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

Welcome home! Headstarted godwits return to the fens

Well, what a wonderful week that was.

Yellow White Green Lime (E), named “Delph” by the Project Team becomes the first headstarted black-tailed godwit to return to the fens. Photo Louise Clewley/WWT.

In June last year, we released 26 juvenile black-tailed godwits at WWT Welney in the hope that they would return to the fens in future years. Last Friday, we got some very exciting news. One of the headstarted godwits was spotted, in front of the main observatory hide at WWT Welney, just metres from where he was released. This special godwit – colour ring combination YW-GL(E) – has been named “Delph” by the project team, after the river which runs behind the area where he was spotted. Delph was last seen previously in February on the Tagus Estuary in Portugal.

And then there were two! Another headstarted bird, “Nelson” is spotted by the team at WWT Welney.

Then, in quick succession, another two headstarted birds were spotted. “Nelson” was seen showing well at the Nelson-Lyle hide at WWT Welney, and “Manea” was spotted over at the RSPB Ouse Washes. We weren’t necessarily expecting any of the headstarted birds to return this summer so this is a wonderful and welcome surprise. Black-tailed godwits don’t usually breed until they’re two years old, so we may have to wait until next summer to see if any of the headstarted birds attempt to breed. But nonetheless, this is fantastic milestone for the Project Godwit team, and we’re delighted that these birds have made it safely back to the fens. Interestingly, one of our females, “Remi”, has been seen in Belgium. Females tend to disperse further than males so it will be very interesting to see if she stays in Belgium and attempts to breed.

More birds could return to the washes and surrounding areas over the coming days and weeks. All of the godwits released under the headstarting programme have a colour ring with the letter “E” stamped on it. If you think you might have seen a bird, please get in touch via our sightings page https://projectgodwit.org.uk/get-involved/report-a-sighting/

Headstarted godwits found safe and sound in Portugal

Last week we received the fantastic news that two of the young godwits released at WWT Welney last year have been spotted in Portugal. This is the first non-UK sighting we’ve received since the birds were released and marks an important milestone for the project. We’re delighted to hear that they have migrated safely, and it’s an especially happy moment for Nicky, Louise, Rosie and the rest of the WWT rearing team. The birds were spotted in large flocks alongside other godwits. This indicates that the birds are behaving as they should and the hope is that they will return to breed at Welney next spring, but because black-tailed godwits don’t usually breed until they are two years old we’re going to have to be patient before discovering if released birds will breed successfully in the fens.

Orange Yellow Green Lime (E) has been spotted in Portugal – pictured here at RSPB Old Hall Marshes in July (Jerry Lanfear)

 

Lime Lime Green Lime (E) was also resighted last week, pictured here in July at WWT Steart Marshes (Joe Cockram)

 

The birds were spotted by a team of Dutch ornithologists in the Tagus Estuary, near Lisbon. Lime Lime Green Lime (E), a male, was last spotted previously back in July at WWT Steart Marshes. Orange Yellow Green Lime (E), a female, was last seen at RSPB Old Hall Marshes in Essex. We hope that this will be the first of many sightings this year and are once again reaching out to the birding community to send us any sightings of the birds. It’s possible that, although the birds are unlikely to breed this year, they may return to the UK. Any sightings of the birds can be reported to us here https://projectgodwit.org.uk/get-involved/report-a-sighting/

As well as the headstarted godwits, we received several sightings last week from Portugal of birds from the fens breeding population. This included one female (pictured below) who was first ringed as a chick in 1999 – making her almost nineteen years old! We’re looking forward to seeing her back at the washes this spring. For the third winter in a row, we’ve also received a sighting of female Yellow Red Red Lime (E) in Senegal, West Africa.

A female black-tailed godwit resighted in the Tagus Estuary was ringed as a chick in 1999 at the Nene Washes (photo Kees de Jager)

 

Soon the black-tailed godwits that breed in the fens will be making their journeys back to the breeding grounds at the Nene and Ouse Washes. The teams at WWT Welney and RSPB Nene Washes have been working hard to get the habitat in tip-top condition for the birds’ return. Alongside headstarting, a key aim of Project Godwit is to improve productivity in the wild, creating more and safer areas for black-tailed godwits to raise their young. We usually expect the earliest birds to arrive the first week in March. Interestingly, many of the islandica godwits which spend the non-breeding season in the fens are yet to depart, so the two sub-species can be seen together. You can read more about this in Graham Appleton’s wadertales blog here https://wadertales.wordpress.com/2016/04/11/godwits-in-godwits-out-springtime-on-the-washes/

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

Where are they now?

