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.

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!