The days are getting shorter and colder, the four UK countries have been in and out of lockdowns and tiered restrictions like the hokey cokey, and summer seems like a distant memory. November can feel like a dreary time of year at the best of times, so the team at Project Godwit have found it a real boost recently to receive reports of black-tailed godwits from the UK breeding population beyond the shores of Blighty. News of godwits which were head-started by Project Godwit or ‘wild-reared’ birds which were ringed in the Fens many years ago (before Project Godwit had even been dreamt up) helps us understand the movements of these vulnerable waders on migration, the challenges they face and how we can better protect them.
Postcards from Portugal
A black-tailed godwit once ringed at RSPB Nene Washes nature reserve in Cambridgeshire has been reported to Project Godwit from Portugal. Its rings reveal it to be an incredible 19 years old! Ringed as a chick in 2001, this female godwit was spotted at the Tagus estuary, Portugal on 3 October by Daniel Raposo. The oldest known black-tailed godwit on record is currently 23.6 years.
This is yet another godwit from the UK breeding population reported to have been using the Tagus estuary for many years – where the building of an international airport is proposed. The Tagus estuary near Lisbon is a crucially important area for 300,000 waterfowl including 80,000 black-tailed godwits, to stop here on migration to rest and feed on the ricefields and mudflats. This godwit was recorded in what would be a part of the airport with the highest levels of noise pollution and disruption if it goes ahead. To learn more about the threats this airport development poses, see our previous blog here.
There’s been another sighting of a 2019 head-started black-tailed godwit from outside the UK – Juno was spotted in Zambujal, near Sesimbra, Portugal by Pablo Macías and Victor Pizarro on 11 October. This female godwit was head-started as a chick at WWT Welney Wetland Centre and released at RSPB Nene Washes in June 2019 (pictured below as a chick).
This is the second sighting of this one-year-old this year; she was also seen near Seville, Spain back in February. Juno wasn’t spotted back at the breeding grounds in East Anglia this spring – but as young godwits often don’t return from their first migration until the age of two, this is common behaviour. Here’s hoping Juno returns to the Fens next spring.
Another black-tailed godwit from the UK breeding population was also reported from Portugal in October – this time from Tavira in the Algarve on 24 October by Ray Tipper. This ‘wild-reared’ male godwit is 17 years old, revealed by his rings which show he was ringed as a chick in 2003 at RSPB Nene Washes. This male breeds at the Nene Washes every spring and was spotted again this year.
Over the years there have been many sightings of this godwit in Portugal in autumn and late winter, making the team at Project Godwit wonder if he spends the winter here, rather than migrating all the way to West Africa.
Not terribly thrilling, but…
A new fence may not be the most exciting thing to read about, but then on-the-ground conservation isn’t glamorous. This new steel fence was recently installed in the ditches around an area of RSPB Nene Washes known as ‘March Farmers’. It’s for the benefit of black-tailed godwits breeding at the Nene Washes, the stronghold for the breeding population of this threatened species.
Eggs and chicks of this ground-nesting wading bird are vulnerable to predators such as foxes and badgers, so the purpose of this fence is to keep ground predators out and protect breeding godwits, giving them a helping hand. The team will be monitoring its efficacy in the spring and making any minor adjustments to its design if necessary. This permanent fencing barrier is part of a number of fencing solutions the team have been trialling since the project began in 2017. We’ve also been trialling temporary electric fencing around key godwit breeding areas at the Nene Washes.
This major asset for RSPB Nene Washes and Project Godwit has been funded thanks to the National Lottery Heritage Fund via the Back from the Brink programme and the EU LIFE Nature programme.
Anyone who doesn’t have at least some degree of admiration for the feat of bird migration either isn’t aware of the challenges involved or must lack any sense of wonder and imagination. It’s World Migratory Birds Day this Saturday 10 October and with excellent timing a new wave of sightings of black-tailed godwits from outside the UK has flooded in to the team at Project Godwit.
