Looking out for godwits

Hannah Ward

Tuesday 14 May 2019

Black tailed godwit chicks, tagged as part of the RSPB and WWT’s Project Godwit

Black-tailed godwits that breed in the UK migrate to the warmer climes of Spain, Portugal and West Africa for the winter months. Hannah Ward from Project Godwit explains what we’ve learnt about their migration and how efforts are being made

Giving godwits a headstart

Black-tailed godwits are a rare breeding bird in the UK, with fewer than 50 pairs found at just a handful of sites. Most godwits breed in the Cambridgeshire and Norfolk fens where Project Godwit, a partnership between the RSPB and WWT, is aiming to turn around their fortunes. Here we have been rearing and releasing birds into suitable habitat, a process known as headstarting. We’re using headstarting to boost the population breeding at the Ouse Washes and fast-track the growth of this small population.

The godwits that breed at the Nene and Ouse Washes spend the non-breeding season at wetland sites in Spain, Portugal and West Africa. It’s always exciting when we receive news of one of “our” birds and we’re very grateful to the observers across the flyway for reporting their sightings to us. Our headstarted birds have popped up on the coast of France, and in wetland sites in Portugal and Spain. Two of our birds have also been seen in the Netherlands (Anouk) and Belgium (Remi) before returning to the UK fens.

Headstarted black tailed godwits Credit Bob Ellis WWT-min.jpg

Photo: Headstarted black-tailed godwit chicks being are cared for at WWT Welney. Credit: Photo Bob Ellis WWT.

Eighteen headstarted birds have been seen so far back in the fens, this spring. The birds have been keeping the team busy and we’ve been out surveying to find as many colour ringed birds as possible. For many of the returning headstarted birds, this should be their first breeding season, so we’re looking forward to seeing what happens next. You can find out more about the released birds here: https://projectgodwit.org.uk/meet-the-birds/

Manea black tailed godwit Credit Jonathan Taylor RSPB-min.jpg

Image: Manea, one of eighteen headstarted birds seen at the Project Sites to date in 2019. Credit: Jonathan Taylor RSPB.


Colour ringing
As well as colour ringing the released birds, we are using colour ring sightings to build up a more complete picture of where the birds breeding in the fens spend their time away from the breeding grounds. One of our breeding females from the Nene Washes has been seen in Senegal for the last three winters in a row. When she was first re-sighted in 2016 this was the first time a bird breeding in the UK had been spotted in West Africa.

Black tailed godwit Nene Washes Credit Bram Piot-min.jpg

Image: This breeding female from the Nene Washes spends the winter in Senegal. Credit: Bram Piot.

Colour ring sightings are fantastic, but they still only provide us with details of where are bird has been at a particularly point in time. To build a more complete picture of the godwits’ movements, we’ve been fitting some of the birds with geolocators. Geolocators are tiny light-weight tracking devices, which can be fitted to a leg-ring or flag. Using geolocators will allow us to build a more complete picture not only of the locations these birds are using, but also the schedule of their migration. YO-OL(E), a breeding female black-tailed godwit from the Nene Washes, spends the winter somewhere close to the Senegal and Guinea Bissau border. We know this because we were able to fit her with a geolocator at the Nene Washes, which was retrieved last year, revealing her migration movements.

It’s early days for this work – one of the difficulties of using geolocators is that you have to recapture the bird in order to retrieve the tag – but in the future we hope we will be able to compare the migratory behaviour of our wild and headstarted birds.

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

Follow Project Godwit on Twitter @projectgodwit

Find out more about bird migration

Last Updated: Thursday 16 May 2019

Tagged with: Topic: Other migrants