Class of 2019 released into the wild

Our headstarted godwits have now been released into the wild at the project sites. This year we released three cohorts of godwits at two different sites, the RSPB Nene Washes and WWT Welney. A total of 48 chicks were released into the wild this year. The chicks are released when they are approximately 30 days old, which is the age at which godwit chicks would naturally fledge in the wild. You can see a video below from WWT Welney of the moment some of the birds were released. It was such a privilege to see the chicks take their first flights into their new wetland home. The hope is that they will return to the Ouse Washes to breed in future years. Twenty-one of the birds released in previous years have been seen at the project sites this season.

Keeping track

The new challenge for the team is to monitor the chicks now that they have been released. Several of the birds have been seen at WWT Welney in recent days, but we are still waiting for our first sightings of the birds from further afield. If you visit a wetland site in the coming days and weeks, please keep an eye out for these special birds. We rely heavily on colour ring sightings to help us monitor the godwits once they move away from the release site and we’re very grateful to those birdwatchers who send in their colour ring sightings. In previous years we have received sightings from Norfolk, Essex, Somerset and Hampshire – all valuable information which helps us to build a picture of where the birds are migrating. If you see a black-tailed godwit with a lime E colour ring, please tell us about it here. You can also check out our sightings map here.

Special names for special birds

Black-tailed godwit inside the rearing aviary.
Black-tailed godwit inside the rearing aviary.

This year fifteen of the headstarted black-tailed godwits have been named to honour the Scottish soldiers who, as prisoners of war, worked in the Fens in the 17th century. The names have been chosen to represent the story of the soldiers in consultation with The Word Garden’s National Lottery Heritage Fund project: The Scottish Soldiers, the Ouse Washes; the Origins of Landscape Change in the Fens, (aka Origins).

Cristen, Cuthbert, Mitchell, Hewston, Hume, Worley and Chiney are the family names of soldiers listed in the Adventurers’ Minute Books. Place names are recognised with Doon, after Doon Hill in the Battle of Dunbar; Elvet, after Elvet Hill where some of the soldiers were laid to rest and Boston, after the US city which was the destination for soldiers deported on the ship Unity. Fictional characters from a story produced as part of the Origins project Tam and Coventina are included as are symbols of Scotland, Thistle and Heather.

Thank you to Jean Rees-Lyons, Artistic Director of The Word Garden, for helping us identify these names.

Godwits hatch at WWT Welney

Newly hatched godwit chicks at WWT Welney.
Newly hatched godwit chicks at WWT Welney.

We now have 48 chicks in the headstarting facilities at WWT Welney. The chicks started hatching towards the end of May and are doing well. The chicks spend the first week of their lives inside a specially adapted portacabin at WWT Welney. Once they are old enough they are then moved into rearing aviaries situated within the grassland at Welney. This outside space gives the chicks the opportunity to experience the sights and sounds of their new wetland environment, whilst still under the protective care of the aviculture team. Our oldest chicks have recently had their colour rings fitted. Each chick is given a unique combination of colour rings so that we can follow their progress after they have been released. A sample of birds are also fitted with a geolocator, a tiny lightweight tracking device which is being used to follow their migration route. In a few days’ time the chicks will be given a health check before being moved to the release aviary. Our aim is to release the chicks when they are approximately 30 days old, which is the age at which godwit chicks would naturally fledge in the wild.

Mixed fortunes for wild nesting godwits

Photos Guy Anderson
Photos Guy Anderson
Godwitchickringing#2 Guy Anderson RSPB

It has been a season of mixed fortunes for the godwits breeding at the project sites. Denver and Purl, both released in 2017 attempted to nest, but in an unexpected event their nest was disturbed by a goose and the pair subsequently abandoned the nest. These birds are still quite young for black-tailed godwits so they may still be learning the ropes. Anouk and Delph, another pair headstarted in 2017, successfully hatched their nest and we will be monitoring the pair closely to see if their chicks fledge. We have been monitoring the nests of black-tailed godwits at our project sites so that we can understand the cause if a nest fails. To date several nests have successfully hatched although we have lost some nests to predation and some nests to flooding. Because black-tailed godwits nest on the ground they can be particularly vulnerable. The team are now monitoring the godwit families so that we can identify how many chicks from the hatched nests go on to successfully fledge. Monitoring the godwit families in knee high vegetation is easier said than done, but the chicks are colour ringed so that we can identify them in the field – if we can see them!

