A season of mixed fortunes…

While the black-tailed godwit breeding season has (sadly) come to an end, some birds may venture over to coastal wetlands around the UK before migrating south to wetland sites in Spain, Portugal and West Africa for the ‘non-breeding season’ in autumn and winter.

The team at Project Godwit is always eager to receive sightings of project birds, as it really helps our conservation efforts. Project Godwit has a unique colour ringing scheme, whereby all birds are ringed with a lime colour ring on the right leg with the black letter ‘E’ stamped on the ring. Colour ringing helps us better understand the movements of these migratory birds and the incredible journeys they undertake. Reporting a sighting can be done through the Project Godwit reporting page.

Project Godwit birds have a lime colour ring on the right leg with a black letter ‘E’.

After no sightings for almost two years, Caramel was spotted at RSPB Ouse Washes in June. The last time this two-year-old head-started female was seen was in autumn 2018 in Portes-en-Ré, west France! This is the first record of this godwit back in the Fens of East Anglia since being head-started at WWT Welney and released as a chick in June 2018.

Caramel, pictured as a chick in a rearing aviary at WWT Welney in June 2018.

This head-started godwit has been getting around a lot lately. Male godwit Morgan has been spotted at Pagham Harbour in Sussex, Titchfield Haven National Nature Reserve in Hampshire and RSPB Ouse Washes in Cambridgeshire in July – all within a fortnight!

These records are thanks to members of the public reporting sightings of Morgan’s colour rings to Project Godwit.

Morgan as a chick in a rearing aviary at WWT Welney, June 2018.

Some of Project Godwit’s head-started adults to have successfully bred this year include female Anouk and male Delph (both head-started in 2017) fledging one chick. Head-started female Lil (another 2017 bird) paired with a wild-reared male and fledged two chicks. These pairs nested on the Ouse Washes at WWT Welney (as opposed to Lady Fen, Welney), making this the first year godwit chicks have fledged from this area of the reserve since 2006.

Other head-started godwits to have fledged chicks this year include female Earith (also head-started in 2017), who fledged three chicks at the RSPB Pilot Project site, adjacent to the Ouse Washes, having paired with a wild-reared male again. Most godwits begin breeding around the age of two and although some have been known to breed successfully at that age and even younger, more experienced adults tend to have greater breeding success.

The absence of flooding on the Ouse Washes in the spring was conducive for our breeding godwits, however predation of eggs and chicks is still a problem for these vulnerable ground-nesting birds. Furthermore, it is essential the UK has more wetland habitat for black-tailed godwits which is well managed for wildlife and better joined up. Creating and managing ideal wet grassland habitat for godwits is a key element to Project Godwit and is paramount in securing the future of these special migrant waders in the UK.

Anouk at Wieringerwerf, Netherlands March 2019 (Credit: Otto de Vries).

As with so many conservation projects to have been impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, many Project Godwit activities could not take place as planned this year. This includes the head-starting and release of godwit chicks – meaning there will be no ‘Class of 2020’. Due to the Government restrictions on movement during the lockdown, the team were also unable to conduct much monitoring of the godwits this season, therefore we do not know how many young birds as two-year-olds may have returned from their first migration and joined the Fens population of black-tailed godwits this year.

Needless to say it’s been a challenging year for the team, however we look forward to next year and hope for good health, better prospects and that normal programming will resume soon so we can continue making gains for the conservation of black-tailed godwits.

Waiting for Godwits

While many of the project team are either still furloughed or working from home under house arrest, it’s been more challenging for the project this season than anyone could have predicted. As with so many of our activities which sadly either had to be postponed or cancelled altogether, monitoring of godwits had to be scaled back to a bare minimum. Subsequently, the project had to rely on the site managers of WWT Welney, RSPB Nene Washes and RSPB Ouse Washes to monitor the godwits when they could, on top of their already very busy workloads.

29 head-started godwits are known to have returned to the Fens this breeding season and four spotted on the Continent, thanks to reports of sightings of colour rings. A question that many godwit aficionados out there may have is ‘How many head-started godwits from last year have returned this year?’ Young black-tailed godwits often don’t return to the UK from their first migration until the age of two – but some do venture back earlier.

Class of 2019

Tam

One of the 2019 head-started birds to have returned this year is Tam. This one-year-old male has been at the Ouse Washes since May this year, moving between WWT Welney and RSPB Ouse Washes nature reserve.

