Special Black-tailed Godwits

What will happen to 25 head-started juvenile Black-tailed Godwits that were released at Welney, Norfolk, yesterday (12 June)? Here’s how birdwatchers can help to provide answers.

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Black-tailed Godwits nest in the grazing marshes of the Nene Washes in the UK. Photographs in blog from Mark Whiffin, Jennifer Smart, Ian Dillon, Verónica Méndez & Haije Valkema.

If you have heard anything about Project Godwit, you’ll know that eggs from seven pairs of Black-tailed Godwits nesting in the RSPB’s Nene Washes reserve in Eastern England have been hatched in incubators and reared in captivity at WWT Welney. By head-starting’ these eggs/chicks, it is hoped that the tiny, Fenland Black-tailed Godwit population, estimated at around 40 pairs, can receive a much-needed boost in numbers.

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Time to stretch their wings

On 12 June, 25 head-started godwits were released from their aviary. What will happen now? The Project Godwit Team from RSPB and WWT is appealing to birdwatchers to look out for these special birds as they leave the Washes. They are expected to spend time around the East Anglian coast before heading for Spain, Portugal and African countries such as Senegal and Gambia. The chicks have been individually marked but each member of the group has a green ring above a lime ring (engraved with a letter E) on the right tibia (top part of the leg), as can be seen in these pictures.

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GY-GE (green yellow – green E)

Sightings can be reported to the Project Godwit Team https://projectgodwit.org.uk/get-involved/report-a-sighting/ or to jennifer.smart@rspb.org.uk

Background

The small number of Black-tailed Godwits that breed in East Anglia’s wet grassland belong to the limosa subspecies. There are far more birds of this subspecies on the other side of the North Sea but nowhere near as many as there were just a few years ago. (Read this blog about the 75% decline in numbers in The Netherlands).

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Innundation can be a problem in the Washes, which are designed to store flood-water

Unsurprisingly, the tiny breeding population in the UK, individuals of which follow the same migration route as those in The Netherlands, is also under threat. By taking a few first clutches of eggs, and hatching and rearing chicks away from the dangers of predators and flooding, it is hoped that numbers can be given a boost. Most of the pairs from which eggs were taken have laid replacement clutches – giving them a chance to raise a second family themselves.

If a significant number of godwit chicks return to breed then that will be excellent but that’s looking a long way ahead. For now, the Project Godwit team want to know if the released juveniles are going to behave in the same way as they would have done had they been reared by their parents. That’s where birdwatchers come in. As these special birds learn to fly and then disperse from their Welney release site where will they go?

Head-starting

revised mapRSPB scientists colour-ringed free-living Black-tailed Godwits between 1999 and 2003 and more have been marked over the last 3 years. The map alongside indicates sites in East Anglia where previous generations of chicks and adults have been seen in the months from June to September. You’ll see that a lot of them have been spotted on the North Norfolk coast and others in Suffolk – which are also places where there are a lot of birdwatchers. Young godwits – like most other waders – are deserted by their parents before they themselves are ready to make their first migratory journeys. When it is time to move, they rely on an in-built sense of direction but they could also perhaps follow the lead of adults that are not their parents. The hope is that the head-started chicks will behave in a similar way to their naturally-reared brothers and sisters but the Project Godwit team will only know what happens when birdwatchers send in their sightings. It’s an exciting and anxious time for Hannah Ward, the project leader, and her RSPB and WWT colleagues.

Where to next?

Birdwatchers in Norfolk and Suffolk probably have the biggest chance of finding these colour-ringed birds but some of the young Black-tailed Godwits may be seen further south, in Essex and Kent, before crossing the English Channel. During autumn, godwits from this population start to be seen around the Iberian coast, with sightings from between the Tagus Estuary (Lisbon) and Alicante in southern Spain.

