamourous?
Nature reserve: Kent WT Oare Marshes
Head-started godwit spotted here: Hope
By Day 4 Jen and Mark were at the halfway point of their cycling fundraising challenge and visited the Kent Wildlife Trust nature reserve Oare Marshes. The head-started godwit spotted at this site is Hope – head-started and released at WWT Welney in 2019. A mere two months later Hope turned up at Oare Marshes in Kent in August 2019. Hope hasn’t been reported to Project Godwit since last year (and therefore doesn’t have her own profile page yet), but as most young black-tailed godwits don’t usually return from migration to the UK to breed until the age of two years, it’s not unusual to have not received any recent sightings of this godwit. Fingers crossed Hope will be back at the project sites in the Fens next year.
Nature reserve: RSPB Old Hall Marshes, Essex
Next along the route was RSPB Old Hall Marshes nature reserve in Essex. It was two-for-the-price-of-one for this godwit stop, as siblings Lady and Manea have both been seen here at Old Hall Marshes, spotted together in July 2017.
Both Manea (male) and Lady (a female, unsurprisingly) were both head-started as chicks in June 2017 at WWT Welney. Lady spent the breeding season this year at the Ouse Washes (with Nelson), moving between WWT Welney and the RSPB Pilot Project site. The last reported sighting of Manea was in April 2019 at WWT Welney.
Nature reserve: Suffolk WT Trimley Marshes
Head-started godwits spotted here: Fenn & Tipps
It was a two-stop day for Jen and Mark and a hat-trick for ‘Godwit of the Day’. First stop was at the Suffolk Wildlife Trust nature reserve Trimley Marshes, where head-started godwits Fenn and Tipps have both been seen. Fenn was head-started at WWT Welney in June 2019 and spotted a month later here in July, while Tipps was head-started in June 2017 and seen in July 2017.
Nature reserve: RSPB Boyton Marshes, Suffolk
Head-started godwit spotted here: Chiney
Next stop along the 600-mile route was RSPB Boyton Marshes nature reserve in Suffolk – where Chiney was seen during July and August 2019. Chiney is a 2019 head-started godwit who hasn’t been reported back at the project sites in the Fens of East Anglia as yet.
Nature reserve: Norfolk WT Cley Marshes
The penultimate day for Jen and Mark and another challenging one. Firstly, major mechanical failure struck with Jen’s bike – meaning the rest of the day had to be ridden with a single speed conversion, then Jen and Mark were buffeted along the North Norfolk coast by 45 mph winds!
First stop was Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s Cley Marshes where many head-started godwits have been spotted since Project Godwit launched in 2017: Swampy, Anouk, Benwick and Chopstick.
Nature reserve: RSPB Titchwell, Norfolk
Next stop was RSPB Titchwell nature reserve, where head-started godwits Benwick, Mo, Wedge, Gold, Chopstick, Chip and Rosti have all been spotted. Many head-started godwits have spent time at these sites in North Norfolk in the autumn, feeding up before migration. Some stay for weeks before journeying south to West Africa, Spain and Portugal, demonstrating the importance of these coastal sites for migratory waders.
We are grateful to all the volunteers around the UK who report sightings to Project Godwit.
Nature reserve: WWT Welney, Cambridgeshire
Head-started godwits spotted here: All 112 reared and released to date
Another puncture to fix before departing for the final day of Jen and Mark’s Funds for Waders cycling fundraising challenge. Day 8 brought them back to the Fens, visiting the three project sites of Project Godwit where the lives of all the head-started birds begin. WWT Welney is where all the head-starting happens: godwit eggs are incubated and chicks are reared in specialised pens before release at fledging age, to get them through their most vulnerable time of life.
Nature reserve: RSPB Ouse Washes, Cambridgeshire
Head-started godwits spotted here: Too many to mention!
