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
NameColour ringsSexClutchLate winterBreeding season
DelphYW-GL(E)M48.13PortugalWWT Welney
NelsonLL-GL(E)M15.1PortugalWWT Welney
LadyOY-GL(E)F48.13Portugal & FranceWWT Welney
EarithLG-GL(E)F41.2Not seenRSPB Ouse Washes
ManeaLN-GL(E)M48.13FranceRSPB Ouse Washes
RemiYG-GL(E)F15.1BelgiumRSPB Nene Washes

 

 

What’s happening right now?

The flood water has largely gone from the main godwit fields on the Nene Washes so the research team are busy finding and monitoring nests of all waders but particularly the godwits as they lay second clutches to replace early failures and the early collections of eggs for headstarting. The reserves team have spent many days clearing the debris from the predator fences that have been under water and slowly but surely the fences are becoming functional and will hopefully protect many of the new godwit nests from predation from large mammals. Our monitoring will tell us about the success of this conservation intervention.

Scores on the doors mid-May

  • 31 pairs nesting at the Nene Washes
  • 33 godwit nests and 56 nests of other wader being monitored at the Nene Washes
  • 6-8 pairs nesting on flood free grassland at the Ouse & Welney Washes
  • 53 eggs collected for headstarting
  • 6 headstarted chicks from 2017 back on the Washes

So now we wait. How many godwits will hatch and raise young in the wild? How many of the collected eggs will hatch in captivity? Will the collected eggs be affected by the muddy conditions they experienced early on? How many of last year’s headstarted birds will breed and if so how successful are they? I will blog again later in the breeding season and hopefully be able to provide an answer to all of these questions.

Dr Jen Smart is a Principal Conservation Scientist at the RSPB Centre for Conservation Science. She specialises in the ecology of breeding waders and mechanisms for reversing their declines. She is an expert at finding wader nests and her other field skills include bird ringing and radio-telemetry. She leads the research team monitoring the black-tailed godwits during the breeding season at the Nene Washes.

Principal Conservation Scientist, Dr Jen Smart, watching a black-tailed godwit nest – Ian Dillon/RSPB

Headstarted godwits found safe and sound in Portugal

Last week we received the fantastic news that two of the young godwits released at WWT Welney last year have been spotted in Portugal. This is the first non-UK sighting we’ve received since the birds were released and marks an important milestone for the project. We’re delighted to hear that they have migrated safely, and it’s an especially happy moment for Nicky, Louise, Rosie and the rest of the WWT rearing team. The birds were spotted in large flocks alongside other godwits. This indicates that the birds are behaving as they should and the hope is that they will return to breed at Welney next spring, but because black-tailed godwits don’t usually breed until they are two years old we’re going to have to be patient before discovering if released birds will breed successfully in the fens.

Orange Yellow Green Lime (E) has been spotted in Portugal – pictured here at RSPB Old Hall Marshes in July (Jerry Lanfear)

 

Lime Lime Green Lime (E) was also resighted last week, pictured here in July at WWT Steart Marshes (Joe Cockram)

 

The birds were spotted by a team of Dutch ornithologists in the Tagus Estuary, near Lisbon. Lime Lime Green Lime (E), a male, was last spotted previously back in July at WWT Steart Marshes. Orange Yellow Green Lime (E), a female, was last seen at RSPB Old Hall Marshes in Essex. We hope that this will be the first of many sightings this year and are once again reaching out to the birding community to send us any sightings of the birds. It’s possible that, although the birds are unlikely to breed this year, they may return to the UK. Any sightings of the birds can be reported to us here https://projectgodwit.org.uk/get-involved/report-a-sighting/

As well as the headstarted godwits, we received several sightings last week from Portugal of birds from the fens breeding population. This included one female (pictured below) who was first ringed as a chick in 1999 – making her almost nineteen years old! We’re looking forward to seeing her back at the washes this spring. For the third winter in a row, we’ve also received a sighting of female Yellow Red Red Lime (E) in Senegal, West Africa.

