Much to write home about…

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.

19-year-old black-tailed godwit at the Tagus estuary, Portugal (Photo: Daniel Raposo).

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.

Juno as a head-started chick at WWT Welney (Photo: WWT)

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.

Godwit known by his rings ‘BB-OL(E)’ in the Algarve, Portugal on 24 October (Photo: Ray Tipper).

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.

Anti-predator fence (and photo-bombing cow) at March Farmers area of RSPB Nene Washes reserve.

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.

The metal fence posts of this anti-predator fence will ensure longevity of the structure.

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.

Migration – guaranteed to impress

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.

L. L. limosa at the RSPB Ouse Washes (Photo: Jonathan Taylor).

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 muddy godwit – bearing the Project Godwit colour-marking scheme of a lime green ring on the right leg with a black ‘E’ (caked in mud here). (Photo: Hugo Areal)
Project Godwit colour rings when clean (Photo: RSPB).

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.

Sky as a chick in June 2019 at WWT Welney (Photo: WWT).

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.

To date, head-started godwits have been reported from 10 different countries.

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.

Rainbow at WWT Welney in June 2019, before release as a head-started chick (Photo: WWT).

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.

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.

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.

Class of 2019 released into the wild

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

Keeping track

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

Special names for special birds

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

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

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

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

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.    

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
Name Colour rings Sex Clutch Late winter Breeding season
Delph YW-GL(E) M 48.13 Portugal WWT Welney
Nelson LL-GL(E) M 15.1 Portugal WWT Welney
Lady OY-GL(E) F 48.13 Portugal & France WWT Welney
Earith LG-GL(E) F 41.2 Not seen RSPB Ouse Washes
Manea LN-GL(E) M 48.13 France RSPB Ouse Washes
Remi YG-GL(E) F 15.1 Belgium RSPB 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