In our latest blog, WWT Engagement Officer Jess Owen interviews Amelia Bennet-Margrave who joined Project Godwit’s head-starting team for the 2019 breeding season at WWT Welney as an Assistant Aviculturist. Jess asked Amelia about her experiences of working up close with the godwits.
How did you come to be on the 2019 head-starting team? What attracted you to the job?
‘I had just finished university and was excited to be out in the field! I loved that Project Godwit was encompassing so many aspects of conservation, creating habitat for the long-term survival of the species, head-starting to increase breeding success, monitoring wild birds and providing fascinating insights on black-tailed godwits and their migration. It was a really exciting project and one that has been fascinating to watch; over the three years, head-started birds have returned to breed at project sites and now comprise an estimated one quarter of all pairs breeding in the Fens!
I was also excited by the idea of gaining experience in animal husbandry for wildlife conservation – it’s incredibly rewarding caring for animals and something I love doing. And I love wading birds! In the UK we have so many lovely waders arriving to winter on our extensive shoreline. It’s one of our most beautiful wildlife spectacles – with huge swirling flocks, beautiful plumage and those wonderful calls filling the landscape! Currently, many British breeding waders are in decline, so I was really interested in the opportunity to work on a conservation project trying to change this! And finally, I really admire the WWT and their work to conserve species and habitats around the globe.’
What first sparked your interest in nature and wildlife conservation?
‘Butterflies! We used to get a lot of butterflies – especially peacock and red admiral – in our garden, and I loved watching these when I was little! I was given a Dorling Kindersley book on butterflies of the world when I was eight and that was it! (I’ve always wanted to see a Swallowtail butterfly since and I finally did last year on one of my days off whilst working at Project Godwit – they are just beautiful!!) We had a park near our house with long grass and wildflowers too, so I was always out and surrounded by it! And like many other people, by watching David Attenborough’s wonderful documentaries and programmes like the BBC’s Lost Land series with George McGavin!’
What kind of experiences and jobs did you have before you worked on the head-starting programme?
‘I had experience in animal husbandry from college, where I did a BTEC Level 3 course in Animal Management (equivalent to A-levels). The course covered subjects such as nutrition, welfare, legislation, biology, biochemistry and more, and there was a lot of hands-on experience with a wide variety of bird, reptile, mammal, fish and invertebrate species. For my work experience placement, I helped at a local wildlife rescue centre. After this, I did a degree in Zoology and Conservation at Bangor University. While at university, I became a trainee in bird ringing and went out most weekends to learn, working with a large range of passerine and wader species, some seabirds and wildfowl. It was a real privilege to learn and to see such beautiful birds up-close.
I also did a lot of volunteering! It’s a wonderful way to enjoy wildlife and learn from really inspiring people! I volunteered at a great local nature reserve on their weekly work party, gaining experience in habitat management and creation, working in teams and learning how to use a variety of tools. For six years I was a volunteer with The Lake District Osprey Project, interacting with visitors and helping to monitor the ospreys breeding there – I loved it! I also had the amazing opportunity to volunteer for three weeks with the RSPB as a relief warden, helping to monitor an arctic tern colony on a beautiful island, which was fantastic!’
What was the best moment for you on the job?
‘There were so many!! It’s really hard to pick just one…! Watching the first chick hatching after incubating the eggs for several weeks was an incredible moment!’
What was the hardest part of the job?
‘Finishing! I loved the job so much!
But also, the hot plastic suits we had to wear for biosecurity…’
What do you like and find most interesting about godwits?
‘I think migration in all species is really interesting, with so many factors involved, such as stop-over sites, wintering grounds, diet, timing and so much more. And godwits are no exception! There was a first for Project Godwit recently, as a 2019 head-started bird was seen in Morocco!
And black-tailed godwits are such beautiful birds, with lovely bright summer plumage and their fantastic “wickering” calls!’
What was the most interesting thing you learnt whilst head-starting?
‘There were so many things! I learnt so much from the amazing team here!
