Waiting for Godwits

While many of the project team are either still furloughed or working from home under house arrest, it’s been more challenging for the project this season than anyone could have predicted. As with so many of our activities which sadly either had to be postponed or cancelled altogether, monitoring of godwits had to be scaled back to a bare minimum. Subsequently, the project had to rely on the site managers of WWT Welney, RSPB Nene Washes and RSPB Ouse Washes to monitor the godwits when they could, on top of their already very busy workloads.

29 head-started godwits are known to have returned to the Fens this breeding season and four spotted on the Continent, thanks to reports of sightings of colour rings. A question that many godwit aficionados out there may have is ‘How many head-started godwits from last year have returned this year?’ Young black-tailed godwits often don’t return to the UK from their first migration until the age of two – but some do venture back earlier.

Class of 2019

Tam

One of the 2019 head-started birds to have returned this year is Tam. This one-year-old male has been at the Ouse Washes since May this year, moving between WWT Welney and RSPB Ouse Washes nature reserve.

Tam was named in honour of the Scottish prisoners of war brought to the Fens of East Anglia in the 17th century. These soldiers built the New Bedford River and many of the drainage works that created the landscape of the Fens as we know it today. Jean Rees-Lyons, Artistic Director of The Word Garden helped name some of the head-started birds of 2019 as part of ‘the ‘Origins Project’, remembering the Scottish Soldiers.

Tam pictured here as a chick in a rearing aviary at WWT Welney in June 2019.

Omaha

Head-started female Omaha has been back at WWT Welney since May. She was named in honour of the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings. Omaha Beach, Normandy was one of the five designated beaches that were used during the D-Day landings on 6 June 1944 during the Second World War.

Omaha in a rearing aviary at WWT Welney in June 2019.

Barker

Barker was released as a chick at WWT Welney in June 2019. She returned to the Ouse Washes in May and has been spotted a number of times since then, in June.

Did you know ‘Barker’ is an old name for a godwit, along with blackwit, whelp, yarwhelp, shrieker and Jadreka snipe?!
Barker as a chick last June at WWT Welney.

Cloud

Although not in the UK, Cloud was spotted in the Netherlands near Westkapelle in May. She may return to the UK at the usual breeding age of two next year, or she may join the Dutch breeding population of black-tailed godwits and return to the Netherlands each spring.

Cloud in a rearing aviary at WWT Welney in June 2019.

What about head-started birds released in other years?

Strider

Strider was released as a chick at RSPB Nene Washes in June 2018. After spending much of the second half of 2019 in west France, Strider (sex unconfirmed) was spotted in Dellmensingen, south Germany in May. Six weeks later in mid-June, this two-year-old was spotted at RSPB Ouse Washes!

Strider at Dellmensingen, Germany, taken by Tobias Epple.

Due to the lockdown, it is unknown exactly how many pairs have bred at each project site this spring. Nonetheless, we are aware of some pairings. 2017 head-started godwits Anouk and Delph paired and bred at WWT Welney; two-year-old Morgan paired with a wild-reared female at the RSPB Pilot Project site (adjacent to the Ouse Washes); and three-year-old Lil bred at WWT Welney with a wild-reared male.

Earith

After pairing with a wild-reared male, 2017 head-started female Earith bred at the RSPB Pilot Project site this season. Of the four chicks which hatched, we believe three fledged.

Earith at the RSPB Pilot Project site, Ouse Washes. Taken by Jonathan Taylor.

Tom

Tom was spotted in May at WWT Welney. Before then, he was last spotted in March 2019 at the Giganta ricefields near the Tagus estuary in Portugal.

Tom in a rearing pen at WWT Welney, June 2018.
Hurricane

Another young godwit that was in the Tagus estuary in February is two-year-old Hurricane, now back at WWT Welney since May. Hurricane spent last spring near Valencia, Spain, therefore this is the first time he’s been back in the UK since being released as a chick at RSPB Nene Washes in June 2018.

Maris 

Maris was first spotted in the Netherlands in May 2019 in Aldwaldmersyl, then she returned to the Netherlands again – this time to Zuiderwoude in May this year. The fact this godwit is spending another spring here suggests she has joined the Dutch breeding population of black-tailed godwits.

