Storms, punctures, a broken bike – all in the name of fundraising

Conservationists and keen cyclists Jen and Mark Smart may have hung up their cycling helmets, emptied the panniers and given their leg muscles a well-deserved rest after they finished their Funds for Waders cycling fundraiser last week, but there’s still plenty to say about the black-tailed godwits that were behind this challenge.

Readers of the previous blog from Project Godwit will recall that Jen and Mark wanted to visit all 11 nature reserves in England where head-started black-tailed godwits reared and released by Project Godwit have been spotted before migrating to Africa. The dynamic duo took on this endurance challenge of cycling 600 miles in 8 days to raise funds for Project Godwit and the International Wader Study Group (which gives out small grants each year to support wader projects around the world).

Jen & Mark Smart – about to embark on the ‘Funds for Waders’ cycling challenge.
The route covered 600 miles and visited 11 nature reserves.

DAY 1

Nature reserve: WWT Steart Marshes, Somerset

Head-started godwit spotted here: Nelson

Jen and Mark kicked off their adventure departing from WWT Steart Marshes in Somerset – where head-started godwit Nelson was once spotted. This male godwit visited Steart Marshes in July 2017. He was one of the first head-started birds to be released as a chick at WWT Welney in June 2017 – therefore it was quite a surprise to the team at Project Godwit to discover this youngster on the other side of the country, at just one month old! Nelson spent the breeding season this year on the Ouse Washes, after pairing with Lady, another godwit head-started in 2017. The pair have met up each spring for the last three years.

DAY 2

Nature reserve: Titchfield Haven National Nature Reserve, Hampshire.

Head-started godwit spotted here: Morgan

The second day of the challenge took Jen and Mark to Titchfield Haven National Nature Reserve in Hampshire. The godwit to have been spotted here is Morgan, seen in July 2018 and again two years later recently in July.  Morgan is a male godwit who was head-started and released at WWT Welney in June 2018. Since then he has been regularly spotted each spring at RSPB Ouse Washes in Cambridgeshire.

Titchfield Haven NNR, managed by Hampshire County Council.

DAY 3

No ‘godwit stops’ to a reserve where godwits have been spotted today – but with dreadful stormy weather over 72 very hilly and soggy miles, plus a puncture, Jen and Mark had enough to contend with. This wasn’t enough, however, to deter Jen and Mark from doing a radio interview over the phone for BBC Radio Somerset whilst sheltering under an underpass nearly Crawley. Who ever said conservation wasn’t glamourous?

DAY 4

Nature reserve: Kent WT Oare Marshes

Head-started godwit spotted here: Hope

By Day 4 Jen and Mark were at the halfway point of their cycling fundraising challenge and visited the Kent Wildlife Trust nature reserve Oare Marshes. The head-started godwit spotted at this site is Hope – head-started and released at WWT Welney in 2019. A mere two months later Hope turned up at Oare Marshes in Kent in August 2019. Hope hasn’t been reported to Project Godwit since last year (and therefore doesn’t have her own profile page yet), but as most young black-tailed godwits don’t usually return from migration to the UK to breed until the age of two years, it’s not unusual to have not received any recent sightings of this godwit. Fingers crossed Hope will be back at the project sites in the Fens next year.

Stormy skies at Kent Wildlife Trust’s Oare Marshes.

DAY 5

Nature reserve: RSPB Old Hall Marshes, Essex

Head-started godwits spotted here: Lady & Manea

Next along the route was RSPB Old Hall Marshes nature reserve in Essex. It was two-for-the-price-of-one for this godwit stop, as siblings Lady and Manea have both been seen here at Old Hall Marshes, spotted together in July 2017.

Both Manea (male) and Lady (a female, unsurprisingly) were both head-started as chicks in June 2017 at WWT Welney. Lady spent the breeding season this year at the Ouse Washes (with Nelson), moving between WWT Welney and the RSPB Pilot Project site. The last reported sighting of Manea was in April 2019 at WWT Welney.

Manea at RSPB Ouse Washes in May 2018 (Photo by Jonathan Taylor).

