Conservationists help region’s black-tailed godwits come out of their shell

Two young black- tailed godwit chicks inside the rearing aviary Picture: Georgette Taylor/RSPB

Two young black- tailed godwit chicks inside the rearing aviary Picture: Georgette Taylor/RSPB - Credit: Archant

The hard work of conservationists has helped boost the UK population of the rare and threatened wading bird, the black-tailed godwit.

Earith at RSPB Ouse Washes, the first headstarted bired to breed successfully Picture: Jonathan Tay

Earith at RSPB Ouse Washes, the first headstarted bired to breed successfully Picture: Jonathan Taylor/RSPB - Credit: Archant

Despite spring flooding and a summer heatwave, this year’s flock, the mainstay of which can be found at two wetland locations in Cambridgeshire, has had a successful nesting season, thanks to a dedicated group behind Project Godwit, a scheme that combines the expertise of teams from the RSPB and the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT).

Egg rescue

When black-tailed godwits returned to the Fens to nest in March, weather conditions were less than ideal and floodwaters had covered most of the land they normally use for laying their eggs at the RSPB Nene Washes nature reserve. Desperate to begin their breeding season, some of the long-legged birds were forced to lay their eggs in a nearby field but it was soon found that some of these had become stuck in wet mud.

Black-tailed godwit released wearing geolocator Picture: Jen Smart/RSPB

Black-tailed godwit released wearing geolocator Picture: Jen Smart/RSPB - Credit: Archant

Fortunately, the team was already planning to remove a number of eggs to raise chicks in special bird rearing facilities to boost their chances of survival, and by working with the farmer who owned the field, they collected 32 precious eggs in addition to the 23 from the nature reserve as planned, and incubated them at WWT Welney Wetland Centre.


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Project manager Hannah Ward said: “When we rescued the eggs from the fields we were very worried that the chicks might not survive due to the muddy conditions of some of the eggs, so it was quite a nerve-wracking wait to see if any of them would hatch.

“Meanwhile our team on the nature reserve worked hard to make sure that when the water receded, there were areas where more godwits could nest in safety away from the flood.”

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The effort has been worth it - an impressive 38 chicks were released at Welney and the Nene Washes once they were ready to fend for themselves. They joined the wild flocks which included 18 wild-hatched chicks and nine of the black-tailed godwits which were released as youngsters last year and had returned.

Mud-covered black-tailed godwit eggs Picture: Ian Dillon/RSPB

Mud-covered black-tailed godwit eggs Picture: Ian Dillon/RSPB - Credit: Archant

Decline

Such care and attention has been taken because there are less that 60 known breeding pairs of black-tailed godwits in the UK - the vast majority in Cambridgeshire. And while thousands of these handsome and striking birds visit our shores each year - up to 40,000 stop over on their journey from Iceland in the winter while migrants also visit from Europe in the summer - there are concerns that the global population of between 600,000 and 800,000 is plummeting.

Worldwide numbers are estimated to have been reduced by a quarter in the past 25 years, while the size of the European contingent has decreased by up to half, according to Birdlife International. Loss of habitat, as fenlands have been drained for agricultural use around the world, is believed to be the main reason for this decline - reducing the locations where godwits can feed by probing deep into water for worms, molluscs and seeds.

Members of the Project Godwit team Picture: Bob Ellis/WWT

Members of the Project Godwit team Picture: Bob Ellis/WWT - Credit: Archant

Project Godwit focuses on two wetlands in the east of England – the Ouse and Nene Washes - where conservationists from the RSPB and WWT are growing the black-tailed godwit population by enhancing ideal habitat, trialling methods to increase productivity, improving understanding of local and migratory movements, rearing and releasing godwit chicks and increasing support among local communities.

The project has been made possible through the Back from the Brink programme - an ambitious initiative that aims to save 20 species from extinction and benefit over 200 more through 19 projects that span England. The Shifting Sands project in the Brecks on the Suffolk/Norfolk border is also part of the programme - where work is continuing to restore habitats that are home to nationally important populations of stone curlew, nightjar and woodlark.

Geolocators

Manea - one of the black-tailed godwits released in 2017 was back in the Fens in 2018 Picture: Jonat

Manea - one of the black-tailed godwits released in 2017 was back in the Fens in 2018 Picture: Jonathan Taylor/RSPB - Credit: Archant

While there is long way to go in securing the UK population of black-tailed godwits, senior aviculturist from WWT, Nicola Hiscock, said the team are thrilled with the progress the birds have made this year.

She added: “In fact, two of the godwit chicks raised at Welney last year had families of their own which is a really good sign that the methods we’re using, headstarting the young birds to give them the best chance in the wild, is working.”

Some of the birds that fledged this year were fitted with geolocators, allowing researchers to learn more about where the birds travel to in the winter.

Research like this means that UK-based conservation teams can work with their equivalent organisations in other countries to ensure the birds have safe places to fly through or spend the colder months.

This year ten new devices were fitted and two were collected from birds tagged in 2017. One of these showed that a female godwit went all the way to West Africa and back, stopping off in Spain, Portugal and Norfolk on her way before returning back to the Fens to breed. And as the godwits depart for the winter, the Project Godwit team is calling on birdwatchers to send in sightings of the released birds, which all have a unique combination of colour leg rings, to help them build up a picture of the important areas the birds need.

Visit the Project Godwit website: projectgodwit.org.uk log a sighting.

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