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.

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.

Godwits hatch at WWT Welney

Newly hatched godwit chicks at WWT Welney.
Newly hatched godwit chicks at WWT Welney.

We now have 48 chicks in the headstarting facilities at WWT Welney. The chicks started hatching towards the end of May and are doing well. The chicks spend the first week of their lives inside a specially adapted portacabin at WWT Welney. Once they are old enough they are then moved into rearing aviaries situated within the grassland at Welney. This outside space gives the chicks the opportunity to experience the sights and sounds of their new wetland environment, whilst still under the protective care of the aviculture team. Our oldest chicks have recently had their colour rings fitted. Each chick is given a unique combination of colour rings so that we can follow their progress after they have been released. A sample of birds are also fitted with a geolocator, a tiny lightweight tracking device which is being used to follow their migration route. In a few days’ time the chicks will be given a health check before being moved to the release aviary. Our aim is to release the chicks when they are approximately 30 days old, which is the age at which godwit chicks would naturally fledge in the wild.

Mixed fortunes for wild nesting godwits

Photos Guy Anderson
Photos Guy Anderson
Godwitchickringing#2 Guy Anderson RSPB

It has been a season of mixed fortunes for the godwits breeding at the project sites. Denver and Purl, both released in 2017 attempted to nest, but in an unexpected event their nest was disturbed by a goose and the pair subsequently abandoned the nest. These birds are still quite young for black-tailed godwits so they may still be learning the ropes. Anouk and Delph, another pair headstarted in 2017, successfully hatched their nest and we will be monitoring the pair closely to see if their chicks fledge. We have been monitoring the nests of black-tailed godwits at our project sites so that we can understand the cause if a nest fails. To date several nests have successfully hatched although we have lost some nests to predation and some nests to flooding. Because black-tailed godwits nest on the ground they can be particularly vulnerable. The team are now monitoring the godwit families so that we can identify how many chicks from the hatched nests go on to successfully fledge. Monitoring the godwit families in knee high vegetation is easier said than done, but the chicks are colour ringed so that we can identify them in the field – if we can see them!

Inspiring the next generation

We have been visiting schools close to the project sites to deliver tailored sessions about black-tailed godwits and their fenland habitats. We have been blown away by the enthusiasm shown by the children about their local environment and the special wildlife that it supports. We are delighted to welcome several new schools to our Godwit Guardian scheme including Millfield Primary School, Hillcrest Primary School, Townley School and Pre-school, Hilgay Riverside Academy and Ten Mile Bank Riverside Academy. Becoming a Godwit Guardian is a fun (and free) way that schools and community groups can get involved in Project Godwit by linking to one of our headstarted godwits whose progress you can follow. To find out more please visit our website here.

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Godwit breeding season well underway

Eggs safely collected Under a licence granted from Natural England, we have collected black-tailed godwit eggs from the Nene Washes for our headstarting programme. Eggs are collected early in the breeding season to allow the donor pairs to relay. The eggs are being cared for by the specialist team at WWT Welney. It’s intensive work looking after the eggs – they are checked every two hours to ensure that they are the correct temperature and humidity, something that comes naturally of course to the godwits. We will be keeping a close eye on their progress and hope that, all being well, our first chicks will hatch towards the end of May.
Eggs are carefully collected under licence from Natural England. Photo Bob Ellis WWT.
Headstarted birds nesting Several headstarted birds have returned to the project sites in recent weeks and have been keeping our research team busy with their antics. A total of eighteen headstarted birds have been recorded to date, including all nine of birds that returned to the project sites in 2018. We also have five birds that were released in 2018, who have returned in their first year. Last year Earith, a female released in 2017 returned and bred successfully at the RSPB Ouse Washes. Her daughter is now also back in the fens, and has paired up with Benwick, a male released in 2017. All our released birds are wearing a unique combination of colour rings so that we can monitor them. Most black-tailed godwits don’t breed until they are two year’s old, and early signs are that several of our headstarted birds released in 2017 may breed this year. We have three pairs of headstarted birds (where both bird from the pair were headstarted) and more pairs where one bird is wild and the second is headstarted. Lady and Nelson, Anouk and Delph, and Denver and Purl are all currently nesting at WWT Welney. Lil is paired with a wild male at WWT Welney, Earith is back at the RSPB Ouse Washes and Remi is at the Nene Washes with a wild male.
Earith’s daughter (pictured here soon after fledging) is now back at WWT Welney. Photo Jonathan Taylor RSPB
In the wild population Early estimates indicate that we will see a very welcome increase in the black-tailed godwit population this year, largely thanks to the number of headstarted birds that have recruited into the population. This is fantastic news, but we know it’s important that we improve breeding success in the wild if the gains from headstarting at to be consolidated long term. Unfortunately, we have lost a couple of early nests at our project sites as a result of predation and flooding. However, our first wild nest at Welney has successfully hatched and we hope that more will follow suit in the coming weeks. Visit us at Project Godwit This spring we’ll be hosting our first ever Godwit Festival at WWT Welney on 1-2 June. The weekend will be packed with talks, guided walks and family activities, celebrating all things godwit. Our Project Godwit team will be on hand all weekend and on Sunday, Back from the Brink poet Back Katherine McMahon, will be ‘poet in residence’ running a drop in session where you can try out your poetry skills – no experience is necessary! You can reserve your place at the Godwit Festival here. We’ll also be running our ever-popular Project Godwit Guided Tours at WWT Welney during May and June. This behind the scenes tour gives you the chance to find out all about these birds and you may get the chance to see our headstarted chicks for yourselves. Book your place here.
Black-tailed godwit chicks inside the rearing aviary. Photo WWT.
   