A female black-tailed godwit resighted in the Tagus Estuary was ringed as a chick in 1999 at the Nene Washes (photo Kees de Jager)

 

Soon the black-tailed godwits that breed in the fens will be making their journeys back to the breeding grounds at the Nene and Ouse Washes. The teams at WWT Welney and RSPB Nene Washes have been working hard to get the habitat in tip-top condition for the birds’ return. Alongside headstarting, a key aim of Project Godwit is to improve productivity in the wild, creating more and safer areas for black-tailed godwits to raise their young. We usually expect the earliest birds to arrive the first week in March. Interestingly, many of the islandica godwits which spend the non-breeding season in the fens are yet to depart, so the two sub-species can be seen together. You can read more about this in Graham Appleton’s wadertales blog here https://wadertales.wordpress.com/2016/04/11/godwits-in-godwits-out-springtime-on-the-washes/

Results from the wild in 2017

Increasing productivity in the wild is a key focus of Project Godwit – so how did the wild godwits fare in 2017?

Black-tailed godwit at the Nene Washes (Mark Whiffin/RSPB).

Challenges at the Nene Washes

The Nene Washes hold 80-90% of the UK breeding black-tailed godwit population. We found 35 breeding pairs on site in 2017, a decline from 42 pairs in 2016. Our monitoring tells us that there is a strong relationship between breeding success and population change – it will not come as a surprise to most that better breeding success leads to a boost in the population in subsequent years. We know that breeding success has been low for this population over the last couple of years, which probably explains the decline observed in the population this year. Black-tailed godwits are long-lived birds, and most don’t return to breed until they are two years old, so there can be a time-lag before a population change occurs.

Black-tailed godwit pairs need to successfully fledge one chick every other year in order for the population to sustain itself, or half a chick per pair each year. In the last three years, the number of chicks fledging at the Nene Washes has been below this level, which is a cause for concern. A big focus of Project Godwit will be to boost the breeding success of godwits at the Nene Washes, and increase the number chicks that successfully fledge.

Predated black-tailed godwit nest (Mark Whiffin/RSPB)

Trials and tribulations

In recent years the main driver of poor breeding success at the Nene Washes has been predation, and our research has shown us that different predators have had varying impacts in different years. It’s a complex picture, and one which will require a range of predator management solutions resolve. We are monitoring black-tailed godwit nests at the Nene Washes (under a special licence from Natural England). Our monitoring tells us how many nests have hatched and (in most cases) the cause of failure when they don’t. We are also radio-tagging a sample of chicks once they have left the nest. Our approach to predator management is based on the evidence we gather from this extensive research and monitoring programme.

One solution we are trialling is the exclusion of ground predators from key breeding areas using temporary electric fencing. Exclusion fencing has been shown to boost wader productivity at other wet grassland sites but this is the first time this has been tried at the Nene Washes. In 2017 we found that there was a significant boost to nest survival for waders which nested within the boundary of the fencing. However, unfortunately we had a number of godwits nesting outside of the fencing this year, and those nests did not fare so well. We’ll be upping the ante in 2018 – providing exclusion fencing over a larger area. Five chicks fledged successfully at the Nene Washes in 2017, we hope this figure will increase in future years of the project.

Tommy and Josh installing the temporary exclusion fencing at the Nene Washes.

More good news from Welney!

The good news is that the three pairs present at Welney in 2017 successfully fledged two young in 2017. This small population has been very productive in recent years, which bodes very well for the headstarted birds which will hopefully return there to breed in future years. We have released 26 birds through the headstarting programme in 2017. This has provided a huge boost to the number of young godwits in the population this year. If we can match this success with improved wild breeding success at the Nene Washes, alongside the continued successes at WWT Welney, then we should be looking at a much brighter future for our black-tailed godwits.

Where are they now?

It’s been a few weeks since you heard from us – the godwits have been keeping the team busy as we aim to keep track of their movements after release. Here’s an update on all the comings and goings from RSPB Senior Research Assistant, Mark Whiffin.

Now that the busy breeding season is drawing to close, my attention is turning to the important question – where are the colour-ringed godwits?

Time does have a habit of flying by at this time of year; it’s been five weeks since the 25 headstarted godwits were released at WWT Welney. It was amazing to see them leave their release aviary, settle on pools and begin to feed, as if they had always been there.