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RL-GE (red lime – green E)

The Limosa Black-tailed Godwits (the subspecies that breed in East Anglia, The Netherlands and surrounding countries in mainland Europe) spend the mid-winter period either in Africa or Iberia (Spain and Portugal). As numbers have declined, so the proportion of birds wintering in Europe has become more significant. Some of the newly ringed chicks – which all have a green ring with lime E scheme marker on the right leg – may venture as far as countries on the other side of the Sahara but others could stay in Iberia. Dutch researchers will be visiting African wintering areas to catch up with their limosa birds from the Netherlands and have found Nene Washes birds in previous years. If they get a photograph of one of the head-started birds that will be a day of huge celebration for the Project Godwit team. A sighting in Spain or Portugal will be equally encouraging – anyone planning a birdwatching break in Cota Doñana or the Algarve this winter?

The return journey

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Spring godwit flock takes off from a Portuguese rice field

In the late winter and early spring, the more adventurous Black-tailed Godwits that flew as far as west Africa will cross the Sahara and head for Spain and Portugal. Here, vast flocks gather in places such as the rice fields of the Tagus Estuary. Roos Kentie has been studying these birds; there are two WaderTales blogs about her work that may well be relevant to the head-started birds from the Fens.

There has been a 75% decline in the Dutch population:

headerOn average, godwits that fly all the way to Africa nest earlier than those that short-stop in Iberia:

Hang out the bunting – time to party!

If the Project Godwit team is very lucky, the first of this year’s young Black-tailed Godwits will return to the Ouse and Nene Washes in April or May in 2018. At this time of year, flocks of 1000 or more Black-tailed Godwits are already feeding on the flooded washes but these are birds of another subspecies – islandica godwits that are moulting and putting on fat for their return journeys to Iceland. By the middle of May these islandica flocks will have moved north and the limosa birds should be breeding. There’s a blog about the two subspecies here.

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There’s a worm in here somewhere – will one of these godwits return next year?

Roos Kentie has shown that some Dutch godwits nest in their first year. Imagine how exciting it will be if one of this year’s head-started bird is found breeding in the Nene or Ouse Washes next year. Time to ice the cake and have a party!

You can follow the fortunes of these pioneering Black-tailed Godwits on Twitter via @projectgodwit

Funding

Project Godwit is a partnership between RSPB and WWT, with major funding from the EU Life Nature Programme, The HSBC 150th Anniversary Fund, Natural England and the Heritage Lottery Fund.


 GFA in Iceland

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.

@grahamfappleton

 

Mastering Lapwing conservation

Predation and perceived risk of predation in Lapwings

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Students from the University of East Anglia and conservation organisations such as the RSPB Centre for Conservation Science benefit greatly from applied conservation research by MSc students. Two recent papers, reporting on projects by Sam Leigh and Nik Bertholdt, focus on risks and perceived risks to nesting Lapwings.

Lapwings – a diminishing asset

Blog adultLowland, breeding waders are increasingly confined to nature reserves, and the wet grasslands of the Norfolk Broads retain some of the largest remaining populations of Lapwing and Redshank in England. Over the last two decades, a collaboration between Dr Jennifer Smart of RSPB and Professor Jennifer Gill the University of East Anglia (UEA) has helped to identify some of the key habitat management options that can attract breeding waders. A series of dissertation projects by nine students on the Masters in Applied Ecology and Conservation course at UEA have contributed greatly to this knowledge, complementing four PhD and three post-doctoral projects, as described in Jen Smart’s Wader Study perspectives paper.

Blog chickIn a previous WaderTales blog – A helping hand for Lapwings – there is a summary of some of the actions that can support breeding populations. Short, grazed grass and surface water are attractive to waders at the start of the breeding season and invertebrate densities are greater around these wet features, which generally dry out as the season progresses. However, unsustainably high levels of nest predation mean that numbers of breeding waders are struggling to recover, despite the creation of great breeding habitat. We need to understand which landscape features might influence the risk of nest predation, especially if these features might be managed in ways that could reduce predation rates.

Two  recent MSc dissertations by Sam Leigh and Nik Bertholdt have focused on different aspects of predation risk. Both have recently been published, in Animal Conservation and Bird Study.

