Back in 1976, all of the UK’s fifty pairs of Black-tailed Godwits were breeding in the Ouse Washes, which cut across the Norfolk/Cambridgeshire border in eastern England. Over the next thirty years, Ouse Washes numbers collapsed and the Nene Washes (near Peterborough) became home to forty or more pairs. What demographic processes were at play that led to this 24 km shift in the population centre and are there lessons to be learnt about the future conservation of England’s limosa Black-tailed Godwits?
43 years of breeding Black-tailed Godwits
The Washes of England represent a westerly extension of the breeding range of limosa Black-tailed Godwits, the focus of which is the Netherlands. This is a subspecies that’s in serious trouble; there has been a 75% decline in the Dutch population, as you can read here. The RSPB has invested in the conservation of Black-tailed Godwits for over forty years, most recently as part of Project Godwit, a partnership with WWT. In a 2021 paper in Wader Study, Mo Verhoeven and colleagues compare detailed studies in the period between 1999 and 2003 with more recent work (2015-2019) to try to understand how changes in demographic rates (productivity, survival and recruitment) have impacted upon the number of breeding pairs.
This study focuses on Black-tailed Godwits on the Low Wash, an area of the Nene Washes that is managed by RSPB. After periods of high rainfall, these areas are flooded to store excess water, mainly in the winter months. Fieldwork during the two periods of intense monitoring (1999-2003 & 2015-2019) included:
- Searches for marked birds, when they return in March and April and throughout the breeding season.
- Locating nests in April and then following breeding attempts (measuring and weighing eggs, to back-calculate to lay-dates, and monitoring nesting success).
- Ringing and colour-marking chicks.
- Nest data loggers and cameras were used in the later period (2015-2019), to help establish timing of predation events.
- Adults were trapped on the nest (2015-2019), to add rings, colour-marks and, in some cases, geolocators.
The switch to The Nene
Back in 1975, all of the limosa Black-tailed Godwits nesting in the UK were to be found in the Ouse Washes. The graph below shows the number of pairs nesting in the Ouse and Nene Washes, together with other regions of England. The two study periods (1999-2003 & 2015-2019) are highlighted. In 1999, at the start of the first period of intensive study, over half of pairs were in the Nene Washes, with a rapid increase in this proportion by 2003. The situation remained relatively stable through to the start of the second period of intensive study in 2015.
The graph showing the number of breeding pairs only runs through until 2017, as the number of breeding pairs in 2018 and more recent years has been affected by head-starting, the process of hatching chicks in incubators and raising them in captivity, through to fledging. The WaderTales blog Special Black-tailed Godwits describes the excitement and anticipation as the first 25 captive-reared chicks were released at the Ouse Washes. The first head-started birds returned in 2018.
In 1992, following multiple years of spring flooding at the Ouse Washes, the godwit population in the UK declined to only 19 pairs. There was a steady increase of godwits at the nearby Nene Washes and the UK population recovered to 53 pairs by 2006. Since then, the breeding population at the Nene Washes had been slowly declining until head-starting provided a welcome boost. See Head-starting Success and reports on the Project Godwit website.
Comparing the two periods
The early period of intensive work in the Nene Washes (1999-2003) took place when the population was increasing strongly, a trend that continued until 2006. The later period (2015-2019) coincided with a shallow decline. For conservationists, keen to maintain a UK population of breeding Black-tailed Godwits, it is important to understand the causes of the differences in population trends, if the right conservation solutions are to be deployed to resolve ongoing problems for this red-listed wader.
Adult survival: Large waders, such as Black-tailed Godwits, are long-lived birds (see Measuring Shorebird Survival) and it is unsurprising that the annual survival rate of Black-tailed Godwits nesting in the Nene Washes was found to be high, with an estimate of 88%. The short period of time available between ringing and potential observations for birds that were marked in the second period (2015-2019) meant that there were fewer sightings from which to calculate survival rates of birds from this recent period. Despite this smaller sample, the research team are confident that adult survival has not declined over time and is therefore not the cause of the change in population trend between the two periods.
Nest Survival: The number of nests lost to flooding was very low indeed; none in the earlier period and only 1% in the later. Nest desertion rates were higher in the more recent period (7%) than during 1999-2003 (2%) but the differences are not statistically significant. The big change is in predation rates. Only 22% of the nests that failed in the period 1999-2003 failed due to predation but this more than doubled in 2015-2019. Analyses that took account of lay-date showed that the chance of hatching was much lower in 2015-2019 than in 1999-2003, irrespective of the timing of nesting attempts.
Chick survival: Given the increased predation of nests, it is perhaps unsurprising that the chick survival rates were also lower in 2015-2019 than in 1999-2003. Modelling suggests that a Black-tailed Godwit chick that hatched in one of the summers between 1999 and 2003 was between 2.4 and 3.6 times as likely to survive the first fourteen days of life as a chick that hatched between 2015 and 2019.