Tam was named in honour of the Scottish prisoners of war brought to the Fens of East Anglia in the 17th century. These soldiers built the New Bedford River and many of the drainage works that created the landscape of the Fens as we know it today. Jean Rees-Lyons, Artistic Director of The Word Garden helped name some of the head-started birds of 2019 as part of ‘the ‘Origins Project’, remembering the Scottish Soldiers.

Tam pictured here as a chick in a rearing aviary at WWT Welney in June 2019.

Omaha

Head-started female Omaha has been back at WWT Welney since May. She was named in honour of the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings. Omaha Beach, Normandy was one of the five designated beaches that were used during the D-Day landings on 6 June 1944 during the Second World War.

Omaha in a rearing aviary at WWT Welney in June 2019.

Barker

Barker was released as a chick at WWT Welney in June 2019. She returned to the Ouse Washes in May and has been spotted a number of times since then, in June.

Did you know ‘Barker’ is an old name for a godwit, along with blackwit, whelp, yarwhelp, shrieker and Jadreka snipe?!
Barker as a chick last June at WWT Welney.

Cloud

Although not in the UK, Cloud was spotted in the Netherlands near Westkapelle in May. She may return to the UK at the usual breeding age of two next year, or she may join the Dutch breeding population of black-tailed godwits and return to the Netherlands each spring.

Cloud in a rearing aviary at WWT Welney in June 2019.

What about head-started birds released in other years?

Strider

Strider was released as a chick at RSPB Nene Washes in June 2018. After spending much of the second half of 2019 in west France, Strider (sex unconfirmed) was spotted in Dellmensingen, south Germany in May. Six weeks later in mid-June, this two-year-old was spotted at RSPB Ouse Washes!

Strider at Dellmensingen, Germany, taken by Tobias Epple.

Due to the lockdown, it is unknown exactly how many pairs have bred at each project site this spring. Nonetheless, we are aware of some pairings. 2017 head-started godwits Anouk and Delph paired and bred at WWT Welney; two-year-old Morgan paired with a wild-reared female at the RSPB Pilot Project site (adjacent to the Ouse Washes); and three-year-old Lil bred at WWT Welney with a wild-reared male.

Earith

After pairing with a wild-reared male, 2017 head-started female Earith bred at the RSPB Pilot Project site this season. Of the four chicks which hatched, we believe three fledged.

Earith at the RSPB Pilot Project site, Ouse Washes. Taken by Jonathan Taylor.

Tom

Tom was spotted in May at WWT Welney. Before then, he was last spotted in March 2019 at the Giganta ricefields near the Tagus estuary in Portugal.

Tom in a rearing pen at WWT Welney, June 2018.
Hurricane

Another young godwit that was in the Tagus estuary in February is two-year-old Hurricane, now back at WWT Welney since May. Hurricane spent last spring near Valencia, Spain, therefore this is the first time he’s been back in the UK since being released as a chick at RSPB Nene Washes in June 2018.

Maris 

Maris was first spotted in the Netherlands in May 2019 in Aldwaldmersyl, then she returned to the Netherlands again – this time to Zuiderwoude in May this year. The fact this godwit is spending another spring here suggests she has joined the Dutch breeding population of black-tailed godwits.

Désirée

Meanwhile, after not being seen for almost two years, Maris’ brother Désirée was reported from IJzervallei, near Woumen in Belgium in May and appears to be breeding at a nature reserve there.

Désirée and Maris are part of the ‘Muddy Potato’ posse, so-called because they were amongst many eggs in the spring of 2018 that were so muddy they resembled potatoes. These eggs were rescued from arable farmland when the godwits’ main breeding sites at RSPB Nene Washes flooded that spring, forcing the adult breeding pairs to lay their eggs elsewhere. 

Desiree in Woumen, Belgium. Taken by Wim Debruyne.

Fascinatingly, Désirée and Maris’ brother Jersey has been spotted in Bavaria (May 2019), suggesting this brood seem to have a penchant for spending the breeding season outside the UK. Intriguing!

What does a godwit scientist do in lockdown?

Our latest blog post is by Mo Verhoeven, RSPB Senior Research Assistant for Project Godwit.

On January 14th this year, Jelle Loonstra and I handed in our joint PhD on “The behaviour and ecology of the Black-tailed Godwit”. The next day, I was on an airplane to Chile with the mission of outfitting Hudsonian Godwits with transmitters to record their 14.000+ km migration from Chile to the North American Arctic. I was coming from winter, which was clear from my pale skin and a permanently smoky smell imparted by my woodstove. But suddenly I was in Chile, wearing shorts and freed from my PhD for the first time in months. A good start to 2020!

Mo Verhoeven (taken by Rob Buiter).