DAY 6

1st Stop

Nature reserve: Suffolk WT Trimley Marshes

Head-started godwits spotted here: Fenn & Tipps

It was a two-stop day for Jen and Mark and a hat-trick for ‘Godwit of the Day’. First stop was at the Suffolk Wildlife Trust nature reserve Trimley Marshes, where head-started godwits Fenn and Tipps have both been seen. Fenn was head-started at WWT Welney in June 2019 and spotted a month later here in July, while Tipps was head-started in June 2017 and seen in July 2017.

2nd Stop

Nature reserve: RSPB Boyton Marshes, Suffolk

Head-started godwit spotted here: Chiney

Next stop along the 600-mile route was RSPB Boyton Marshes nature reserve in Suffolk – where Chiney was seen during July and August 2019. Chiney is a 2019 head-started godwit who hasn’t been reported back at the project sites in the Fens of East Anglia as yet.

Chiney, head-started at WWT Welney in 2019.

DAY 7

1st Stop

Nature reserve: Norfolk WT Cley Marshes

Head-started godwits spotted here: Swampy, Anouk, Benwick & Chopstick.

The penultimate day for Jen and Mark and another challenging one. Firstly, major mechanical failure struck with Jen’s bike – meaning the rest of the day had to be ridden with a single speed conversion, then Jen and Mark were buffeted along the North Norfolk coast by 45 mph winds!

As if cycling 600 miles in 8 days in storms wasn’t challenging enough.

First stop was Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s Cley Marshes where many head-started godwits have been spotted since Project Godwit launched in 2017: Swampy, Anouk, Benwick and Chopstick.

2nd Stop

Nature reserve: RSPB Titchwell, Norfolk

Head-started godwits spotted here: Benwick, Mo, Wedge, Gold, Chopstick, Chip & Rosti

Next stop was RSPB Titchwell nature reserve, where head-started godwits Benwick, Mo, Wedge, Gold, Chopstick, Chip and Rosti have all been spotted. Many head-started godwits have spent time at these sites in North Norfolk in the autumn, feeding up before migration. Some stay for weeks before journeying south to West Africa, Spain and Portugal, demonstrating the importance of these coastal sites for migratory waders.

We are grateful to all the volunteers around the UK who report sightings to Project Godwit.

Swampy, head-started at WWT Welney in 2019.

DAY 8

1st Stop

Nature reserve: WWT Welney, Cambridgeshire

Head-started godwits spotted here: All 112 reared and released to date

Another puncture to fix before departing for the final day of Jen and Mark’s Funds for Waders cycling fundraising challenge. Day 8 brought them back to the Fens, visiting the three project sites of Project Godwit where the lives of all the head-started birds begin. WWT Welney is where all the head-starting happens: godwit eggs are incubated and chicks are reared in specialised pens before release at fledging age, to get them through their most vulnerable time of life.

2nd Stop

Nature reserve: RSPB Ouse Washes, Cambridgeshire

Head-started godwits spotted here: Too many to mention!

Next along the route is RSPB Ouse Washes nature reserve, where this year the head-started godwits really boosted the breeding population. There were no pairs breeding here in 2017 – but this year there were 6 pairs. Head-started female Earith, who features on the back of the Project Godwit cycling jersey, nests at this site and in three years has fledged six chicks.

Jen and Mark at RSPB Ouse Washes, Cambridgeshire.
Head-started female Earith features on the back of the cycling jersey.

3rd and Final Stop

Nature reserve: RSPB Nene Washes, Cambridgeshire

Head-started godwits spotted here: Too many to mention!

RSPB Nene Washes nature reserve is a befitting end point for Jen and Mark to cross the finish line, as this is where the eggs are sourced each breeding season. Collecting the eggs early in the season encourages the adult breeding pair to lay another clutch. 112 godwits have been head-started and released since the first year of the project in 2017, to boost the number of black-tailed godwits breeding in the UK.

The finish line at RSPB Nene Washes, Cambridgeshire.

600 miles cycled in 8 days, visiting 11 nature reserves and over £6000 raised so far for wader conservation! To all who have donated, thank you so much from all the team at Project Godwit.

There’s still time to donate to the Funds for Waders cycling fundraiser!

justgiving.com/fundraising/fundsforwaders

Thank you for your support.