Explaining the patterns
The Ouse and Nene Washes are only 24 km apart but adults are highly site-faithful, and it is therefore likely that birds will try to nest in the same place in consecutive years, if at all possible. The Ouse Washes population was not marked at the time of the flooding events in the springs of the 1990s, so we do not know whether the growth in numbers on the Nene during this period was linked to flood-related declines on the Ouse. However, we do know that, when water levels are too high at either the Ouse or the Nene Washes, pairs will nest on nearby arable fields, just outside the flood plain. Nests on arable fields at the Nene have never resulted in successful fledging, so any such attempts near the Ouse in the 1990s may well have gone unnoticed.
As discussed in Site fidelity in Black-tailed Godwits, chicks are also highly philopatric (tending to return to the site from which they fledged). Of the 63 chicks raised on the Nene Washes, for which subsequent breeding locations have been ascertained, 61 have been found breeding in their natal area. This is the same pattern as found in the Dutch breeding areas. It is likely that the growth in numbers in the Nene Washes in the period 1977 to 2006 was driven by high productivity and subsequent local recruitment. The key question is therefore ‘why has breeding success declined since this time?’
Some causes of reduced breeding success can be ruled out. None of the 213 nests was trampled by grazing cattle (see Big Foot and the Redshank nest) and only one nest was flooded. This leaves predation as the main cause of low success. The authors suggest three things that might have changed:
Lower numbers of other waders: Over half of the other waders nesting in the Nene Washes study area disappeared between 2000 and 2016, with losses of 73% of breeding Lapwing, 46% of Redshank and 49% of Snipe. The number of Black-tailed Godwit nests increased during this period. These four species all work together to raise the alarm if a predator is present and to mob mammalian predators such as fox and stoat. Reduced overall wader numbers could have reduced predator deterrence and will certainly have meant that there were fewer nests of other waders for predators to find.
Reduction in non-wader prey: The number of Pheasants in the area surrounding the Nene Washes is thought to have decreased, with reductions in the numbers released for shooting. Fewer pheasants around during the breeding season may result in a reduction in the availability of Pheasant eggs, sitting females and chicks. The lack of this food could have increased predator pressure on breeding waders.
Broader suite of predators: Badgers, Common Buzzards and Red Kites have colonised the area and Marsh Harrier numbers have increased. Badgers are known to target ground-nesting birds and avian predators take eggs, chicks and occasional adults.
What to do next?
The head-starting project has been designed to give a short-term boost to numbers of breeding Black-tailed Godwits on the Ouse and Nene Washes. In the longer term, Project Godwit aims to improve habitat management in ways that can lead to increased productivity, without head-starting. The authors identify several actions to try to increase productivity, which include:
- Maintain the openness of the wader nesting area, by removing trees, reed beds and rushes, in which predators can perch, nest and hide (there’s more about this in Mastering Lapwing conservation).
- Attempt to increase the abundance of alternative prey (small mammals) in the surrounding landscape (see Can habitat management rescue Lapwing populations?).
- Provide diversionary food for key avian predators (see Deterring birds of prey).
- Use a mixture of fences and predator control (see Toolkit for wader conservation).
- Flood the grassland in the winter period, to reduce numbers of small mustelids (stoats and weasels) in the godwit nesting areas and concentrate small mammal prey (e.g. mice and voles) on the edges of the Nene Washes.
Some additional thoughts (not in the paper)
The growth in the Nene Washes population of Black-tailed Godwit between 1977 and 2006 suggests that Black-tailed Godwits can do well in the right circumstances. Perhaps there are other areas of lowland wet grassland – especially ones with low predator densities or effective predator management – in which head-started individuals might thrive?
An annual survival rate of 88% means that only about one in eight adults dies in a given year. If survival rates change then that can have a major effect on the viability of a small population. The reliance of limosa Black-tailed Godwits upon a limited number of habitats and key sites in the non-breeding season, especially in Portugal, Spain and Senegal, make them very vulnerable to changes, whether brought about by climate, new farming systems (especially rice growing) or habitat removal (see blog about planned airport in Tagus estuary. The conservation of limosa Black-tailed Godwits is a flyway-scale challenge, as outlined in this action plan, produced by AEWA.
Diagnosing the recent population decline of Black-tailed Godwits in the United Kingdom. Mo A. Verhoeven, Jennifer Smart, Charlie Kitchin, Sabine Schmit, Mark Whiffin, Malcolm Burgess and Norman Ratcliffe. Wader Study.
This study was jointly funded by the RSPB and Natural England through the Action for Birds in England Partnership and through an EU LIFE Nature Programme project (LIFE15 NAT/UK/00753 – LIFE Blackwit UK) in partnership with the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust with support from the National Lottery Heritage Fund via the Back from the Brink Programme.
WaderTales blogs are written by Graham Appleton (@GrahamFAppleton) to celebrate waders and wader research. Many of the articles are based on published papers, with the aim of making shorebird science available to a broader audience.