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.

 

 

Godwits are on the move

On this day in 2017, YO-OL(E), a breeding female black-tailed godwit from the Nene Washes, had recently arrived in West Africa, somewhere close to the Senegal and Guinea Bissau border. We know this because we were able to fit her with a geolocator at the Nene Washes, which was retrieved earlier this year, revealing her migration movements. Godwits are site faithful birds, so all being well she could be arriving in Senegal for the 2018 winter as I write this update.  Our headstarted birds are also now moving further afield from their release sites. As the weeks draw on we expect that we’ll get fewer sightings of the birds as they make their way to the wintering grounds. Our site teams are now focussing on ensuring that the Nene Washes and Ouse Washes are in tip-top condition for when the birds return next spring. We also have some time to reflect on the achievements of the season.

The timing and migration movements of a breeding female black-tailed godwit from the Nene Washes

Headstarting giving godwits a boost

With the breeding population in the fens now so small, every young godwit we can add to this population during the lifetime of the project is important. Early season flooding at the Nene Washes (see here) caused us some challenges in April when we had several pairs of godwits nesting in nearby farmland as the washes were underwater. Luckily, we were able to work with the farmer to monitor the birds and collect the eggs for headstarting. Many of the eggs were in quite poor condition due to mud, which can coat the pores of the egg and cause the developing chick problems. But thanks to the skill and hard work of our WWT aviculturists, most of the eggs did go on to hatch and we were able to release another 38 headstarted chicks at two different sites in the fens.

Chopstick, released in June at WWT Welney and pictured here in July at Cley (Nigel Rogers).

Breeding success in the wild

This summer black-tailed godwits bred successfully at the RSPB Ouse Washes for the first time since 2012, in habitat that has been expertly created with godwits in mind. We hope the birds have enjoyed their stay enough to return next season. The icing on the cake was Earith, one of nine 2017 headstarted birds returning to the fens, who bred successfully at the RSPB Ouse Washes and reared a chick of her own. This year, the headstarted birds were also joined by 18 wild chicks from the Nene and Ouse Washes, the highest number of chicks fledging in the meta-population since 2013. This was a particularly satisfying result considering all of the challenges caused by the early season flooding at the Nene Washes. The site team had to work hard to resurrect our electric fencing following the flood, but the hard work appears to have paid off. We’ve seen a positive effect of our fencing exclusion trials, with higher nest survival in areas where our electric fences have been deployed. The number of chicks surviving to fledge was also much higher in 2018 than in recent years.

Earith was headstarted in 2017 and bred successfully at the Ouse Washes in 2018 (Jonathan Taylor).

As the birds head to their wintering areas, we can look forward to next year and hopefully seeing many more of these birds back in the fens.

 

Class of 2018 spread their wings

It’s now been over a month since our youngest headstarted chicks were released into the wild, and our field teams have been busy monitoring their progress. This year, we released birds at two different sites in the fens, WWT Welney and the RSPB Nene Washes. This means that the monitoring teams have been kept even busier than usual, trying to keep up with who is where. A total of 38 chicks were released in 2018, 15 of them at the Nene Washes and 23 at Welney. We were very pleased to have been able to release so many chicks, particularly given the poor, muddy conditions that many of the eggs had been found in (see here https://projectgodwit.org.uk/2018/05/22/notes-from-the-field-guest-blog-by-dr-jen-smart/)

Senior Research Officer, Lynda Donaldson, out looking for godwits, Project Godwit/WWT.

In a similar pattern to 2017, most of the newly released birds were seen around the release site for the first two-three weeks, mingling with other wild black-tailed godwits on site. But it wasn’t long before some of the birds started venturing further afield.  Four of the released birds have headed north and joined the large flocks of godwits gathering on the north Norfolk coast. Chip, Rosti, Wedge and Chopstick have all been spotted by birdwatchers at RSPB Titchwell Nature Reserve. Meanwhile, Morgan has headed south and becomes the first of our released birds to be spotted in Hampshire, at Titchfield Nature Reserve. Perhaps he is feeding up before heading south for the winter?

Morgan, pictured here in the rearing aviary, has been spotted by birdwatchers in Hampshire, Project Godwit/WWT.

Success for last year’s headstarted birds

This year our headstarted birds were joined by a very special godwit fledgling from the wild. We now know that nine of the headstarted birds released in 2017 returned to the fens in 2018, which is fantastic news, particularly as most godwits don’t return to breed until they are two years old. But as a welcome surprise, one of these birds, a female named Earith, paired up with a wild bred male and successfully raised a chick of her own. To have evidence that our headstarted birds can breed in the wild is a great milestone for the project. Earith nested at the RSPB Ouse Washes, alongside another wild pair who also fledged three chicks. This is the first time that birds have attempted to breed at this site since 2012, and it’s excellent news that we now have godwits breeding at three different sites in the fens.

The first fledged juvenile from a headstarted bird, Jonathan Taylor/RSPB.

We’re very grateful to the birding community who have been helping us keep an eye on the birds by sending in their sightings of the godwits. The birds on our project can be distinguished by a lime E colour ring. If you see a bird wearing a lime E colour ring, we’d love to know about it! Sightings can be reported on our sightings page here https://projectgodwit.org.uk/get-involved/report-a-sighting/. We’ve experienced a few technological niggles with our sightings form (for which we apologise) but we hope that this has now been resolved.

Our research teams are busy analysing the data from our breeding season and a report on the success of the birds in the wild will be the subject of one of our next blogs. In the meantime, please do check out the latest wadertales blog by Graham Appleton, which has more on this story https://wadertales.wordpress.com/2018/08/03/head-starting-success/

 

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/

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.

Will Tiny Tracking Devices Reveal Godwit Migration Secrets?

Two tiny geolocator devices were fitted to black-tailed godwits at the Nene Washes today in a bid to find out more about the birds migration movements.

This is the first time that godwits breeding in the UK will have been tracked to their non-breeding grounds. This research will help us to identify key non-breeding sites for the godwits and also provide more information about the timing of the godwit’s migration.

Godwits undertake long and often complex migrations, but they generally return to the same site to breed each year. Black-tailed godwits of the limosa subspecies found breeding in Western Europe spend their winters in Portugal and Western Africa. Over the last two years, we have been marking individual birds from the washes using lightweight colour rings. These have already yielded some interesting sightings from the non-breeding ground, but we hope that we will find out even more by tracking a sample of the birds.

The geolocators – weighing 1g – are attached to colour rings which can then be carefully fitted to the bird’s leg. Geolocators record light levels – these can be used to determine latitude and longitude: essentially providing a location of the individual bird’s whereabouts at a snapshot in time.

We are hoping that we’ll be able to fit more birds with geolocators in the coming weeks. We’ll have to be patient to see the results though – as we won’t be able to retrieve the data until next year when the birds return to the washes to breed.