Sam LeighBlog Sam

Sam Leigh asked whether patterns of nest predation on a major RSPB nature reserve (Berney Marshes, in the Norfolk Broads) were influenced by management of the surrounding area. Much of the land adjacent to Berney is managed as arable farmland, whilst other areas are grassland. Some of the latter fields are within agri-environment schemes (AES) for breeding waders, and are therefore managed more sympathetically than the commercial land. The main nest predators of Lapwings are foxes, and their activity around the reserve might vary depending on surrounding land (given the large areas over which they can roam).

Blog foxSam compared nest survival rates within the reserve at different distances from the reserve edge, in areas with different surrounding land. He found that foxes tend to avoid parts of the nature reserve next to commercial farmland that is not being managed to favour breeding waders. In parts of the nature reserve that are adjacent to AES-managed land, fox activity was higher and nest predation rates remained constant with increasing distance from the reserve edge into the reserve. This lack of an ‘edge effect’ would suggest that foxes do not distinguish between fields within the nature reserves and AES land managed outside the reserve when they are searching for wader eggs.

Impacts of grassland management on wader nest predation rates in adjacent nature reserves. Leigh, S.J., Smart, J. & Gill, J.A. (2016) Animal Conservation DOI: 10.1111/acv.12283

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Nik Bertholdt worked at Stanny Farm in Suffolk, a commercially-farmed site with breeding waders nesting on the wet grasslands. He had help from extremely supportive landowners, Paul & Louise Cooke, who provided Nik with somewhere to stay and a grant to help with research costs, and local wader enthusiasts (led by Rodney West). Nik wanted to know if the presence of trees and small copses within wet grasslands could potentially influence patterns of Lapwing nest predation. Predators such as foxes and corvids could be attracted to these areas by the presence of small mammal prey (within and around the woodland), the availability of perches for birds or den sites for mammals.

Blog Hay picNik found that Lapwings avoided nesting close to (within 500 m of) the copses but that nest predation rates did not vary with distance from copses at greater distances. This could either mean that predator activity is not focused on these copses or that the Lapwings have avoided predation risk by nesting further away – and hence outside the area of influence of predators. Whatever the reason, Lapwings are not using what would otherwise be thought of as suitable nesting habitat, thereby potentially reducing the numbers of pairs that could nest in the area. Removal of small woodlands in grasslands in which breeding waders are a conservation priority could increase habitat availability for Lapwings.

Landscape effects on nest site selection and nest success of Lapwing Vanellus vanellus in lowland wet grasslands. Bertholdt, N. P., Gill, J.A., Laidlaw, R.A. & Smart, J. (2016). Bird Study DOI:10.1080/00063657.2016.1262816.

UEA MSc in Applied Ecology & Conservation

logoBy working alongside conservation organisations throughout the world, students on the Masters in Applied Ecology and Conservation course at the University of East Anglia have been well placed to combine research experience with learning that is directly aimed at furthering a career in ecology. Sam Leigh is now undertaking a PhD at the University of Reading on ecosystems services in agricultural systems and Nik Bertholdt works for Natural England. On average, three projects each year are later written up as peer-reviewed publications, with support from project supervisors at UEA and in partner organisations, resulting in a WIN-WIN-WIN situation for the students, the university and the partner organisations.

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Harry is using dummy nests, containing hens’ eggs to study predation associated with proximity to Icelandic woodlands.

Students on the MSc AEC course at UEA travel all over the world to carry out conservation-related research projects. For example, Harry Ewing (pictured here) is in Iceland, studying the effects of woodland patches on breeding waders. Other MSc students from this group are currently working on a wide range of projects, including warblers in East Anglia, invasive caterpillars in the Seychelles, sloth bears in India, critically endangered turtles in Vietnam and tropical forest restoration in Brazil.

To learn more about the UEA AEC course please read page 16 of this brochure. Download here. 


 GFA in Iceland

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.

@grahamfappleton