I think my favourite was learning about egg development and all the aviculture techniques used to monitor and care for eggs. It was incredible to see candling for the first time (using a light to examine the stage of development) and watch the chick breaking into the air space of the egg just before hatching!’
How did you feel when the godwits were released?
‘A little nervous, but it was really exciting to watch them go! There was a real sense of achievement too. It’s been such a huge privilege to watch these birds grow. Seeing them feeding and flying around the reserve was fantastic!’
Did you have a favourite godwit?
‘I loved them all! It was really amazing to watch as they all developed. But I admit there were two that were definitely my favourites! It’s been really exciting to hear about the sightings of birds from 2019 recently, I hope people keep sending them in and that we might see some of the 2019 class back this year!’
In this latest blog we learn more about head-starting and hear from Senior Conservation Breeding Officer Nicky Hiscock.
Project Godwit has a whole host of fascinating people, with years of experience in the conservation field, working on it to restore the numbers of black-tailed godwits breeding in the fens. Project managers who have worked on many species reintroduction and conservation programmes oversee the project, from working out logistics, organising funding, and supporting all the staff involved. Nature reserve wardens from The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) and The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) are managing habitat to create the perfect home for godwits on the project sites. Research experts closely monitor the behaviour and numbers of the godwits and their potential predators. Volunteers diligently report sightings of godwits and photograph the project. Engagement staff and volunteers drum up support and interest from local communities, and a team of aviculturists – people who specialise in breeding and caring for captive birds – conduct the head-starting, the part of the project which captures the most amount of attention and intrigue from the public.
Head-starting is a conservation technique for endangered species, in which young animals are raised artificially and then released into the wild. It is often done with birds but there are projects using head-starting with rare amphibians such as the pool frog in the UK and reptiles like fresh water turtle species in the USA.
Project Godwit collects wild black-tailed godwit eggs from the RSPB Nene Washes, where there are relatively good numbers of godwit nests but sadly a very low chick survival rate. They are then transported to WWT Welney Wetland Centre where they are raised in a specially built bio-secure breeding facility before being released onto the Ouse Washes and back at the Nene Washes. A team of highly experienced aviculturists from WWT Slimbridge Wetland Centre come to WWT Welney for three months to care for the captive godwits and prepare them for release. The project began in 2017 and 26 head-started godwits were released that year. The following year 36 godwits were released and in 2019 48 godwits were released.
The process of transporting the eggs to WWT Welney is hair-raising. The team have to drive painfully slowly over the fenland roads (which are not known for their smoothness) in order for the eggs to reach their destination undamaged.
WWT have used head-starting before to save species of birds on the brink of extinction, including the spoon-billed sandpiper, the eurasian crane, and more recently the curlew.
Nicky Hiscock is the Senior Conservation Breeding Officer who coordinates the godwit head-starting at WWT Welney. She began working for WWT as a Seasonal Aviculturist working on the Great Crane Project, a project that successfully released 93 cranes over 5 years on the Somerset Levels having head-started them at Slimbridge.
Cranes are sociable birds that imprint on their parents and depend on them to show them how to feed for themselves and survive. This meant the aviculturists had to disguise their human forms when working with the crane chicks to ensure they imprinted on something that resembled a crane and not a person.
Fortunately godwits chicks are surprisingly independent and within a few hours of hatching they know what to do and how to look for food, so although it may be fun, there’s no need for the staff at Welney to disguise themselves as godwits.
Nicky also worked on WWT’s famous head-starting and breeding programme for the spoon-billed sandpiper, a tiny migratory wetland bird that in the year 2000 plummeted to fewer than 200 pairs worldwide. Using head-starting on the spoon-billed sandpiper breeding grounds in Russia, WWT staff managed to increase the number of successful fledgelings by 20%.
Nicky and her colleagues are on the front line of bird conservation and are conducting a very hands-on form of conservation. When handling precious eggs and having potentially the future of an entire species in your care, the pressure can be high.