Next along the route is RSPB Ouse Washes nature reserve, where this year the head-started godwits really boosted the breeding population. There were no pairs breeding here in 2017 – but this year there were 6 pairs. Head-started female Earith, who features on the back of the Project Godwit cycling jersey, nests at this site and in three years has fledged six chicks.
3rd and Final Stop
Nature reserve: RSPB Nene Washes, Cambridgeshire
Head-started godwits spotted here: Too many to mention!
RSPB Nene Washes nature reserve is a befitting end point for Jen and Mark to cross the finish line, as this is where the eggs are sourced each breeding season. Collecting the eggs early in the season encourages the adult breeding pair to lay another clutch. 112 godwits have been head-started and released since the first year of the project in 2017, to boost the number of black-tailed godwits breeding in the UK.
600 miles cycled in 8 days, visiting 11 nature reserves and over £6000 raised so far for wader conservation! To all who have donated, thank you so much from all the team at Project Godwit.
There’s still time to donate to the Funds for Waders cycling fundraiser!
Thank you for your support.
Needless to say, lots of plans and dreams this year have been scuppered by the coronavirus pandemic. Conservationists and RSPB staff members Dr Jen Smart and husband Mark Smart had planned to cycle from the UK to the annual conference of the International Wader Study Group (IWSG), which was to be held in Germany this year. As keen cyclists and wader conservationists, their aim was to promote responsible travel while raising funds for wader conservation. For obvious reasons, the conference will now be an online event this year – so in light of a pandemic Jen and Mark innovatively adapted their plans.
Jen and Mark will instead remain in the UK and cycle 600 miles in eight days from Somerset to Cambridgeshire between 23rd-30th August, following a route that links 11 nature reserves which have been visited by black-tailed godwit chicks raised and released by Project Godwit. The intrepid duo will be raising money for Project Godwit and for IWSG, which gives out small grants each year to support wader projects around the world.
This Sunday 23rd is Day 1 of Jen and Mark’s fundraising challenge and they begin their adventure departing from WWT Steart Marshes in Somerset. Day 8 will end at the three project sites of Project Godwit: WWT Welney, RSPB Ouse Washes and RSPB Nene Washes in the Cambridgeshire Fens.
WWT Welney is where all the head-starting happens, thanks to WWT’s highly skilled and experienced aviculturalists: godwit eggs are incubated and chicks are reared in specialised pens before release at fledging age, to get them through their most vulnerable time of life. 112 godwits have been head-started and released since the first year of the project in 2017, to boost the number of black-tailed godwits breeding in the UK. RSPB Nene Washes is a befitting end point for Jen and Mark to cross the finish line, as this is where the eggs are sourced each breeding season. Collecting the eggs early in the season encourages the adult breeding pair to lay another clutch, thereby preventing any net loss to the source population.
Itinerary of ‘Godwit Stops’
Sun 23rd – WWT Steart Marshes, Somerset
Mon 24th – Titchfield Haven NNR, Hampshire
Wed 26th – Kent WT Oare Marshes
Thurs 27th – RSPB Old Hall Marshes, Essex
Fri 28th – Suffolk WT Trimley Marshes & RSPB Boyton Marshes
Sat 29th – Norfolk WT Cley Marshes & RSPB Titchwell
Sun 30th – WWT Welney, RSPB Ouse Washes & RSPB Nene Washes, Cambridgeshire
We will be following Jen and Mark along the route and reporting their progress via the Project Godwit social media channels. We’ll also be detailing in the next blog (and on social media) which head-started godwits have been spotted at these sites in recent years, before they migrated to West Africa and Europe for the winter.
Coastal and wetland sites provide crucial fuelling areas for migratory waders before they depart on their long journey. As well as raising funds for wader conservation and highlighting the plight of godwits as a Near Threatened species (with fewer than 50 breeding pairs in the UK), Jen and Mark also want to shine a spotlight on the importance of having a network of well managed coastal and wetland sites in the UK, to enable birds like godwits to survive migration.