Godwits are on the move

On this day in 2017, YO-OL(E), a breeding female black-tailed godwit from the Nene Washes, had recently arrived in West Africa, somewhere close to the Senegal and Guinea Bissau border. We know this because we were able to fit her with a geolocator at the Nene Washes, which was retrieved earlier this year, revealing her migration movements. Godwits are site faithful birds, so all being well she could be arriving in Senegal for the 2018 winter as I write this update.  Our headstarted birds are also now moving further afield from their release sites. As the weeks draw on we expect that we’ll get fewer sightings of the birds as they make their way to the wintering grounds. Our site teams are now focussing on ensuring that the Nene Washes and Ouse Washes are in tip-top condition for when the birds return next spring. We also have some time to reflect on the achievements of the season.

The timing and migration movements of a breeding female black-tailed godwit from the Nene Washes

Headstarting giving godwits a boost

With the breeding population in the fens now so small, every young godwit we can add to this population during the lifetime of the project is important. Early season flooding at the Nene Washes (see here) caused us some challenges in April when we had several pairs of godwits nesting in nearby farmland as the washes were underwater. Luckily, we were able to work with the farmer to monitor the birds and collect the eggs for headstarting. Many of the eggs were in quite poor condition due to mud, which can coat the pores of the egg and cause the developing chick problems. But thanks to the skill and hard work of our WWT aviculturists, most of the eggs did go on to hatch and we were able to release another 38 headstarted chicks at two different sites in the fens.

Chopstick, released in June at WWT Welney and pictured here in July at Cley (Nigel Rogers).

Breeding success in the wild

This summer black-tailed godwits bred successfully at the RSPB Ouse Washes for the first time since 2012, in habitat that has been expertly created with godwits in mind. We hope the birds have enjoyed their stay enough to return next season. The icing on the cake was Earith, one of nine 2017 headstarted birds returning to the fens, who bred successfully at the RSPB Ouse Washes and reared a chick of her own. This year, the headstarted birds were also joined by 18 wild chicks from the Nene and Ouse Washes, the highest number of chicks fledging in the meta-population since 2013. This was a particularly satisfying result considering all of the challenges caused by the early season flooding at the Nene Washes. The site team had to work hard to resurrect our electric fencing following the flood, but the hard work appears to have paid off. We’ve seen a positive effect of our fencing exclusion trials, with higher nest survival in areas where our electric fences have been deployed. The number of chicks surviving to fledge was also much higher in 2018 than in recent years.

Earith was headstarted in 2017 and bred successfully at the Ouse Washes in 2018 (Jonathan Taylor).

As the birds head to their wintering areas, we can look forward to next year and hopefully seeing many more of these birds back in the fens.

 

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

Project Godwit in 2017

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.

    Black-tailed godwit chick in early-stage rearing facility. Photo Bob Ellis WWT
  • 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.

One of the new scrapes that has been created at the RSPB Nene Washes – photo James Cooper.

 

  • 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.

Some of the fantastic people behind Project Godwit

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.

Will Tiny Tracking Devices Reveal Godwit Migration Secrets?

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.