It’s been a few weeks since you heard from us – the godwits have been keeping the team busy as we aim to keep track of their movements after release. Here’s an update on all the comings and goings from RSPB Senior Research Assistant, Mark Whiffin.

Now that the busy breeding season is drawing to close, my attention is turning to the important question – where are the colour-ringed godwits?

Time does have a habit of flying by at this time of year; it’s been five weeks since the 25 headstarted godwits were released at WWT Welney. It was amazing to see them leave their release aviary, settle on pools and begin to feed, as if they had always been there.

We really had no idea what the birds would do after release, would they stay around the washes or just depart up to the coast? We hoped that they would initially remain in the relative safety of the Welney area and were excited to see that they did remain close to home, splitting in to small parties and touring the pools on the washes and on the adjacent WWT Lady Fen wetland, with some of the more adventurous birds exploring further to the RSPB Ouse Washes reserve.

OG-GL(E) mixing with adults on the pools at Welney – image by Mark Whiffin.

In the first days and weeks following release, WWT staff kept a very close eye on these special birds, accounting for all of the birds, noting their associations and interactions with other waders as well as their reactions to potential danger. Having been raised on their own away from adults, we were delighted that the youngsters started to mix with adult birds, feeding alongside them and hopefully picking up a lot of the life-skills they will need to survive in the wild. Visitors to Welney and the Ouse Washes have helped enormously in the monitoring effort by providing many more pairs of eyes to help us keep track of where the birds were.

As time has marched on, some of the birds have taken their cues from the adults and started to depart the washes on the next leg of their journey. We owe a huge thanks to the many people who have reported sightings of these first adventurers. At the end of July we have a good idea of the extent to which the birds have dispersed. While there are still some birds on the washes, birds are being reported from further afield. The first to be spotted was WL-GL(E), she was found up on the Norfolk coast at Cley. She was followed shortly afterwards by LL-GL(E). He has amazed everyone; instead of flying north-east to the coast, he flew to the south-west and was spotted on the WWT Steart Marshes in Somerset! This is the first time a journey like this has been recorded for a UK-bred godwit.

LL-GL(E) resting up on the Steart Marshes, Somerset – image by Joe Cockram.

Further exciting sightings of headstarted birds have more recently come from Suffolk, with GG-GL(E) being seen at Trimley Marshes and both LN-GL(E) and OY-GL(E) being spotted at Old Hall Marshes in Essex and, in what is an even more remarkable twist to the tale, these two birds are actually siblings, I wonder if they know?

GG-GL(E) at Trimley Marshes, Suffolk – image by Paul Holmes

We are delighted that five birds have been seen while undertaking the first legs of journeys which will hopefully see some of them fly all the way to Africa and perhaps return to the washes next spring. We are grateful to everyone who has reported their sightings. With other birds still to leave Welney and the washes, please keep your eyes peeled for other black-tailed godwits with the distinctive green and lime E rings on their right legs. Perhaps we’ll get a record from Spain or Portugal in the next few weeks and a winter record from African would be even better. We’ll keep you posted.

Good luck godwits!

The first of our headstarted chicks are released into the wild.

Watching the black-tailed godwits fly by.

Yesterday marked a significant milestone for the Project Godwit team. After months of preparation and hard work, our headstarted godwit chicks were released into the wild at WWT Welney.

The chicks have all passed a health screening prior to release, and have spent the last few days flexing their flight muscles in the pre-release aviary at the release site. It’s hugely rewarding to see the chicks take their first steps into the wild, particularly for honorary godwit parents Nicky, Louise and Rosie, who have been working around the clock to provide for the chicks over the last few weeks at WWT Welney.

