Despite spring flooding and a summer heatwave this years’ flock of black-tailed godwits, rare long-legged wading birds, has had a bumper year thanks to a dedicated team of conservationists.
Project Godwit, which combines the expertise of teams from the RSPB and the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT), reports positive results after a year of drama and discovery.
When black-tailed godwits returned to the Fens to nest in March this year weather conditions were less than ideal: in fact spring flooding covered most of the land the birds normally use at the RSPB Nene Washes nature reserve in Cambridgeshire. Desperate to begin their breeding season some of the birds resorted to laying their eggs in a field near to their traditional nesting grounds but conservationists found that some of the eggs quickly became stuck in wet mud. Fortunately Project Godwit already had plans to remove a number of eggs to raise chicks in special bird rearing facilities, boosting the birds’ chance of survival. So, working with the farmer who owned the field, the team collected 32 precious eggs from the farmland (in addition to 23 from the nature reserve as planned) and incubated them at WWT Welney Wetland Centre.
Project Manager Hannah Ward says “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.”
An amazing 38 leggy little 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.
Nicola Hiscock, Senior Aviculturist from WWT says “We’re thrilled with the progress the birds have made this year. 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.”
The team were also delighted to find godwits breeding at the RSPB Pilot Project site next to the Ouse Washes, a site they’ve only bred at once before, in 2012.
Some of the birds are also 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 geolocators 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.
As the godwits begin to depart for the winter, Project Godwit are calling on birdwatchers to send in sightings of the released birds, which all have a unique combination of colour leg rings. It’s easy to do this on the Project Godwit website: projectgodwit.org.uk and will help the team build up a picture of the important areas the birds need.
One of the major funding sources for Project Godwit is the EU LIFE Nature Programme. As we prepare to leave the EU, Project Godwit partners look forward to seeing how the UK Government will replace this vital source of funding for future conservation projects.