Putting the flags out – to learn more about one of the most amazing species of migrating wader.
When we caught 505 Bar-tailed Godwits on the Wash, on the east coast of England, on 29 August 1976 we thought that we would add hugely to our knowledge of the species’ migration but we were disappointed. In just six years, by adding leg-flags to just 248 birds, the Wash Wader Ringing Group has learnt a lot more.
Forty years ago
On 29 August 1976, in the days of stubble-burning, we had covered four cannon nets with fine, black burnt chaff to hide them almost completely. We knew that the big tide would push birds off the saltings and over the sea wall, there were decoys to pull the birds into the right 1% of a vast, flat field and the weather was good. Everything was ready. I was in a one-man, cabbage-crate hide, in line with my set of two nets. I remember seeing one Redshank look at the decoys and descend, pulling down a vast cloud of over 2000 Bar-tailed Godwits. There were some concerns about birds being too close to one of the nets on my line so we fired three nets, catching 505 bar-tailed godwits and 44 other waders.
A catch of 505 Bar-tailed Godwits seemed like a game-changer, including 22 that were already wearing rings. 483 new birds were bound to make a huge difference to our understanding of the species’ migration patterns and survival probabilities … surely? Up until that day, the Wash Wader Ringing Group (WWRG) had ringed a total of 1136 Bar-tailed Godwits so we were adding over 40% to the total, using harder rings with a much longer life-expectancy than those added as early as 1959.
This was a moulting flock; an autumn drop in numbers and a previous recovery of a bird in Spain suggested that many birds would spend the winter elsewhere but where? As luck would have it, only one of the birds from August 1976 has ever been found abroad – a bird shot in France in February 1985. The only British recoveries have been a bird found dead in Yorkshire in November 1976 and seven birds found around the Wash between 1979 and 1999. As to subsequent recaptures, 38 birds have been caught again by the WWRG, five of which were retrapped for a third time. With all the best models in the world, these figures are not enough to give a reasonable estimate of survival and there is no way that a change in survival rate could be picked up.
It’s pleasing to report that one bird was still alive on 21 February 2003 – over 28 years after ringing – but even this is not the longevity record for a BTO Bar-tailed Godwit. That’s held by another WWRG bird that was ringed on 22 August 1974 and last recaptured on 4 August 2008 – nearly 34 years later. Perhaps one of the 1976 birds is still alive and waiting to be caught again?
Bar-tailed Godwit migration
Since the 1976 catch, WWRG has been a bit more fortunate in its foreign recoveries of metal-ringed Bar-tailed Godwit, with 2 recoveries in Mauritania, one in Guinea Bissau and another on a ship off Guinea, out of a total of 12 BTO-ringed birds found in Africa. A bird caught in Teesmouth on 13 October 1982 was in Western Sahara five days later, which may give an indication of the timing of post-moult movement. The map alongside shows the full set of BTO recoveries (purple) and foreign-ringed birds found in Britain & Ireland (orange). The dots show the westward post-breeding movement from Russia to the Atlantic coast of Europe and the onward migration of thousands of birds to Africa.
One of the fascinating things about migration is the way that different populations of the same species have developed radically different migration patterns since the last Ice Age, the global maximum extent of which was reached only 20,000 years ago. At the same time that the Bar-tailed Godwits we see in Western Europe are making relatively modest journeys west and south in late summer, some of those of the baueri subspecies are undertaking nine-day, non-stop flights from Alaska to New Zealand. The physiological processes and navigational techniques that birds on the Pacific flyway have mastered would amaze their European cousins. To read more about flyway evolution for Arctic waders, and Knot in particular, see a Review by Theunis Piersema (Journal of Ornithology, 2011).
Bar-tailed Godwits are classified as near-threatened by BirdLife International and the IUCN. There are four recognised subspecies facing various threats, as shown in the species fact-sheet here.
Two subspecies visit the Wash Special Protection Area (SPA); lapponica from Norway through to western Siberia and taymyrensis from central Siberia. Two subspecies, menzbieri and baueri, use the East Asian-Australasian Flyway and are both undergoing extremely rapid declines, in large part due to severe habitat loss in the Yellow Sea. As a result of severe problems for waders using this flyway, the species has been uplisted to Near Threatened (BIrdLife International).
Satellite-tagging has revealed the impressive trans-oceanic migration routes of individuals between Alaska and New Zealand and shown the importance of the Yellow Sea for birds as they return north in the spring. Colour-rings and flags have shown that there has been a sudden drop in survival rates for Bar-tailed Godwits and other species using sites in China and other rapidly developing countries of South-East Asia, leading to urgent calls for conservation initiatives at an international scale. You can read more about this emerging story in these three papers.
For Bar-tailed Godwits wintering in western Europe there is currently less immediate conservation concern, although there are warming conditions in their breeding grounds and over-fishing and emerging diseases of shellfish are known to be affecting estuaries on both sides of the North Sea. Things are more worrying in West Africa, where numbers have declined from 746,000 to 498,000 over a period of 30 years, according to a report by van Roomen et al. Some of these birds spend time in the Wash in the autumn on their way south.
Flying the flag
Given the worsening conservation status of Bar-tailed Godwits and the gaps in our understanding of what is happening to birds that visit the Wash SPA, the WWRG decided that it would help if birds could be monitored through colour-ringing. That way, the movement and survival of individuals can be monitored using a telescope instead of relying on recapture.
The flagging of Bar-tailed Godwits on the Wash has dramatically increased the number of records of birds subsequent to ringing but the scheme is still in its early days. Flagging started in August 2010 but the first significant catch did not take place until 11 February 2012, when 56 birds was flagged. According to Phil Atkinson, who runs the WWRG database for the species, one third of the birds from this catch have been resighted alive in the four years since that catch (compared to 1% recapture rate for metal-ringed birds in the four years after the 1976 catch).
Most resightings have been on the Wash and those from elsewhere have tended to confirm what was known from metal ringing. A moulting bird on the Wash was seen on the Wirral (northwest England) in the same autumn, showing that birds moulting on the Wash can move elsewhere in Northwest Europe to winter. A non-moulting bird, caught at Terrington on 30 September 2011, was resighted at Ebel Khaznaya, Mauritania 50 days later. These two resightings confirmed that the Wash is an important site not only for the wintering Fenno-Scandinavian and western Siberian lapponica breeding populations but also central Siberian taymyrensis birds, that pass through in autumn to wintering areas in West Africa. The majority of overseas records have come from the Wadden Sea in spring and autumn, when birds have been on return passage to the breeding areas. There’s a 1996 summary of migratory movements of metal-ringed WWRG birds here:
By the end of 2015, 248 Bar-tailed Godwits had been colour-ringed and 92 of them seen again, many locally on the Wash. These high resighting rates are a consequence of focused searches by WWRG members and reports from birdwatchers submitting their records to email@example.com. Over the next few years it will be possible to estimate annual survival probabilities and to monitor how these change in the medium to long term. As was shown in the Yellow Sea, spotting a dramatic drop in colour-ring return rates provides evidence that development pressures are having an impact upon migratory species. Worsening conditions in the breeding grounds or wintering areas could well be detected through a more gradual but no less serious reduction in survival rates.
There is a global review of survival rates in this paper: Méndez, V., Alves, J. A., Gill, J. A. and Gunnarsson, T. G. (2018), Patterns and processes in shorebird survival rates: a global review. Ibis. doi:10.1111/ibi.12586. The paper is summarised in this WaderTales blog: Measuring shorebird survival.
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.