We really had no idea what the birds would do after release, would they stay around the washes or just depart up to the coast? We hoped that they would initially remain in the relative safety of the Welney area and were excited to see that they did remain close to home, splitting in to small parties and touring the pools on the washes and on the adjacent WWT Lady Fen wetland, with some of the more adventurous birds exploring further to the RSPB Ouse Washes reserve.

OG-GL(E) mixing with adults on the pools at Welney – image by Mark Whiffin.

In the first days and weeks following release, WWT staff kept a very close eye on these special birds, accounting for all of the birds, noting their associations and interactions with other waders as well as their reactions to potential danger. Having been raised on their own away from adults, we were delighted that the youngsters started to mix with adult birds, feeding alongside them and hopefully picking up a lot of the life-skills they will need to survive in the wild. Visitors to Welney and the Ouse Washes have helped enormously in the monitoring effort by providing many more pairs of eyes to help us keep track of where the birds were.

As time has marched on, some of the birds have taken their cues from the adults and started to depart the washes on the next leg of their journey. We owe a huge thanks to the many people who have reported sightings of these first adventurers. At the end of July we have a good idea of the extent to which the birds have dispersed. While there are still some birds on the washes, birds are being reported from further afield. The first to be spotted was WL-GL(E), she was found up on the Norfolk coast at Cley. She was followed shortly afterwards by LL-GL(E). He has amazed everyone; instead of flying north-east to the coast, he flew to the south-west and was spotted on the WWT Steart Marshes in Somerset! This is the first time a journey like this has been recorded for a UK-bred godwit.

LL-GL(E) resting up on the Steart Marshes, Somerset – image by Joe Cockram.

Further exciting sightings of headstarted birds have more recently come from Suffolk, with GG-GL(E) being seen at Trimley Marshes and both LN-GL(E) and OY-GL(E) being spotted at Old Hall Marshes in Essex and, in what is an even more remarkable twist to the tale, these two birds are actually siblings, I wonder if they know?

GG-GL(E) at Trimley Marshes, Suffolk – image by Paul Holmes

We are delighted that five birds have been seen while undertaking the first legs of journeys which will hopefully see some of them fly all the way to Africa and perhaps return to the washes next spring. We are grateful to everyone who has reported their sightings. With other birds still to leave Welney and the washes, please keep your eyes peeled for other black-tailed godwits with the distinctive green and lime E rings on their right legs. Perhaps we’ll get a record from Spain or Portugal in the next few weeks and a winter record from African would be even better. We’ll keep you posted.

Good luck godwits!

The first of our headstarted chicks are released into the wild.

Watching the black-tailed godwits fly by.

Yesterday marked a significant milestone for the Project Godwit team. After months of preparation and hard work, our headstarted godwit chicks were released into the wild at WWT Welney.

The chicks have all passed a health screening prior to release, and have spent the last few days flexing their flight muscles in the pre-release aviary at the release site. It’s hugely rewarding to see the chicks take their first steps into the wild, particularly for honorary godwit parents Nicky, Louise and Rosie, who have been working around the clock to provide for the chicks over the last few weeks at WWT Welney.

Our “class of 2017” have all been fitted with their own unique set of colour

The black-tailed godwits explore their new home (Bob Ellis – WWT).

rings so that they can be followed after their release. This year’s headstarted chicks have all received a green colour ring above a lime colour ring with the black letter “E”, on the right leg, above the knee. Two additional colour rings on the left leg above the knee, complete the combination. We’re appealing to bird watchers to help us keep track of the birds after their release. If you see a colour ringed black-tailed godwit, please let us know about it! You can report it to us on our sightings page here https://projectgodwit.org.uk/get-involved/report-a-sighting/

The hope is that the birds will join post-breeding flocks of wild black-tailed godwits,before starting their southerly migration to the wintering grounds

One of the class of 2017 (Bob Ellis – WWT).

in Spain, Portugal and West Africa. In two-year’s time, the expectation is that the released birds will return to the Ouse Washes to breed, boosting this fragile population, where we have been working to create safe, flood-free habitat for them.

You can read more about the godwit’s release, and the likely places the birds could be spotted next on the wadertales blog here: https://wadertales.wordpress.com/2017/06/13/special-black-tailed-godwits/