Désirée

Meanwhile, after not being seen for almost two years, Maris’ brother Désirée was reported from IJzervallei, near Woumen in Belgium in May and appears to be breeding at a nature reserve there.

Désirée and Maris are part of the ‘Muddy Potato’ posse, so-called because they were amongst many eggs in the spring of 2018 that were so muddy they resembled potatoes. These eggs were rescued from arable farmland when the godwits’ main breeding sites at RSPB Nene Washes flooded that spring, forcing the adult breeding pairs to lay their eggs elsewhere. 

Desiree in Woumen, Belgium. Taken by Wim Debruyne.

Fascinatingly, Désirée and Maris’ brother Jersey has been spotted in Bavaria (May 2019), suggesting this brood seem to have a penchant for spending the breeding season outside the UK. Intriguing!

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.

Head-starting: Hands-on Conservation

In this latest blog we learn more about head-starting and hear from Senior Conservation Breeding Officer Nicky Hiscock.

Project Godwit has a whole host of fascinating people, with years of experience in the conservation field, working on it to restore the numbers of black-tailed godwits breeding in the fens. Project managers who have worked on many species reintroduction and conservation programmes oversee the project, from working out logistics, organising funding, and supporting all the staff involved. Nature reserve wardens from The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) and The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) are managing habitat to create the perfect home for godwits on the project sites. Research experts closely monitor the behaviour and numbers of the godwits and their potential predators. Volunteers diligently report sightings of godwits and photograph the project. Engagement staff and volunteers drum up support and interest from local communities, and a team of aviculturists – people who specialise in breeding and caring for captive birds – conduct the head-starting, the part of the project which captures the most amount of attention and intrigue from the public.

A headstarted black-tailed godwit named Earith. Photo by Jonathan Taylor.

Head-starting is a conservation technique for endangered species, in which young animals are raised artificially and then released into the wild. It is often done with birds but there are projects using head-starting with rare amphibians such as the pool frog in the UK and reptiles like fresh water turtle species in the USA.

Project Godwit collects wild black-tailed godwit eggs from the RSPB Nene Washes, where there are relatively good numbers of godwit nests but sadly a very low chick survival rate. They are then transported to WWT Welney Wetland Centre where they are raised in a specially built bio-secure breeding facility before being released onto the Ouse Washes and back at the Nene Washes. A team of highly experienced aviculturists from WWT Slimbridge Wetland Centre come to WWT Welney for three months to care for the captive godwits and prepare them for release. The project began in 2017 and 26 head-started godwits were released that year. The following year 36 godwits were released and in 2019 48 godwits were released.

A black-tailed godwit chick in the breeding facility at WWT Welney.

The process of transporting the eggs to WWT Welney is hair-raising. The team have to drive painfully slowly over the fenland roads (which are not known for their smoothness) in order for the eggs to reach their destination undamaged.

WWT have used head-starting before to save species of birds on the brink of extinction, including the spoon-billed sandpiper, the eurasian crane, and more recently the curlew.

Nicky Hiscock is the Senior Conservation Breeding Officer who coordinates the godwit head-starting at WWT Welney. She began working for WWT as a Seasonal Aviculturist working on the Great Crane Project, a project that successfully released 93 cranes over 5 years on the Somerset Levels having head-started them at Slimbridge.

Common crane chick reared at WWT Slimbridge using adult crane costumes.

Cranes are sociable birds that imprint on their parents and depend on them to show them how to feed for themselves and survive. This meant the aviculturists had to disguise their human forms when working with the crane chicks to ensure they imprinted on something that resembled a crane and not a person.

Fortunately godwits chicks are surprisingly independent and within a few hours of hatching they know what to do and how to look for food, so although it may be fun, there’s no need for the staff at Welney to disguise themselves as godwits.

Nicky also worked on WWT’s famous head-starting and breeding programme for the spoon-billed sandpiper, a tiny migratory wetland bird that in the year 2000 plummeted to fewer than 200 pairs worldwide. Using head-starting on the spoon-billed sandpiper breeding grounds in Russia, WWT staff managed to increase the number of successful fledgelings by 20%.

A spoon-billed sandpiper feeding.

Nicky and her colleagues are on the front line of bird conservation and are conducting a very hands-on form of conservation. When handling precious eggs and having potentially the future of an entire species in your care, the pressure can be high.