A few weeks later (at which point I happened to be in the forests of Maine, wearing smoky snowpants), I received a job offer to work for the RSPB as a Senior Research Assistant on Project Godwit to monitor the godwits nesting at the Nene Washes. I imagined the tumbling Lapwing, the whirring Snipe and the nesting Godwits. It was hard to say no. On March 15th I arrived in the UK. It was sunny, the Washes were partly flooded and the first godwits had returned! The stage was set for a beautiful spring. And a beautiful spring it was, with flowers blooming, nests being built, and chicks to come…but on the 23rd a nation-wide lockdown was announced and all fieldwork was cancelled! What to do?

Project Godwit had already collected data on breeding godwits at the Nene Washes in 2015-2019, which meant I could start analysing some of that. First, I analysed data from the eight geolocators that had been retrieved in previous years. Geolocators are data-loggers that continuously log the ambient light-level. Each geolocator is attached to a ring that is placed on a godwit’s leg. The godwit then carries this geolocator with it throughout the year – on migration to the non-breeding grounds and back to the Washes again in the spring. Researchers then do their best to capture that same bird again; if they’re successful, they remove the logger and use the stored light-level data to establish the moment of sunrise, midday and sunset throughout the year. When you know the length of each day, you can estimate the latitude (north/south), since this varies predictably with date across the world. Estimating longitude (east/west) comes next and this relies on a centuries-old technique. First you log the moment of midday at a specific location, usually Greenwich. From this you can calculate the shift in the time of midday relative to Greenwich, and therefore determine how much the godwit has moved to the west or east relative to Greenwich. This is why seafarers had chronometers and why precise chronometers were worth a lot of money.

Raw light-level data recorded on the geolocator carried by OB-OL(E)

Two of the geolocators I examined had logged especially interesting migrations (during my PhD, I analysed more than 300 migrations by Dutch godwits – these two were immediately distinguishable from the pack!). The first was from ‘Cornelia’, a head-started chick released at the Nene Washes in 2018 (also learn more here). Black-tailed godwit chicks are being head-started to boost the number of godwit chicks that survive to fledging age. Chicks are reared by our project partner the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT) at Welney Wetland Centre and released once fledged. The nearly fledged chicks are fitted with a unique combination of colour-rings and some are also fitted with a geolocator. Cornelia was released on June 27th 2018. She left the UK on the evening of August 13th and arrived in Africa on the night of August 15th, having probably flown non-stop.

The other was from a male godwit known as OB-OL(E). In 2018, this male left the UK on June 21st, went to the Balearic coast of mainland Spain, and stayed there for three months. That’s not very uncommon. But on October 2nd, he crossed the Sahara and went to the Inner-Niger Delta in Mali. This is very late in the season for such a flight – in fact, it’s the latest southward Sahara crossing on record for an adult godwit! For context: some godwits start migrating in the opposite direction, from west Africa back north, as early as the second week of September. Why do godwits behave so differently, and how do these individual differences come about? Interesting questions that challenge current knowledge!

Map of the migration route of godwit ‘OB-OL(E)’.

The other analysis I have worked on during lockdown is comparing adult, nest and chick survival rates between an earlier period of research at the Nene Washes, during which the godwit population at the Nene Washes increased (1999-2003) and a more contemporary period (2015-2016) in which the population has declined. This work shows that nest and chick survival, but not adult survival, are low in the contemporary period compared to the early period. The recent decline at the Nene Washes is therefore likely the result of lower reproductive success resulting in fewer birds recruiting at the Nene Washes. This study also indicated that nest survival was lowered because of an increase in nest predation. The reserve managers had already been thinking this was the case, and in 2017 started using special gates and electric fences to keep mammalian predators from depredating godwit nests. My next task will be to evaluate whether and how effective those efforts were. I’ll keep you posted!

 

Project Godwit is a partnership between RSPB and WWT with major funding from the EU LIFE Nature Programme, the HSBC 150th Anniversary Fund, Natural England, the National Lottery Heritage Fund through the Back from the Brink Programme, Leica and the Montague-Panton Animal Welfare Trust.

Coronavirus (COVID-19) Update:

During these challenging times, Project Godwit unfortunately has had to make the difficult decision to postpone many project activities for this year. Much of our work involving head-starting, monitoring, community engagement and habitat management has sadly had to be postponed this season due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis. This is to protect the health of our staff, volunteers and the general public, as well as follow Government advice and restrictions.

Project Godwit is discussing with our partners, stakeholders and funders how we can best cope with the impacts of the coronavirus.

For news updates, please also follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, as well as here on the website.

Stay safe and thank you for your support.

The Project Godwit Team