That Was the Year That Was

The intention with this end-of-year blog was to avoid referencing gloomy current affairs and provide some light distraction for both blogger and reader alike, by picking out some highlights for Project Godwit from 2020. Nevertheless, it’s not possible to talk about how the project has fared this year without at least referring to the pandemic – as the vast majority of the team’s activities were either postponed or cancelled altogether. What I can promise is that there is definitely no mention of Brexit here.

How was the project impacted? There was sadly no head-starting of godwit chicks this year at WWT Welney, very little monitoring of the birds took place, all planned events and activities were cancelled, some members of the team were furloughed and those who weren’t furloughed have been perpetually under house arrest. It would take some pretty hefty sugar-coating to make out there weren’t some low points for the team this year.

Despite all this, there has been plenty to celebrate. In 2020, a total of 49 breeding pairs of black-tailed godwits were observed at our three project sites in the East Anglian Fens – this is an increase from 45 pairs in 2019. Of these 49 pairs, 32 pairs bred at RSPB Nene Washes, 10 pairs at WWT Welney (on the Lady Fen complex and the Ouse Washes) and 7 pairs at the RSPB’s Pilot Project site (which is adjacent to RSPB Ouse Washes).

Nests were recorded on the Ouse Washes this year for the first time since 2013 and there has been a 460% increase in breeding pairs (from 3 to 17 pairs) at the Ouse Washes since the project began in 2017. This means the Ouse Washes now has more godwits than in the last 20 years. Godwits were also spotted displaying (to attract a mate) at a recently created new wet grassland site near the Ouse Washes in the spring; a promising sign this threatened wader may breed at other suitable sites in the area in future.

Although no chicks were head-started this year, it is still worth acknowledging that since the project began in 2017 112 head-started chicks have been released into the Fens. Of these birds, 32 head-started godwits returned in the spring – bearing in mind that most young godwits don’t return to the UK following their first migration until around the age of two. Amongst the 49 breeding pairs, one or two head-started birds made up 16 breeding pairs (that’s 33%). For head-started birds to be breeding for themselves as adults is fantastic for the project and really helps bolster this small, vulnerable population.

To date, head-started godwits have been reported from 10 different countries.

The godwit aficionados will be aware that Project Godwit birds have been spotted outside the UK on many occasions now, with some head-started chicks spotted as far away as Senegal and Morocco. Did you know, however, that head-started godwits have been recorded from ten different countries outside the UK? A total of 28 head-started birds have been recorded from 21 sites in 10 countries: Belgium, Netherlands, France, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Austria, Morocco, Senegal and Mauritania.

Who can forget the amazing travels of Cornelia and that hers was the first ever geolocator tag to be retrieved from a head-started black-tailed godwit in the UK. Unlike a GPS tag, a geolocator has to be physically retrieved from the bird in order for the data to be downloaded, requiring for the bird to be caught. Female godwit Cornelia was head-started as a chick at WWT Welney in June 2018 and her geolocator tag revealed she travelled on migration from RSPB Nene Washes in Cambridgeshire in August 2018 to the wetlands of south-east Mauritania in an incredible 48 hours! It is possible this may even have been a non-stop flight.

Cornelia as a chick in June 2018 at WWT Welney

Then there were the adventures of RSPB staff and intrepid couple Jen and Mark Smart, who cycled 600 miles in eight days to raise money for Project Godwit and the International Wader Study Group (which gives out small grants each year to support wader projects around the world). Jen and Mark visited 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. It was not plain sailing for Jen and Mark though, as their endurance challenge coincided with some of the worst weather the UK had experienced all year – including storms with 45mph winds. Multiple punctures and a broken bike chain were also thrown their way, but Jen and Mark’s resilience never wavered. They raised over £6000 for Project Godwit – thank you Jen and Mark!

Jen & Mark Smart at the finish line at RSPB Nene Washes, after cycling 600 miles in 8 days for wader conservation.

During the first national lockdown in the spring, the team asked the public to help us create a virtual godwit flock for an online art gallery here on the Project Godwit website. People of all ages enthusiastically answered our call and sent in an array of wonderful images of paintings, drawings, sculptures and models of black-tailed godwits. This has been a wonderful distraction for the team this year – and we sincerely hope for the artists involved too. Here’s just a handful of our favourite installations as we sign off for the year. Thank you so much to everyone who contributed. Do check out the rest of the gallery for yourself – and it’s not too late to submit artwork.

By Rosie Drew on Facebook
By Chris Jones on Facebook
By @Single_Source on Twitter
Mighty godwit by Ray Mathias, WWT Welney volunteer.
By Lorraine Auton

Thank you for supporting Project Godwit this year. We have some staff changes in the team in the new year, but will be in touch again very soon with the latest news.

