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.
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.
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.
Sightings can be reported to the Project Godwit Team https://projectgodwit.org.uk/get-involved/report-a-sighting/ or to firstname.lastname@example.org
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).
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?
RSPB 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.
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
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:
- Blog: https://wadertales.wordpress.com/2017/01/27/dutch-black-tailed-godwit-numbers-down-by-nearly-75/
- Paper: http://www.bioone.org/doi/abs/10.5253/arde.v104i3.a7
On average, godwits that fly all the way to Africa nest earlier than those that short-stop in Iberia:
- Blog: https://wadertales.wordpress.com/2017/03/27/should-black-tailed-godwits-cross-the-sahara/
- Paper: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/wol1/doi/10.1002/ece3.2879/abstract
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.
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!
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.
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.