Inspiring the next generation

We have been visiting schools close to the project sites to deliver tailored sessions about black-tailed godwits and their fenland habitats. We have been blown away by the enthusiasm shown by the children about their local environment and the special wildlife that it supports. We are delighted to welcome several new schools to our Godwit Guardian scheme including Millfield Primary School, Hillcrest Primary School, Townley School and Pre-school, Hilgay Riverside Academy and Ten Mile Bank Riverside Academy. Becoming a Godwit Guardian is a fun (and free) way that schools and community groups can get involved in Project Godwit by linking to one of our headstarted godwits whose progress you can follow. To find out more please visit our website here.

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Godwit breeding season well underway

Eggs safely collected Under a licence granted from Natural England, we have collected black-tailed godwit eggs from the Nene Washes for our headstarting programme. Eggs are collected early in the breeding season to allow the donor pairs to relay. The eggs are being cared for by the specialist team at WWT Welney. It’s intensive work looking after the eggs – they are checked every two hours to ensure that they are the correct temperature and humidity, something that comes naturally of course to the godwits. We will be keeping a close eye on their progress and hope that, all being well, our first chicks will hatch towards the end of May.
Eggs are carefully collected under licence from Natural England. Photo Bob Ellis WWT.
Headstarted birds nesting Several headstarted birds have returned to the project sites in recent weeks and have been keeping our research team busy with their antics. A total of eighteen headstarted birds have been recorded to date, including all nine of birds that returned to the project sites in 2018. We also have five birds that were released in 2018, who have returned in their first year. Last year Earith, a female released in 2017 returned and bred successfully at the RSPB Ouse Washes. Her daughter is now also back in the fens, and has paired up with Benwick, a male released in 2017. All our released birds are wearing a unique combination of colour rings so that we can monitor them. Most black-tailed godwits don’t breed until they are two year’s old, and early signs are that several of our headstarted birds released in 2017 may breed this year. We have three pairs of headstarted birds (where both bird from the pair were headstarted) and more pairs where one bird is wild and the second is headstarted. Lady and Nelson, Anouk and Delph, and Denver and Purl are all currently nesting at WWT Welney. Lil is paired with a wild male at WWT Welney, Earith is back at the RSPB Ouse Washes and Remi is at the Nene Washes with a wild male.
Earith’s daughter (pictured here soon after fledging) is now back at WWT Welney. Photo Jonathan Taylor RSPB
In the wild population Early estimates indicate that we will see a very welcome increase in the black-tailed godwit population this year, largely thanks to the number of headstarted birds that have recruited into the population. This is fantastic news, but we know it’s important that we improve breeding success in the wild if the gains from headstarting at to be consolidated long term. Unfortunately, we have lost a couple of early nests at our project sites as a result of predation and flooding. However, our first wild nest at Welney has successfully hatched and we hope that more will follow suit in the coming weeks. Visit us at Project Godwit This spring we’ll be hosting our first ever Godwit Festival at WWT Welney on 1-2 June. The weekend will be packed with talks, guided walks and family activities, celebrating all things godwit. Our Project Godwit team will be on hand all weekend and on Sunday, Back from the Brink poet Back Katherine McMahon, will be ‘poet in residence’ running a drop in session where you can try out your poetry skills – no experience is necessary! You can reserve your place at the Godwit Festival here. We’ll also be running our ever-popular Project Godwit Guided Tours at WWT Welney during May and June. This behind the scenes tour gives you the chance to find out all about these birds and you may get the chance to see our headstarted chicks for yourselves. Book your place here.
Black-tailed godwit chicks inside the rearing aviary. Photo WWT.
   

