Fenland rare bird project boosted by migratory success

A one-day-old black-tailed godwit chick - it is hoped the species' UK breeding population will will

A one-day-old black-tailed godwit chick - it is hoped the species' UK breeding population will will increase in the East Anglian Fens. Picture: WILL MEINDERTS - Credit: Will Meinderts

Hand-reared black-tailed godwits fly from East Anglia to Portugal

An adult black-tailed godwit. Picture: DAVID MORRIS / RSPB

An adult black-tailed godwit. Picture: DAVID MORRIS / RSPB - Credit: Archant

Conservationists trying to strengthen the precarious UK population of a majestic wading bird for which the East Anglian Fens is a vital breeding area have been heartened by news of the migratory journeys of two hand-reared individuals of the species.

Black-tailed godwit is one of the UK’s rarest breeding birds with a tiny population centred on flatlands of the Fens - the species having returned to breed in England in the 1930s after an absence of more than a century.

With a vulnerable population, the imposing long-legged and long-billed birds are red-listed in the UK and are classed as “Near Threatened” globally - status that means they are likely to be threatened with extinction in the near future.

A major five-year conservation project involving hand-rearing black-tailed godwits is under way to increase the UK breeding population and now two of the project’s birds have been discovered about 1,200 miles away from East Anglia in one of the species’ key wintering areas - with one of them having previously called in to the RSPB’s Old Hall Marshes nature reserve near Tolleshunt D’Arcy in Essex. The discovery - made by observation of the birds’ individually identifiable coloured leg-rings fitted to them as part of the project, means that the two hand-reared birds successfully completed their autumn migration and gives hope that the project will succeed.

An adult black-tailed godwit in the species' favoured breeding habitat. Picture: CONTRIBUTED

An adult black-tailed godwit in the species' favoured breeding habitat. Picture: CONTRIBUTED - Credit: Archant

More than two dozen black-tailed godwits were set free in the Cambridgeshire Fens, having been hand-reared in a process known as “headstarting” to give them better chances of survival and eventually boosting the species’ numbers by breeding in the future.

After their release, the birds joined wild flocks and two of the godwits have now been reported by Dutch ornithologists among a flock on the Tagus Estuary near Lisbon in Portugal.

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The 25 young birds were released last June by wildlife experts from the RSPB and the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) as part of Project Godwit to increase numbers of the birds in the UK. Eggs were taken from nests and hatched in incubators at WWT Welney Wetland Centre before staff hand-reared the young birds away from dangers such as predators and flooding until they were old enough to look after themselves.

It was the first time “headstarting” had been used in the UK, and the new sightings are the first time any of the birds have been seen outside the country.

The Project Godwit team welcomed the news that their birds had migrated safely.

While tens of thousands of the “islandica” subspecies of black-tailed godwits overwinter in the UK, most of them breed in Iceland. The UK has a small, vulnerable breeding population of only about 50 or 60 pairs of another subspecies, “limosa”, which migrate south for winter, and it is these birds the Project Godwit scheme hopes to boost.

Project manager Hannah Ward, said: “Bird migration is an amazing feat and it’s fraught with dangers. These two godwits were last seen on opposite sides of the UK, one in Essex and the other in Somerset. It’s a huge relief to hear they have both made it to the same spot in Portugal safe and sound.

“They’re still less than a year old, so they probably won’t attempt return to the UK to breed this year, but older godwits should be setting off right now.”

She urged all birdwatchers to look out for birds that had been colour-ringed in the project and report them to https://projectgodwit.org.uk

Project Godwit is a partnership involving the RSPB and WWT, with major funding from the EU Life Nature programme, the HSBC 50th Anniversary Fund, Natural England and the Heritage Lottery Fund.

It has been set up to help what is one of the most vulnerable populations of any of the UK’s rare birds. Birds of the “limosa” subspecies started breeding regularly on the Ouse Washes - a Site of Special Scientific Interest stretching from near St Ives in Cambridgeshire to Downham Market in Norfolk - in 1952.

After reaching a peak of 65 breeding pairs there in the early 1970s and with the species also starting to colonise Cambridgeshire’s Nene Washes, a series of spring floods resulted in numbers halving by the late 1980s. Now the majority of the Fenland population is found at the Nene Washes, where 42 pairs were recorded in 2016. In recent years, the Fens’ breeding population has continued to be affected by increased flooding in spring and summer - particularly on the Ouse Washes - and predation, both of which can result in the loss of nests and chicks.

Outside the Fens, “limosa” godwits have occasionally bred on marshes in Suffolk and Essex, but only very sporadically and in tiny numbers, and a small number of the “islandica” subspecies also now breeds regularly in Orkney and Shetland.

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