Jen and Mark also want to raise awareness of the challenges faced by godwits and other waders beyond the UK at key migration sites – such as the Tagus Estuary in Portugal, where 80,000 godwits gather in spring and where an airport development has been proposed (see Graham Appleton’s Wader Tales blog)
If you can spare a donation to sponsor Jen and Mark on their fundraising challenge and support Project Godwit, please visit the ‘Funds for Waders’ JustGiving page
Although experienced cyclists who have been training for some time for this event, Jen and Mark have never attempted a long-distance multi-day ride before – but are looking forward to the challenge! This will be a socially-distanced event, so sadly there won’t be crowds of supporters gathering along the way. There will, however, be plenty of support and good wishes sent from afar to spur them on when the muscles in their perpetually peddling legs begin to ache. Here’s hoping Storm Ellen has also passed over before Sunday.
Go Jen and Mark!
While the black-tailed godwit breeding season has (sadly) come to an end, some birds may venture over to coastal wetlands around the UK before migrating south to wetland sites in Spain, Portugal and West Africa for the ‘non-breeding season’ in autumn and winter.
The team at Project Godwit is always eager to receive sightings of project birds, as it really helps our conservation efforts. Project Godwit has a unique colour ringing scheme, whereby all birds are ringed with a lime colour ring on the right leg with the black letter ‘E’ stamped on the ring. Colour ringing helps us better understand the movements of these migratory birds and the incredible journeys they undertake. Reporting a sighting can be done through the Project Godwit reporting page.
After no sightings for almost two years, Caramel was spotted at RSPB Ouse Washes in June. The last time this two-year-old head-started female was seen was in autumn 2018 in Portes-en-Ré, west France! This is the first record of this godwit back in the Fens of East Anglia since being head-started at WWT Welney and released as a chick in June 2018.
This head-started godwit has been getting around a lot lately. Male godwit Morgan has been spotted at Pagham Harbour in Sussex, Titchfield Haven National Nature Reserve in Hampshire and RSPB Ouse Washes in Cambridgeshire in July – all within a fortnight!
These records are thanks to members of the public reporting sightings of Morgan’s colour rings to Project Godwit.
Some of Project Godwit’s head-started adults to have successfully bred this year include female Anouk and male Delph (both head-started in 2017) fledging one chick. Head-started female Lil (another 2017 bird) paired with a wild-reared male and fledged two chicks. These pairs nested on the Ouse Washes at WWT Welney (as opposed to Lady Fen, Welney), making this the first year godwit chicks have fledged from this area of the reserve since 2006.
Other head-started godwits to have fledged chicks this year include female Earith (also head-started in 2017), who fledged three chicks at the RSPB Pilot Project site, adjacent to the Ouse Washes, having paired with a wild-reared male again. Most godwits begin breeding around the age of two and although some have been known to breed successfully at that age and even younger, more experienced adults tend to have greater breeding success.
The absence of flooding on the Ouse Washes in the spring was conducive for our breeding godwits, however predation of eggs and chicks is still a problem for these vulnerable ground-nesting birds. Furthermore, it is essential the UK has more wetland habitat for black-tailed godwits which is well managed for wildlife and better joined up. Creating and managing ideal wet grassland habitat for godwits is a key element to Project Godwit and is paramount in securing the future of these special migrant waders in the UK.
As with so many conservation projects to have been impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, many Project Godwit activities could not take place as planned this year. This includes the head-starting and release of godwit chicks – meaning there will be no ‘Class of 2020’. Due to the Government restrictions on movement during the lockdown, the team were also unable to conduct much monitoring of the godwits this season, therefore we do not know how many young birds as two-year-olds may have returned from their first migration and joined the Fens population of black-tailed godwits this year.
Needless to say it’s been a challenging year for the team, however we look forward to next year and hope for good health, better prospects and that normal programming will resume soon so we can continue making gains for the conservation of black-tailed godwits.