Headstarted birds return to the fens!

It’s been an exciting couple of weeks on Project Godwit as we welcome the first of our headstarted birds back to the project sites. We’re using headstarting to boost the population breeding at the Ouse Washes and fast-track the growth of this small population. Nine headstarted birds have been seen so far back in the fens this season. The birds have been keeping the team busy and we’ve been out surveying to find as many colour ringed birds as possible. Many of the birds that have returned are familiar to us as they were also seen in 2018, having been released at Welney in 2017. For most of the returning birds, this should be their first breeding season, so we’re looking forward to seeing what happens next.  In this blog we introduce you to some of the birds that have been seen in recent weeks.

Denver

Denver was the first headstarted bird to be spotted by the project team in 2019 on 22 March. He has been seen displaying over Lady Fen (the release site) and has been spending time with another headstarted bird, a female named Purl. Denver was one of nine released birds that returned to the project sites in 2018 and is from the same clutch as Remi and Nelson.

Anouk

Anouk was released in 2017 at WWT Welney. She was not seen at the project sites in 2018 so may have spent an entire year and a half in the wintering grounds of southern Europe and West Africa. Anouk was seen in the Netherlands on 27 March and just a week later was seen back at WWT Welney. Anouk is the sister of Benwick, another headstarted bird who has been seen back in the fens for this first time this year. Anouk has been spending a lot of time with Delph, another headstarted bird, so we will be keeping a close eye on them to see if they attempt to breed this year.

Anouk, photographed in March in the Netherlands by Otto de Vries

Remi

Remi is another female from our class of 2017 but, in contrast to our other headstarted birds, she has decided to set up home at the RSPB Nene Washes. Remi is a well-travelled godwit and was spotted near Doel in Belgium last spring before returning to the Nene Washes, so for a time we wondered if she might abscond and join the Belgian godwit population. Female black-tailed godwits tend to disperse further than the males, though most birds recruit close to the natal site. Remi was seen last week back at the Nene Washes as is paired with an un-ringed wild male.

We’re still waiting for the first of our class of 2018 to return to the project sites, however as these birds are youngsters, they may take their time coming back to the breeding sites (and some may not return at all this year). One of our 2018 released birds, called Hurricane, has been spending time at nature reserve near Valencia in Spain, and another bird, named Tom has been seen in Portugal. It’s always exciting when we receive sightings of the birds from the project, and we’d like to thank the birdwatchers out there for keeping a look out for these special birds.

Perhaps Tom or Hurricane will make it back to the fens in the coming weeks? We’ll keep you posted!

Godwits spotted in Portugal and Spain

Signs of spring are well underway at our project sites in the fens and it won’t be long before the first black-tailed godwits return to the Nene and Ouse Washes. It will be fascinating to see how many of our headstarted birds are amongst them. Please keep your eyes peeled for any colour ringed birds – you can report your sightings to us here.

Tom, pictured here in the rearing aviary last year has been spotted in Portugal.

The godwits that breed at the Nene and Ouse Washes spend the non-breeding season at wetland sites in Spain, Portugal and West Africa. We were thrilled in early February to receive a sighting of young godwit, fledged from the Nene Washes in 2018 but spotted in Coto Donâna, Spain. This was closely followed by a sighting of Tom, a headstarted bird released at WWT Welney in 2018, wintering in Porto Alto in Portugal. Tom’s egg was collected from muddy farmland and hatched at WWT Welney on 19 May last year. We may see these birds back this spring, but often godwits don’t return to the breeding grounds until they are two years old. We’ve been busy over the winter making sure that the project sites are in the right condition for when they do return.

