It’s all change in the East Anglian Washes in April, as a small number of limosa Black-tailed Godwits return to breed while thousands of islandica godwits are preparing to depart.
The Ouse and Nene Washes in Norfolk and Cambridgeshire are designated as Special Protection Areas (SPAs) under the European Birds Directive, in large part because of their breeding and wintering wader populations. Although the primary reason for their esixtence is to store water that falls as heavy rain further inland, and to thus prevent the flooding of arable farmland, this periodic inundation has created areas that are relatively free of development and hence great nature sites. There are no buildings and farming is largely restricted to seasonal grazing, much of which is tailored to provide appropriate feeding areas for wader chicks in the summer and ducks in the winter.
Typically, only about 40 pairs of limosa Black-tailed Godwits attempt to breed on the Nene Washes each year and 2 to 4 pairs on the Ouse Washes. Productivity can be low, despite positive habitat management, with summer flooding accounting for frequent losses on the Ouse Washes, while predation has become a recent issue affecting productivity on the Nene Washes.
Problems for breeding limosa are not restricted to England. This is a race that is in trouble, especially in the Netherlands, where the Black-tailed Godwit is the national bird. Attempts have been made to adapt grassland management during the breeding season and to restrict autumn hunting in France but numbers are still declining. There could also be problems with declining area and quality of wetlands in West Africa, where these birds spend the middle part of the winter.
Many chicks from the Nene Washes were colour-ringed by RSPB scientists between 1999 and 2003. We know that some of these birds turned up at coastal sites in England in the early autumn before joining birds from continental Europe as they travelled south through France, Spain and Portugal and on to countries such as Mauretania and Guinea Bissau in western Africa.
A new colour-ring scheme started in 2015, which also involves marking breeding adults. It produced the first colour-ring observation of a Nene-breeding Black-tailed Godwit in Africa. YR-RE (Yellow Red – Red E-Lime) was spotted feeding near Dakar, Senegal on 3rd and 4th January 2016. She was seen again on a Portuguese rice-field on 2nd February 2016. When she returns to the Nene Washes of Cambridgeshire she will find lots of islandica already in residence.
Limosa or Islandica?
It is not easy to distinguish between the two races of Black-tailed Godwits, unless there are marked individuals wearing colour-rings. Even in breeding plumage the differences are subtle. Some male islandica are small and dark but there is much variation across the subspecies. Head shape may be helpful. In the pictures alongside, the bill of the limosa seems to be a smooth extension of the head and there is much less of a distinct forehead than in an islandica. Body size and shape measurements may assist researchers but birds can still be misidentified in the hand. Occasional birds that have been satellite-tagged as limosa in Portugal or Spain end up migrating to Iceland instead of the Netherlands.
The Washes have not been managed for Icelandic Black-tailed Godwits and their use of the site in the winter is a relatively new phenomenon. These days a flock can appear at the WWT Welney Reserve as early as November and there will almost certainly be some birds to see on the reserve or on nearby washes, unless water levels are very high. Many of these godwits will have previously moulted close by, on the Wash & Humber, but others will join them from the Suffolk and Essex estuaries. When Jenny Gill and I visited the site on 30 December 2015 there had been a recent influx of birds and we identified 42 colour-ringed individuals from east coast estuaries. In January 2016, following heavy rainfall that flooded the Washes, there was a sudden influx of hundreds of extra godwits to the Stour estuary in Essex, that included several that we had seen at Welney in December.
As February turns to March and then April, more new birds join the flocks feeding along the water’s edge in the flooded washes. The appearance of birds wearing orange flags and green flags signals the arrival of individuals from France and Portugal. Although most birds that winter in continental Europe prepare for the last leg of their journeys to Iceland in The Netherlands others choose to fatten up in eastern England.
Use of the Nene Washes is less predictable than the Ouse Washes but large flocks can be found during late March and April. In some springs, four-figure flocks feed on the RSPB reserve at Welches Dam on the Ouse but in others, such as in 2016, the water levels are too high and birds appear on the Nene Washes at Eldernell and further west towards Peterborough on the Low Washes.
Conservation importance for islandica
Every time a birdwatcher reports a flock of 1000 islandica Black-tailed Godwits, she or he is looking at around 2% of the whole Icelandic population, which now likely numbers around 60,000 birds. One of the largest single flocks that has been reported in the area was 4000 on the Nene Washes on 9 March 2008, which must have been about 15% of the Icelandic population at that time. This is an amazingly large part of any wader population to be seen in one place and emphasises the tremendous importance of the Nene and Ouse Washes. Fortunately, much of the land in these areas is farmed in such a way as to provide great breeding and wintering conditions for ground-nesting birds. The only problems occur when prolonged flooding means that these resources are not available to birds preparing for the flight to Iceland
New hope for limosa breeding in the Ouse & Nene Washes
These are exciting times for limosa godwits in the UK. The RSPB, in partnership with WWT, have attracted European funding for a five-year recovery project for these birds. Securing the future of the Nene-breeding godwits is central to this project, through increasing the area of suitable breeding habitat and improving predator management, alongside research to assess the success of these actions. Having only one really key breeding area always leaves a population vulnerable, so re-establishing more breeding populations on the newly created wet grasslands adjacent to the Ouse Washes is also critical to the future of Black-tailed Godwits, as a breeding species in the UK.
WaderTales blogs are written by Graham Appleton, to celebrate waders and wader research. Many of the articles are based on previously published papers, with the aim of making wader science available to a broader audience.