‘One of the difficulties I face is dealing with the doubts that ‘the eggs won’t hatch’ which begin to fill your mind, especially the longer the eggs are under your care. It is not until that first chick hatches that the doubts lift and you start to believe the majority of the eggs will go on to hatch. It wouldn’t take much to lose an incubator full of black-tailed eggs, for example, if there was a power cut which was not observed by the team, so it’s very easy to take the pessimistic view.’ – Nicky Hiscock.
And when the eggs finally do hatch, there are plenty of risks with rearing birds in captivity that the head-starting team have to factor in whilst caring for the birds.
For example, as the godwits are approaching the age at which they would fledge (approximately 30 days old) they begin to test out their flight muscles and practice flying. When in a rearing pen there is a risk of the birds flying into the enclosure boundary and injuring themselves, particularly if they get frightened. Therefore the head-starting team install soft cladding around the hard parts of the outdoor rearing and release pens to avoid this.
There is also a risk of predators being attracted to outdoor sites where birds are being kept. It would be disastrous if a fox or a weasel managed to get into the pens and so electric fences are installed around the pens to protect the godwits.
There are also potential health risks for the birds that the aviculturists have to manage. Sometimes when chicks have too much protein and calories in their diet it can lead to health problems such as split wing or angel wing, which is more commonly seen in geese, ducks and swans. This is a deformity of their flight feathers which would cause them considerable problems in the wild, so the aviculturists closely manage the food available to the chicks.
Nicky and the team work round the clock to look after the birds, and the nature of the job requires them to be multi-skilled. They don’t just need a deep knowledge and understanding of bird husbandry, they also have to build and maintain enclosures, keep meticulous records, source equipment, keep up with admin, follow strict biosecurity protocol, and occasionally find time to eat and sleep.
‘When the godwits are released I usually feel two major feelings:
Relief – that we have been able to put a flock of healthy godwits back in to the wild.
Worry – that we can no longer protect the birds from dangers such as predation.’ – Nicky Hiscock.
Head-starting is often used as a final push to save a species, as it is only really effective on species whose populations are incredibly low. For example, many ask if this is something that could be done for other wading birds in the UK such as lapwing, red-listed birds whose numbers have declined to a worrying level in recent years. But the answer would be no. It takes a lot of time, money, expertise and resources just to head-start 48 godwit chicks (our result in 2019). Over 3 years, the Project has released 112 godwits into the wild, doubling the UK’s population and bringing the breeding pair numbers on the Ouse Washes from 3 to 12, the best it has been for 20 years. The impact on a species with a small population is huge, but on a species such as lapwing, with the current UK breeding population at 140,000 pairs, our efforts wouldn’t scratch the surface.
‘The best moment for me on the job was hearing the news that Earith (a head-started female released at Welney in 2017) had nested and hatched her own chicks (at least three) at the Pilot Project Site on 19 June 2018. The team and I were sat on the sunny balcony at WWT Welney enjoying a celebratory lunch after releasing one of the 2018 cohorts of head-started birds when the news came through, including a gorgeous photo of Earith in flight, taken by Jonathan Taylor, the Site Manager for the Pilot Project site. This news, coupled with the successful release of birds just an hour or so earlier was just great. One of Earith’s chicks returned to the fens in 2019 and recently in 2020. Every subsequent sighting and shared photo of ‘Daughter of Earith’, has resulted in fond memories of this moment.’
It’s fair to say that the members of the head-starting team have a very niche job role. In 2019, four aviculturists came to Welney to do the head-starting, Nicky Hiscock, Tony Durkin, Harriet Clarke and Amelia Bennet-Margrave, whilst others stayed in Slimbridge to care for WWT’s conservation breeding collection which includes spoon-billed sandpipers, black-tailed godwits, Baer’s pochard, and curlew. Collectively the team have worked with hundreds of different species all over the world and listening to them speak of their experiences is a real treat for any bird enthusiast.
‘After studying a degree in Biology, I decided to pursue a career in nature conservation. I fell into bird conservation, initially by volunteering at WWT Slimbridge with the reserve team, but looking back, I wouldn’t change a thing.’ – Nicky Hiscock
By Jess Owen – Project Godwit Engagement Officer.