One of the difficulties I face is dealing with the doubts that ‘the eggs won’t hatch’ which begin to fill your mind, especially the longer the eggs are under your care. It is not until that first chick hatches that the doubts lift and you start to believe the majority of the eggs will go on to hatch. It wouldn’t take much to lose an incubator full of black-tailed eggs, for example, if there was a power cut which was not observed by the team, so it’s very easy to take the pessimistic view.’ – Nicky Hiscock.

And when the eggs finally do hatch, there are plenty of risks with rearing birds in captivity that the head-starting team have to factor in whilst caring for the birds.

For example, as the godwits are approaching the age at which they would fledge (approximately 30 days old) they begin to test out their flight muscles and practice flying. When in a rearing pen there is a risk of the birds flying into the enclosure boundary and injuring themselves, particularly if they get frightened. Therefore the head-starting team install soft cladding around the hard parts of the outdoor rearing and release pens to avoid this.

There is also a risk of predators being attracted to outdoor sites where birds are being kept. It would be disastrous if a fox or a weasel managed to get into the pens and so electric fences are installed around the pens to protect the godwits.

There are also potential health risks for the birds that the aviculturists have to manage. Sometimes when chicks have too much protein and calories in their diet it can lead to health problems such as split wing or angel wing, which is more commonly seen in geese, ducks and swans. This is a deformity of their flight feathers which would cause them considerable problems in the wild, so the aviculturists closely manage the food available to the chicks.

Nicky and the team work round the clock to look after the birds, and the nature of the job requires them to be multi-skilled. They don’t just need a deep knowledge and understanding of bird husbandry, they also have to build and maintain enclosures, keep meticulous records, source equipment, keep up with admin, follow strict biosecurity protocol, and occasionally find time to eat and sleep.

‘When the godwits are released I usually feel two major feelings:

Relief – that we have been able to put a flock of healthy godwits back in to the wild.

Worry – that we can no longer protect the birds from dangers such as predation.’ – Nicky Hiscock.

Nicky at the breeding facility late at night, caring for godwit chicks round the clock.

Head-starting is often used as a final push to save a species, as it is only really effective on species whose populations are incredibly low. For example, many ask if this is something that could be done for other wading birds in the UK such as lapwing, red-listed birds whose numbers have declined to a worrying level in recent years. But the answer would be no. It takes a lot of time, money, expertise and resources just to head-start 48 godwit chicks (our result in 2019). Over 3 years, the Project has released 112 godwits into the wild, doubling the UK’s population and bringing the breeding pair numbers on the Ouse Washes from 3 to 12, the best it has been for 20 years. The impact on a species with a small population is huge, but on a species such as lapwing, with the current UK breeding population at 140,000 pairs, our efforts wouldn’t scratch the surface.

‘The best moment for me on the job was hearing the news that Earith (a head-started female released at Welney in 2017) had nested and hatched her own chicks (at least three) at the Pilot Project Site on 19 June 2018. The team and I were sat on the sunny balcony at WWT Welney enjoying a celebratory lunch after releasing one of the 2018 cohorts of head-started birds when the news came through, including a gorgeous photo of Earith in flight, taken by Jonathan Taylor, the Site Manager for the Pilot Project site. This news, coupled with the successful release of birds just an hour or so earlier was just great. One of Earith’s chicks returned to the fens in 2019 and recently in 2020. Every subsequent sighting and shared photo of ‘Daughter of Earith’, has resulted in fond memories of this moment.’

A head started godwit in the wild. Photo by Chris O’Riordan.

It’s fair to say that the members of the head-starting team have a very niche job role. In 2019, four aviculturists came to Welney to do the head-starting, Nicky Hiscock, Tony Durkin, Harriet Clarke and Amelia Bennet-Margrave, whilst others stayed in Slimbridge to care for WWT’s conservation breeding collection which includes spoon-billed sandpipers, black-tailed godwits, Baer’s pochard, and curlew. Collectively the team have worked with hundreds of different species all over the world and listening to them speak of their experiences is a real treat for any bird enthusiast.

‘After studying a degree in Biology, I decided to pursue a career in nature conservation. I fell into bird conservation, initially by volunteering at WWT Slimbridge with the reserve team, but looking back, I wouldn’t change a thing.’ – Nicky Hiscock

By Jess Owen – Project Godwit Engagement Officer.