Keeping godwits safe from predators

We’ve been monitoring black-tailed godwit nests and chicks for the last four years at the Nene Washes and we know that in those years predation has been the main cause of breeding failure. Through Project Godwit, we’re testing a range of measures to reduce the pressure of key predators on the black-tailed godwit population so that this fragile population can start to recover. One measure we’re trialling at the Nene Washes is exclusion fencing. We’ve installed a new barrier fence at the Nene Washes and will be monitoring its effectiveness. It will be interesting to measure the impact our fencing has on wader nest success in the coming months. If you’re visiting the site, please help us to keep the godwits safe by keeping the gate closed.

Become a Godwit Guardian

If you are part of a school or community group in Cambridgeshire, Norfolk or Lincolnshire then you could get involved in Project Godwit by becoming a Godwit Guardian. Becoming a Godwit Guardian is a fun, free way to get involved in Project Godwit. By linking you to one of the godwits, you will be able to follow your bird’s progress over the coming years, as they make a home in the Fens and head off each year on migration across Europe and Africa. Your group, school or class’s name will then be put up on our website and you will also be sent a Godwit Guardian certificate and a profile of your chosen bird. To find out more about becoming a Godwit Guardian you can visit our webpage here. To see a list of birds looking for Guardians click here.

Headstarted birds make their way south

Black-tailed godwit sightings are a bit like buses…

It’s always exciting when we receive news of one of “our” black-tailed godwits, even more so when we receive three sightings in one week!

Three of our headstarted birds have been seen this September and October in locations around the French coast. Ensuring that released birds are individually marked with colour rings allows us to monitor their progress. It’s great to learn that these birds are continuing to do well after their release. These birds are probably making their way south for the winter. Black-tailed godwits are migratory, and birds from the limosa subspecies spend the non-breeding season in wetland sites in Spain, Portugal and West Africa.

Pickles, sighted recently on the west coast of France. Photo Jean-Michel Pilorget

So who has been seen and where?

Pickles LN-L(E): Pickles is a male headstarted bird who’s egg was rescued from muddy farmland back in April this year. Pickles was released on 9 June at WWT Welney. He’s been spotted on two occasions at Porte-en-Re, on the west coast of France.

Caramel YG-WL(E): Caramel was released at the RSPB Nene Washes on 27 June this year alongside 14 other young godwits. She’s also been seen at Porte-en-Re, on the west coast of France.

Budly OfO-WL(E): Budly is a male who was released at WWT Welney on 19 June. He’s been seen on the north coast of France, close to Le Harve.

Three of our class of 2018 have been seen in France this Autumn.

Although godwits are known to use sites in France throughout the non-breeding season, we’ve received relatively few re-sightings of birds marked here in the UK, until now. We are using colour ring sightings to build up a more complete picture of where the birds breeding in the fens spend their time away from the breeding grounds. For example, one of our breeding females from the Nene Washes has been seen in Senegal for the last three winters in a row. When she was first re-sighted in 2016 this was the first time a bird breeding in the UK had been spotted in West Africa.

This breeding female from the Nene Washes spends the winter in Senegal.

Taking tracking further

Colour ring sightings are fantastic, but they still only provide us with details of where are bird has been at a particularly point in time. To build a more complete picture of the godwits’ movements, we’ve been fitting some of the birds with geolocators. Geolocators are tiny light-weight tracking devices, which can be fitted to a leg-ring or flag. Using geolocators will allow us to build a more complete picture not only of the locations these birds are using, but also the schedule of their migration. It’s early days for this work – one of the difficulties of using geolocators is that you have to recapture the bird in order to retrieve the tag – but in the future we hope we will be able to compare the migratory behaviour of our wild and headstarted birds.

RSPB Senior Research Assitant Mark Whiffin releases a bird after fitting a geolocator.

Thank you

None of this would be possible without the bird watchers and observers who spend their time looking for ringed birds. We’d like to thank everyone who has helped us keep an eye out for these special birds. If you think you have seen a godwit with a lime leg ring, stamped with the letter E, you can let us know about it here.