Our “class of 2017” have all been fitted with their own unique set of colour

The black-tailed godwits explore their new home (Bob Ellis – WWT).

rings so that they can be followed after their release. This year’s headstarted chicks have all received a green colour ring above a lime colour ring with the black letter “E”, on the right leg, above the knee. Two additional colour rings on the left leg above the knee, complete the combination. We’re appealing to bird watchers to help us keep track of the birds after their release. If you see a colour ringed black-tailed godwit, please let us know about it! You can report it to us on our sightings page here https://projectgodwit.org.uk/get-involved/report-a-sighting/

The hope is that the birds will join post-breeding flocks of wild black-tailed godwits,before starting their southerly migration to the wintering grounds

One of the class of 2017 (Bob Ellis – WWT).

in Spain, Portugal and West Africa. In two-year’s time, the expectation is that the released birds will return to the Ouse Washes to breed, boosting this fragile population, where we have been working to create safe, flood-free habitat for them.

You can read more about the godwit’s release, and the likely places the birds could be spotted next on the wadertales blog here: https://wadertales.wordpress.com/2017/06/13/special-black-tailed-godwits/

Godwit chicks are growing up fast

It’s been a busy few weeks for the Project Godwit team, but I’m very happy to be able to give you an update on our headstarted godwits.

We collected 32 black-tailed godwit eggs from the Nene Washes back in April, under a special licence granted by Natural England. We now have 26 black-tailed godwit chicks in the rearing facility at WWT Welney. This is a fantastic result for the aviculture team, who have been busy working around the clock to care for the chicks. The first few weeks of life can be tough for a young wader, so we’re giving the birds a helping hand during this crucial period. We hope that headstarting will allow us to boost the number of juveniles that fledge and therefore fast-track population growth at the Ouse Washes, where flood-free, wet grassland habitat has been created with godwits in mind.

These very special chicks spent their first week of their lives inside their early-stage rearing facility. They were then given a taste of life outside when they were moved to their mid-stage rearing enclosure at around nine days old. This aviary has been constructed within the wet grassland habitat at Welney, giving the chicks access to the sights and sounds of the fens as they grow. The chicks are already well able to feed themselves and have been observed feeding on wild invertebrates (worms are a particular favourite) just as they would do in the wild.

Meanwhile, back at the Nene Washes, many of the black-tailed godwit pairs from which eggs were collected have laid replacement nests. Based on the distribution of nests and the timing of laying, we think that all the pairs from which eggs were collected have laid again. We can be certain that at least five pairs have relayed as these pairs contain individually colour marked birds.

Last week Project Godwit staff fitted the headstarted chicks with their own colour rings. Each bird has received an individual colour ring combination, so that we can follow their progress after they have been released. This year’s headstarted chicks have received a green colour ring above the knee on the right leg, situated above another lime colour ring with the black letter “E” stamped on the ring. If you see a colour ringed black-tailed godwit, you can report it to us on our sightings page here https://projectgodwit.org.uk/get-involved/report-a-sighting/

The godwit chicks are growing up fast. The next step for them will be a veterinary health check. If all is well, the chicks will then be transferred to their release aviary, where they will stay under our care under they are ready to fly in a couple of weeks time. We’ll keep you updated on their progress.

Black-tailed godwit chick in early-stage rearing facility. Photo by Bob Ellis WWT
Inside the mid-stage rearing aviary
A black-tailed godwit chick is carefully fitted with colour rings by the project team

Godwits Being Given a Head Start

This year we will be trialling the rear and release of black-tailed godwits in an effort to boost population numbers, using a process known as “headstarting”.

Thirty-two black-tailed godwit eggs have been collected from nests at RSPB Nene Washes – under a licence granted by Natural England. The eggs have been safely transported to specialist facilities at WWT Welney, where they will be incubated until they are ready to hatch. WWT staff will then rear the birds in captivity, until they reach the point of fledging when they will be released to join the black-tailed godwits in the wild at Welney.

Photo by Bob Ellis.

Because black-tailed godwits often will lay replacement clutches when nests are lost, we hope that the godwits from which eggs were taken will also go on to lay and rear another brood successfully in the wild. This will give the godwits a temporary boost in productivity, crucial at a time when the UK population of godwits is teetering on the edge at around 60 pairs.

It will be a few weeks until the eggs are ready to hatch and we’ll keep you posted on their progress.

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.