A small token of our thanks to Jen and Mark for all their sterling efforts for Project Godwit.

600 miles, 8 days, 11 nature reserves, 1 epic challenge!

Needless to say, lots of plans and dreams this year have been scuppered by the coronavirus pandemic. Conservationists and RSPB staff members Dr Jen Smart and husband Mark Smart had planned to cycle from the UK to the annual conference of the International Wader Study Group (IWSG), which was to be held in Germany this year. As keen cyclists and wader conservationists, their aim was to promote responsible travel while raising funds for wader conservation. For obvious reasons, the conference will now be an online event this year – so in light of a pandemic Jen and Mark innovatively adapted their plans.

Jen and Mark will instead remain in the UK and cycle 600 miles in eight days from Somerset to Cambridgeshire between 23rd-30th August, following a route that links 11 nature reserves which have been visited by black-tailed godwit chicks raised and released by Project Godwit. The intrepid duo will be raising money for Project Godwit and for IWSG, which gives out small grants each year to support wader projects around the world.

Jen & Mark Smart will cycle 600 miles in eight days for wader conservation.

This Sunday 23rd is Day 1 of Jen and Mark’s fundraising challenge and they begin their adventure departing from WWT Steart Marshes in Somerset. Day 8 will end at the three project sites of Project Godwit: WWT Welney, RSPB Ouse Washes and RSPB Nene Washes in the Cambridgeshire Fens.

WWT Welney is where all the head-starting happens, thanks to WWT’s highly skilled and experienced aviculturalists: godwit eggs are incubated and chicks are reared in specialised pens before release at fledging age, to get them through their most vulnerable time of life. 112 godwits have been head-started and released since the first year of the project in 2017, to boost the number of black-tailed godwits breeding in the UK. RSPB Nene Washes is a befitting end point for Jen and Mark to cross the finish line, as this is where the eggs are sourced each breeding season. Collecting the eggs early in the season encourages the adult breeding pair to lay another clutch, thereby preventing any net loss to the source population.

Jen & Mark’s route from Somerset to Cambridgeshire, via 11 nature reserves.

Itinerary of ‘Godwit Stops’ 

Sun 23rd – WWT Steart Marshes, Somerset
Mon 24th – Titchfield Haven NNR, Hampshire
Wed 26th – Kent WT Oare Marshes
Thurs 27th – RSPB Old Hall Marshes, Essex
Fri 28th – Suffolk WT Trimley Marshes & RSPB Boyton Marshes
Sat 29th – Norfolk WT Cley Marshes & RSPB Titchwell
Sun 30th – WWT Welney, RSPB Ouse Washes & RSPB Nene Washes, Cambridgeshire

We will be following Jen and Mark along the route and reporting their progress via the Project Godwit social media channels. We’ll also be detailing in the next blog (and on social media) which head-started godwits have been spotted at these sites in recent years, before they migrated to West Africa and Europe for the winter.

Coastal and wetland sites provide crucial fuelling areas for migratory waders before they depart on their long journey. As well as raising funds for wader conservation and highlighting the plight of godwits as a Near Threatened species (with fewer than 50 breeding pairs in the UK), Jen and Mark also want to shine a spotlight on the importance of having a network of well managed coastal and wetland sites in the UK, to enable birds like godwits to survive migration.

Jen and Mark also want to raise awareness of the challenges faced by godwits and other waders beyond the UK at key migration sites – such as the Tagus Estuary in Portugal, where 80,000 godwits gather in spring and where an airport development has been proposed (see Graham Appleton’s Wader Tales blog)

Jen and Mark in their godwit cycling jerseys – raising funds for Project Godwit and the International Wader Study Group.

If you can spare a donation to sponsor Jen and Mark on their fundraising challenge and support Project Godwit, please visit the ‘Funds for Waders’ JustGiving page

Panniers packed and ready to go – good luck Jen and Mark!

Although experienced cyclists who have been training for some time for this event, Jen and Mark have never attempted a long-distance multi-day ride before – but are looking forward to the challenge! This will be a socially-distanced event, so sadly there won’t be crowds of supporters gathering along the way. There will, however, be plenty of support and good wishes sent from afar to spur them on when the muscles in their perpetually peddling legs begin to ache. Here’s hoping Storm Ellen has also passed over before Sunday.