Black-tailed godwits which breed in the UK are of the Limosa limosa limosa sub-species and mainly breed in the East Anglian Fens of Cambridgeshire and Norfolk, plus a few sites in the south-east and north-west of England. A small number of the sub-species L. l. islandica also breed in Orkney and Shetland.
While L. l. islandica winters in Iceland, black-tailed godwits of the L. l. limosa race migrate south to Spain, Portugal or West Africa – to countries like Senegal, Mauritania and Guinea, 2800 miles away.
Black-tailed godwits use ‘staging areas’ (stop-over sites) on their migration route to rest and feed, in places such as the crucially important Tagus estuary in Portugal, which connects breeding sites across the northern hemisphere to wintering areas in Africa. It’s not just godwits from the UK that come here – Icelandic black-tailed godwits, plus godwits from the Netherlands (where the majority of the north-west European population breed) also gather here. Around 300,000 waterbirds of a plethora of migratory species including 80,000 black-tailed godwits stop here to regain energy and forage on the rice fields and mudflats of the Tagus estuary.
The Tagus estuary is designated as a Special Protection Area (SPA), a Wetland of International Importance (Ramsar site) and an Important Bird Area (IBA). Despite the vital importance of the area for biodiversity, the Tagus estuary is threatened with the development of an airport for Lisbon. This is another risk this species with its Near Threatened global status can really do without, especially when the UK population is already so small and vulnerable, not to mention the multitude of other reasons this airport should not be built.
Amongst some of the godwit sightings recently to have arrived in the team’s inbox is that of a female godwit reported from the Tagus estuary by Hugo Areal. This female was ringed as a chick at RSPB Nene Washes nature reserve, Cambridgeshire (the stronghold for the UK breeding population) an amazing 19 years ago and was spotted in what would be a part of the airport experiencing the highest levels of noise pollution and disruption if it goes ahead. This godwit has been seen regularly at the Tagus estuary over the years, in autumn and spring.
This female was observed breeding at the Nene Washes again this year. There have also been multiple sightings of this bird on the north Norfolk coast, at reserves like RSPB Titchwell and Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s Cley Marshes in late summer/early autumn, feeding up before migrating south.
Birds ringed by Project Godwit have a lime colour ring on the right leg stamped with the letter ‘E’ and can be reported to the team here.
One-year-old female godwit ‘Sky’ was reported at a national nature reserve near Yves in Western France in September by Jérémy Dupuy. Sky was head-started as a chick at WWT Welney Wetland Centre in June 2019 and released at the Nene Washes. This is the first observation of Sky since her release in well over a year – fingers crossed she will return to the UK next year to breed in the Fens.
Head-started birds have been reported in 10 countries along the species’ migration flyway, including Portugal, Spain, France, Belgium, Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, Morocco, Senegal and Mauritania. Head-started godwits are also breeding in the UK, pairing with ‘wild-reared’ adults as well as with other head-started birds.
A male black-tailed godwit was spotted in September in the Algarve, Portugal – ringed as a chick at the Nene Washes in 2003. This godwit breeds at the Nene Washes every spring and was seen with its partner and chicks in May this year by a member of the team. Thanks to Dr José Tavares for reporting this sighting to Project Godwit.
Another one-year-old godwit head-started in 2019 has just been reported this week from Senegal, in Djoudj National Park near Debi. Female godwit ‘Rainbow’ was last spotted in Senegal in October 2019, therefore she may have stayed on the wintering grounds this whole time. This behaviour is common for juvenile godwits, whereby they often don’t return to the UK breeding grounds until the age of two years.
Project Godwit and all our colleagues working to protect godwits are indebted to all who go to the trouble of reporting colour ring sightings. These volunteer recorders are making a significant contribution to conservation science, helping us better understand the movements of these migratory waders all along the migration flyway.
Project Godwit is a five-year partnership project between the RSPB and the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust with major funding from the EU LIFE Nature Programme, 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.
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 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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
Some of Project Godwit’s head-started adults to have successfully bred this year include female Anoukand 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 femaleEarith (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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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?!
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.
What about head-started birds released in other years?
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!
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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!
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.
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 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 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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.