Best Wishes for the new year from all the team at Project Godwit.

 

 

Much to write home about…

The days are getting shorter and colder, the four UK countries have been in and out of lockdowns and tiered restrictions like the hokey cokey, and summer seems like a distant memory. November can feel like a dreary time of year at the best of times, so the team at Project Godwit have found it a real boost recently to receive reports of black-tailed godwits from the UK breeding population beyond the shores of Blighty. News of godwits which were head-started by Project Godwit or ‘wild-reared’ birds which were ringed in the Fens many years ago (before Project Godwit had even been dreamt up) helps us understand the movements of these vulnerable waders on migration, the challenges they face and how we can better protect them.

Postcards from Portugal

A black-tailed godwit once ringed at RSPB Nene Washes nature reserve in Cambridgeshire has been reported to Project Godwit from Portugal. Its rings reveal it to be an incredible 19 years old! Ringed as a chick in 2001, this female godwit was spotted at the Tagus estuary, Portugal on 3 October by Daniel Raposo. The oldest known black-tailed godwit on record is currently 23.6 years.

This is yet another godwit from the UK breeding population reported to have been using the Tagus estuary for many years – where the building of an international airport is proposed. The Tagus estuary near Lisbon is a crucially important area for 300,000 waterfowl including 80,000 black-tailed godwits, to stop here on migration to rest and feed on the ricefields and mudflats. This godwit was recorded in what would be a part of the airport with the highest levels of noise pollution and disruption if it goes ahead. To learn more about the threats this airport development poses, see our previous blog here.

19-year-old black-tailed godwit at the Tagus estuary, Portugal (Photo: Daniel Raposo).

There’s been another sighting of a 2019 head-started black-tailed godwit from outside the UK – Juno was spotted in Zambujal, near Sesimbra, Portugal by Pablo Macías and Victor Pizarro on 11 October. This female godwit was head-started as a chick at WWT Welney Wetland Centre and released at RSPB Nene Washes in June 2019 (pictured below as a chick).

This is the second sighting of this one-year-old this year; she was also seen near Seville, Spain back in February. Juno wasn’t spotted back at the breeding grounds in East Anglia this spring – but as young godwits often don’t return from their first migration until the age of two, this is common behaviour. Here’s hoping Juno returns to the Fens next spring.

Juno as a head-started chick at WWT Welney (Photo: WWT)

Another black-tailed godwit from the UK breeding population was also reported from Portugal in October – this time from Tavira in the Algarve on 24 October by Ray Tipper. This ‘wild-reared’ male godwit is 17 years old, revealed by his rings which show he was ringed as a chick in 2003 at RSPB Nene Washes. This male breeds at the Nene Washes every spring and was spotted again this year.

Over the years there have been many sightings of this godwit in Portugal in autumn and late winter, making the team at Project Godwit wonder if he spends the winter here, rather than migrating all the way to West Africa.

Godwit known by his rings ‘BB-OL(E)’ in the Algarve, Portugal on 24 October (Photo: Ray Tipper).

Not terribly thrilling, but…

A new fence may not be the most exciting thing to read about, but then on-the-ground conservation isn’t glamorous. This new steel fence was recently installed in the ditches around an area of RSPB Nene Washes known as ‘March Farmers’. It’s for the benefit of black-tailed godwits breeding at the Nene Washes, the stronghold for the breeding population of this threatened species.

Anti-predator fence (and photo-bombing cow) at March Farmers area of RSPB Nene Washes reserve.

Eggs and chicks of this ground-nesting wading bird are vulnerable to predators such as foxes and badgers, so the purpose of this fence is to keep ground predators out and protect breeding godwits, giving them a helping hand. The team will be monitoring its efficacy in the spring and making any minor adjustments to its design if necessary. This permanent fencing barrier is part of a number of fencing solutions the team have been trialling since the project began in 2017. We’ve also been trialling temporary electric fencing around key godwit breeding areas at the Nene Washes.

The metal fence posts of this anti-predator fence will ensure longevity of the structure.

This major asset for RSPB Nene Washes and Project Godwit has been funded thanks to the National Lottery Heritage Fund via the Back from the Brink programme and the EU LIFE Nature programme.

Migration – guaranteed to impress

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.

L. L. limosa at the RSPB Ouse Washes (Photo: Jonathan Taylor).

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 muddy godwit – bearing the Project Godwit colour-marking scheme of a lime green ring on the right leg with a black ‘E’ (caked in mud here). (Photo: Hugo Areal)
Project Godwit colour rings when clean (Photo: RSPB).

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.

Sky as a chick in June 2019 at WWT Welney (Photo: WWT).

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.

To date, head-started godwits have been reported from 10 different countries.

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.

Rainbow at WWT Welney in June 2019, before release as a head-started chick (Photo: WWT).

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.