On this day in 2017, YO-OL(E), a breeding female black-tailed godwit from the Nene Washes, had recently arrived in West Africa, somewhere close to the Senegal and Guinea Bissau border. We know this because we were able to fit her with a geolocator at the Nene Washes, which was retrieved earlier this year, revealing her migration movements. Godwits are site faithful birds, so all being well she could be arriving in Senegal for the 2018 winter as I write this update. Our headstarted birds are also now moving further afield from their release sites. As the weeks draw on we expect that we’ll get fewer sightings of the birds as they make their way to the wintering grounds. Our site teams are now focussing on ensuring that the Nene Washes and Ouse Washes are in tip-top condition for when the birds return next spring. We also have some time to reflect on the achievements of the season.
Headstarting giving godwits a boost
With the breeding population in the fens now so small, every young godwit we can add to this population during the lifetime of the project is important. Early season flooding at the Nene Washes (see here) caused us some challenges in April when we had several pairs of godwits nesting in nearby farmland as the washes were underwater. Luckily, we were able to work with the farmer to monitor the birds and collect the eggs for headstarting. Many of the eggs were in quite poor condition due to mud, which can coat the pores of the egg and cause the developing chick problems. But thanks to the skill and hard work of our WWT aviculturists, most of the eggs did go on to hatch and we were able to release another 38 headstarted chicks at two different sites in the fens.
Breeding success in the wild
This summer black-tailed godwits bred successfully at the RSPB Ouse Washes for the first time since 2012, in habitat that has been expertly created with godwits in mind. We hope the birds have enjoyed their stay enough to return next season. The icing on the cake was Earith, one of nine 2017 headstarted birds returning to the fens, who bred successfully at the RSPB Ouse Washes and reared a chick of her own. This year, the headstarted birds were also joined by 18 wild chicks from the Nene and Ouse Washes, the highest number of chicks fledging in the meta-population since 2013. This was a particularly satisfying result considering all of the challenges caused by the early season flooding at the Nene Washes. The site team had to work hard to resurrect our electric fencing following the flood, but the hard work appears to have paid off. We’ve seen a positive effect of our fencing exclusion trials, with higher nest survival in areas where our electric fences have been deployed. The number of chicks surviving to fledge was also much higher in 2018 than in recent years.
As the birds head to their wintering areas, we can look forward to next year and hopefully seeing many more of these birds back in the fens.
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.
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.
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.
Portugal & France
RSPB Ouse Washes
RSPB Ouse Washes
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.
As the year draws to a close I thought I’d take the opportunity to reflect on the last twelve months of Project Godwit, and pick out a few of my own personal highlights. As we look forward to 2018, we know we have more to do to bring godwits back from the brink – but we’ll be working hard to give them a fighting chance.
In 2017 we have…
Released 26 juvenile godwits into the wild at WWT Welney. You can relive the moment the fledglings were released via the video here. Headstarting has enabled us to boost productivity (the number of chicks produced per pair) to one of the highest levels in recent years.
Fitted tiny geolocators (tracking devices) to sixteen black-tailed godwits. When we see these birds again in spring, if we can catch them, we’ll be able to download the data and find out where they’ve been spending the winter.
Made the Nene Washes and Ouse Washes even better for black-tailed godwits – by creating wet features and pools. We’ve already seen many birds enjoying the new scrapes and we hope the godwits like it when they return in spring. We also installed a new pump at the March Farmers section of the Nene Washes which will enable us to manage even more habitat for godwits in the breeding season.
Installed over 3500m of electric fencing at the Nene Washes to help protect nests from predators. We saw a significant increase in nest survival in fenced areas, but we need to fence more areas of black-tailed godwit habitat in 2018.
Received a resighting of a female breeding bird (YR – RL(E)) from the Nene Washes from Senegal. What’s remarkable is that she has been spotted in Senegal for the third winter in a row. You can read more about her here.
Introduced over 130 people to the black-tailed godwits through special guided tours at WWT Welney. Keep your eyes peeled for 2018 dates.
Became part of the Back from the Brink Programme. Back from the Brink is one of the most ambitious conservation projects ever undertaken. Through 19 projects delivered across England, 20 UK species facing extinction will be brought Back from the Brink thanks to a £4.6 million grant from the National Lottery. Natural England, the government’s wildlife advisory body, will work in partnership with Amphibian and Reptile Trust, Bat Conservation Trust, Buglife, Bumblebee Conservation Trust, Butterfly Conservation, Plantlife and the RSPB. https://naturebftb.co.uk/
I’d like to also take this opportunity to wish you a Merry Christmas on behalf of the team – and to thank the team for their incredible work throughout the year. I’d also like to extend this thanks to the birdwatching community who have been keeping an eye out for the godwits. Thank you very much for your support.
Increasing productivity in the wild is a key focus of Project Godwit – so how did the wild godwits fare in 2017?
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.
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.
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.
Two tiny geolocator devices were fitted to black-tailed godwits at the Nene Washes today in a bid to find out more about the birds migration movements.
This is the first time that godwits breeding in the UK will have been tracked to their non-breeding grounds. This research will help us to identify key non-breeding sites for the godwits and also provide more information about the timing of the godwit’s migration.
Godwits undertake long and often complex migrations, but they generally return to the same site to breed each year. Black-tailed godwits of the limosa subspecies found breeding in Western Europe spend their winters in Portugal and Western Africa. Over the last two years, we have been marking individual birds from the washes using lightweight colour rings. These have already yielded some interesting sightings from the non-breeding ground, but we hope that we will find out even more by tracking a sample of the birds.
The geolocators – weighing 1g – are attached to colour rings which can then be carefully fitted to the bird’s leg. Geolocators record light levels – these can be used to determine latitude and longitude: essentially providing a location of the individual bird’s whereabouts at a snapshot in time.
We are hoping that we’ll be able to fit more birds with geolocators in the coming weeks. We’ll have to be patient to see the results though – as we won’t be able to retrieve the data until next year when the birds return to the washes to breed.
Project Godwit is a new partnership project between the RSPB and WWT, with the aim of securing the future of breeding black-tailed godwits in the UK. Black-tailed godwits have a small breeding population in the UK, of about 60 pairs, and our new project is aiming to turn around their fortunes. With funding from the EU LIFE Nature programme, we’ll be undertaking a range of activities at the Nene and Ouse Washes including:
An extensive research and monitoring programme of black-tailed godwits at the Nene Washes.
Maintaining and enhancing black-tailed godwit wet grassland habitat at the Nene and Ouse Washes, providing the right conditions for the species to thrive.
A range of steps to reduce the impact of predation on black-tailed godwits, with the aim of increasing nest and chick survival.
Using colour ringing and tracking to improve our understanding of the local and migratory movements of black-tailed godwits.
Trialling a rear-and-release programme, known as “headstarting”, in a bid to supplement the small population of black-tailed godwits breeding at sites adjacent to the Ouse Washes.
Running a range of events for local communities and schools, to raise awareness of black-tailed godwits and their special wetland habitats.
I hope you enjoy exploring our new website. For latest news from the project, you can sign up for our email alerts. Or if tweeting is your thing you can follow us on twitter @projectgodwit.