Notes from the field: Guest blog by Dr Jen Smart

The highs and lows of the Black-tailed godwit breeding season.

We are almost half way through the wader breeding season and what a rollercoaster it has been. We started on some highs, with the return of Mark Whiffin as our Senior Researcher on the ground who was joined by Helen Jones, new to Project Godwit but not to wader research. The reserve team at RSPB Nene Washes had been very busy getting the habitat ready and the predator fences erected. So with the research team in place and the reserve looking fantastic, the godwits started to return and just as the first ones were about to start laying eggs, a huge amount of rain combined with high tides and the whole reserve went under water. This was a massive low point for everyone.

Easter floodwaters at the Nene Washes, Mark Whiffin/RSPB

What would the godwits do? Would they stay put and wait for the flood to go down? Or perhaps they would go looking elsewhere for flood free grassland? Well a small number did go elsewhere which is great news for the project because one of our aims is to have godwits breeding on flood free grasslands around the Ouse Washes. The majority stayed put and some did wait for the water to go down. BUT 11 pairs couldn’t wait and they unfortunately chose to nest in two crop fields close to the Nene. This was unfortunate because the wet conditions meant very muddy eggs and with the godwits frequently responding to predators in those fields, we feared it was not going to end well. Fortunately for the godwits, the farmers who owned those fields were fantastic allowing us access to find and monitor the nests and then to collect the doomed eggs to be incubated, reared and released into the wild once fledged in the headstarting part of our project. We just hope that the muddy eggs are not adversely affected by the conditions they experienced before we collected them.

A very muddy black-tailed godwit nest found in a crop field – Ian Dillon/RSPB

Good news from our headstarted chicks from last year

Project Godwit is a 5-year project and this is our second year. Last year, we reared and released 26 young godwits at WWT Welney. Most godwits only breed in their second year so we really did not expect to see many of our headstarted birds back on the Washes until 2019 although we did have reports of five of them during February on sites in Portugal and France. We have been absolutely blown away by the return of six of our headstarted birds especially given some of them look like they are going to breed and two of them are paired with each other (Nelson & Lady; see table below). What’s even more amazing is that five of them are siblings from two nests. We wait with baited breath to see if any of them breed successfully and of course to see who else returns with them in 2019.

Locations
NameColour ringsSexClutchLate winterBreeding season
DelphYW-GL(E)M48.13PortugalWWT Welney
NelsonLL-GL(E)M15.1PortugalWWT Welney
LadyOY-GL(E)F48.13Portugal & FranceWWT Welney
EarithLG-GL(E)F41.2Not seenRSPB Ouse Washes
ManeaLN-GL(E)M48.13FranceRSPB Ouse Washes
RemiYG-GL(E)F15.1BelgiumRSPB Nene Washes

 

 

What’s happening right now?

The flood water has largely gone from the main godwit fields on the Nene Washes so the research team are busy finding and monitoring nests of all waders but particularly the godwits as they lay second clutches to replace early failures and the early collections of eggs for headstarting. The reserves team have spent many days clearing the debris from the predator fences that have been under water and slowly but surely the fences are becoming functional and will hopefully protect many of the new godwit nests from predation from large mammals. Our monitoring will tell us about the success of this conservation intervention.

Scores on the doors mid-May

  • 31 pairs nesting at the Nene Washes
  • 33 godwit nests and 56 nests of other wader being monitored at the Nene Washes
  • 6-8 pairs nesting on flood free grassland at the Ouse & Welney Washes
  • 53 eggs collected for headstarting
  • 6 headstarted chicks from 2017 back on the Washes

So now we wait. How many godwits will hatch and raise young in the wild? How many of the collected eggs will hatch in captivity? Will the collected eggs be affected by the muddy conditions they experienced early on? How many of last year’s headstarted birds will breed and if so how successful are they? I will blog again later in the breeding season and hopefully be able to provide an answer to all of these questions.

Dr Jen Smart is a Principal Conservation Scientist at the RSPB Centre for Conservation Science. She specialises in the ecology of breeding waders and mechanisms for reversing their declines. She is an expert at finding wader nests and her other field skills include bird ringing and radio-telemetry. She leads the research team monitoring the black-tailed godwits during the breeding season at the Nene Washes.

Principal Conservation Scientist, Dr Jen Smart, watching a black-tailed godwit nest – Ian Dillon/RSPB

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.

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.