Go Jen and Mark!

justgiving.com/fundraising/fundsforwaders

 

A season of mixed fortunes…

While the black-tailed godwit breeding season has (sadly) come to an end, some birds may venture over to coastal wetlands around the UK before migrating south to wetland sites in Spain, Portugal and West Africa for the ‘non-breeding season’ in autumn and winter.

The team at Project Godwit is always eager to receive sightings of project birds, as it really helps our conservation efforts. Project Godwit has a unique colour ringing scheme, whereby all birds are ringed with a lime colour ring on the right leg with the black letter ‘E’ stamped on the ring. Colour ringing helps us better understand the movements of these migratory birds and the incredible journeys they undertake. Reporting a sighting can be done through the Project Godwit reporting page.

Project Godwit birds have a lime colour ring on the right leg with a black letter ‘E’.

After no sightings for almost two years, Caramel was spotted at RSPB Ouse Washes in June. The last time this two-year-old head-started female was seen was in autumn 2018 in Portes-en-Ré, west France! This is the first record of this godwit back in the Fens of East Anglia since being head-started at WWT Welney and released as a chick in June 2018.

Caramel, pictured as a chick in a rearing aviary at WWT Welney in June 2018.

This head-started godwit has been getting around a lot lately. Male godwit Morgan has been spotted at Pagham Harbour in Sussex, Titchfield Haven National Nature Reserve in Hampshire and RSPB Ouse Washes in Cambridgeshire in July – all within a fortnight!

These records are thanks to members of the public reporting sightings of Morgan’s colour rings to Project Godwit.

Morgan as a chick in a rearing aviary at WWT Welney, June 2018.

Some of Project Godwit’s head-started adults to have successfully bred this year include female Anouk and male Delph (both head-started in 2017) fledging one chick. Head-started female Lil (another 2017 bird) paired with a wild-reared male and fledged two chicks. These pairs nested on the Ouse Washes at WWT Welney (as opposed to Lady Fen, Welney), making this the first year godwit chicks have fledged from this area of the reserve since 2006.

Other head-started godwits to have fledged chicks this year include female Earith (also head-started in 2017), who fledged three chicks at the RSPB Pilot Project site, adjacent to the Ouse Washes, having paired with a wild-reared male again. Most godwits begin breeding around the age of two and although some have been known to breed successfully at that age and even younger, more experienced adults tend to have greater breeding success.

The absence of flooding on the Ouse Washes in the spring was conducive for our breeding godwits, however predation of eggs and chicks is still a problem for these vulnerable ground-nesting birds. Furthermore, it is essential the UK has more wetland habitat for black-tailed godwits which is well managed for wildlife and better joined up. Creating and managing ideal wet grassland habitat for godwits is a key element to Project Godwit and is paramount in securing the future of these special migrant waders in the UK.

Anouk at Wieringerwerf, Netherlands March 2019 (Credit: Otto de Vries).

As with so many conservation projects to have been impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, many Project Godwit activities could not take place as planned this year. This includes the head-starting and release of godwit chicks – meaning there will be no ‘Class of 2020’. Due to the Government restrictions on movement during the lockdown, the team were also unable to conduct much monitoring of the godwits this season, therefore we do not know how many young birds as two-year-olds may have returned from their first migration and joined the Fens population of black-tailed godwits this year.

Needless to say it’s been a challenging year for the team, however we look forward to next year and hope for good health, better prospects and that normal programming will resume soon so we can continue making gains for the conservation of black-tailed godwits.

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!

What does a godwit scientist do in lockdown?

Our latest blog post is by Mo Verhoeven, RSPB Senior Research Assistant for Project Godwit.

On January 14th this year, Jelle Loonstra and I handed in our joint PhD on “The behaviour and ecology of the Black-tailed Godwit”. The next day, I was on an airplane to Chile with the mission of outfitting Hudsonian Godwits with transmitters to record their 14.000+ km migration from Chile to the North American Arctic. I was coming from winter, which was clear from my pale skin and a permanently smoky smell imparted by my woodstove. But suddenly I was in Chile, wearing shorts and freed from my PhD for the first time in months. A good start to 2020!

Mo Verhoeven (taken by Rob Buiter).

A few weeks later (at which point I happened to be in the forests of Maine, wearing smoky snowpants), I received a job offer to work for the RSPB as a Senior Research Assistant on Project Godwit to monitor the godwits nesting at the Nene Washes. I imagined the tumbling Lapwing, the whirring Snipe and the nesting Godwits. It was hard to say no. On March 15th I arrived in the UK. It was sunny, the Washes were partly flooded and the first godwits had returned! The stage was set for a beautiful spring. And a beautiful spring it was, with flowers blooming, nests being built, and chicks to come…but on the 23rd a nation-wide lockdown was announced and all fieldwork was cancelled! What to do?

Project Godwit had already collected data on breeding godwits at the Nene Washes in 2015-2019, which meant I could start analysing some of that. First, I analysed data from the eight geolocators that had been retrieved in previous years. Geolocators are data-loggers that continuously log the ambient light-level. Each geolocator is attached to a ring that is placed on a godwit’s leg. The godwit then carries this geolocator with it throughout the year – on migration to the non-breeding grounds and back to the Washes again in the spring. Researchers then do their best to capture that same bird again; if they’re successful, they remove the logger and use the stored light-level data to establish the moment of sunrise, midday and sunset throughout the year. When you know the length of each day, you can estimate the latitude (north/south), since this varies predictably with date across the world. Estimating longitude (east/west) comes next and this relies on a centuries-old technique. First you log the moment of midday at a specific location, usually Greenwich. From this you can calculate the shift in the time of midday relative to Greenwich, and therefore determine how much the godwit has moved to the west or east relative to Greenwich. This is why seafarers had chronometers and why precise chronometers were worth a lot of money.

Raw light-level data recorded on the geolocator carried by OB-OL(E)

Two of the geolocators I examined had logged especially interesting migrations (during my PhD, I analysed more than 300 migrations by Dutch godwits – these two were immediately distinguishable from the pack!). The first was from ‘Cornelia’, a head-started chick released at the Nene Washes in 2018 (also learn more here). Black-tailed godwit chicks are being head-started to boost the number of godwit chicks that survive to fledging age. Chicks are reared by our project partner the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT) at Welney Wetland Centre and released once fledged. The nearly fledged chicks are fitted with a unique combination of colour-rings and some are also fitted with a geolocator. Cornelia was released on June 27th 2018. She left the UK on the evening of August 13th and arrived in Africa on the night of August 15th, having probably flown non-stop.

The other was from a male godwit known as OB-OL(E). In 2018, this male left the UK on June 21st, went to the Balearic coast of mainland Spain, and stayed there for three months. That’s not very uncommon. But on October 2nd, he crossed the Sahara and went to the Inner-Niger Delta in Mali. This is very late in the season for such a flight – in fact, it’s the latest southward Sahara crossing on record for an adult godwit! For context: some godwits start migrating in the opposite direction, from west Africa back north, as early as the second week of September. Why do godwits behave so differently, and how do these individual differences come about? Interesting questions that challenge current knowledge!

Map of the migration route of godwit ‘OB-OL(E)’.

The other analysis I have worked on during lockdown is comparing adult, nest and chick survival rates between an earlier period of research at the Nene Washes, during which the godwit population at the Nene Washes increased (1999-2003) and a more contemporary period (2015-2016) in which the population has declined. This work shows that nest and chick survival, but not adult survival, are low in the contemporary period compared to the early period. The recent decline at the Nene Washes is therefore likely the result of lower reproductive success resulting in fewer birds recruiting at the Nene Washes. This study also indicated that nest survival was lowered because of an increase in nest predation. The reserve managers had already been thinking this was the case, and in 2017 started using special gates and electric fences to keep mammalian predators from depredating godwit nests. My next task will be to evaluate whether and how effective those efforts were. I’ll keep you posted!

 

Project Godwit is a partnership between RSPB and WWT with major funding from the EU LIFE Nature Programme, the HSBC 150th Anniversary Fund, Natural England, the National Lottery Heritage Fund through the Back from the Brink Programme, Leica and the Montague-Panton Animal Welfare Trust.

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.

 

 

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/