There are two subspecies of Black-tailed Godwit in the UK, and one of them is in real trouble. The birds you’re likely to see in winter are the Icelandica race, which stay here or drop in on passage, and we can get large flocks on the coast, and at the Nene and Ouse Washes. Most of these breed in Iceland, but a small number nest regularly in Orkney and Shetland. The limosa subspecies, nest here in small numbers, around 50 pairs. There are other populations of this subspecies in the Netherlands, France and Germany. In the winter they fly south to Portugal, Spain and West Africa. If you’ve been birding in China or Russia you may have seen a third subspecies, melanuroides.
At the beginning of the 19th Century breeding black-tailed godwits declined in the UK to the point where they were extinct as regular breeders. The most likely causes for this were hunting and drainage of wetlands. Over a century later, the limosa subspecies began breeding here once more and have settled around the Nene and Ouse Washes in Cambridgeshire. Numbers peaked at around 65 pairs in the 1970s but have fallen since then. Because of the small and declining population, Black-tailed Godwits are Red listed in the UK.
The main reasons for this more recent decline are believed to be flooding, and predation. The Nene and Ouse populations, where the godwits nest in damp, grassy areas, are particularly vulnerable to flooding, and with an increase in spring floods they are at greater risk than ever. The godwit’s initial stronghold was the Ouse Washes, but as flooding became an issue, more moved to the Nene. These floods have been linked to climate change, along with changes in weather and land use. Predation, particularly by foxes, is an extra pressure driving the godwit decline. This is likely to have worsened over time as predatory mammals have increased and at the same time wetlands have become fragmented giving mammals easy access to these important wetlands.
about project godwit
Project Godwit, a partnership between the RSPB and the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT) began in August 2016, aiming to help this fragile population recover. The project will run for five years, with major funding from the EU LIFE Nature Programme, the HSBC 150th Anniversary fund, Natural England and the Heritage Lottery Fund, through the Back from the Brink Programme.
Hannah Ward, who manages the project said: "Our breeding godwits are in trouble but the wonderful thing about this partnership is that we're able to draw on the expertise of staff and volunteers across our two organisations. We are practically neighbours in the Fens, with our reserves Nene Washes and Ouse Washes, and WWT's Welney, all fairly close together."
Science and technology
The Project Godwit team are using the latest technology in this pioneering project. First, they monitor nests throughout the breeding season. This includes fitting each located nest with a small device that can record temperature, which tells researchers when the eggs are being incubated and therefore when nests get predated. Nest cameras are also deployed in some nests so that if eggs are lost, Project Godwit can identify the cause.
In addition, Project Godwit carefully monitor the presence of mammals on the nesting site using trail cameras and ink tunnels, which can capture the footprints of animals like voles and stoats.
The team also want to find out where the limosa godwits are going after the breeding season is over. So tiny trackers are fitted to rings, which are put on the birds’ legs. These geolocators record light levels, which can be used to determine latitude and longitude, and therefore the bird’s location. In 2017 these were attached to sixteen black-tailed godwits. When the birds return in spring, if they can be caught, Project Godwit can download the data and find out where they’ve been spending the winter.
All godwits have a combination of colour rings which makes it possible to identify individuals through binoculars and telescopes. Project Godwit is benefitting from a fantastic network of birdwatchers who send in sightings of Black-tailed Godwits.
Boosting Godwit numbers
Before anything else can be done, it is crucial for Project Godwit to make sure there are areas for the birds to nest which are outside the ‘flood risk’ zones. The team call these "lifeboat sites”. Both the RSPB and WWT are making improvements to their own sites but also managing other areas by creating wet grassland where the birds can safely nest. A new eel-friendly pump at Nene Washes, for example, will allow the team to control water levels.
More than 3,500m of temporary electric fencing was installed in 2017, protecting godwits from large ground predators such as foxes. This has had an immediate positive effect on nest survival rates, and more fences will be deployed this year.
The next step is to give the godwits a helping hand by increasing their numbers. Black-tailed Godwits produce four eggs a year, but life on the wetlands of East Anglia is tough and in some years very few even make it to fledging. Using a technique called 'headstarting', Project Godwit remove batches of eggs (under a licence from Natural England) to rear the chicks in captivity at WWT Welney Wetland Centre, getting them past the most vulnerable stage of their lives. These birds are then released into the wild.
Most of the female godwits whose eggs were removed for headstarting went on to lay a second clutch, and raised the hatchlings themselves.
Nicky Hiscock, lead aviculturalist from WWT Welney who reared the chicks says "We feel like proud parents when we prepare the godwits for release. It's an emotional moment because not only have you grown very attached to these birds, but you also know the significance this has for a bird on the brink of being lost from the UK."
2017 godwit breeding season results
The Nene Washes holds between 80 and 90% of the entire UK breeding population of Black-tailed Godwits. In 2017, there were 35 pairs of the birds nesting, a decline from 42 in 2016 and they fledged five young. Three pairs nest at WWT Welney, and last year they successfully fledged two young.
In 2017 the team reared and released the first batch of juvenile godwits, 26 birds in total. This means that by headstarting alongside good habitat and predator management the team has boosted godwit breeding success to one of the highest levels in recent years.
Last year, one of the female godwits who had her first clutch of eggs collected laid a second clutch of eggs, as the team had hoped. She successfully fledged a chick of her own and a few weeks after the headstarted birds were released she was seen in the same flock as her headstarted chick.
In February, two of the headstarted godwits were sighted in Portugal, 1,200 miles from their release site. Dutch ornithologists found the birds among a flock on the Tagus Estuary in Lisbon. As the birds hadn’t been seen since July it was a relief that they were alive, well, and behaving normally. The team also spotted an adult female who has been ringed as a chick at the Nene Washes in 1999 – making her almost 19 years old. Project Godwit is working hard to create safe, flood free habitat for her when she returns in spring.
How you can help
All colour-ringed godwits from Project Godwit have a lime coloured ring with a letter E combined with other colour rings or flags. Help Project Godwit track the colour-ringed birds. The team have been delighted by the response from the birding community who have been sending in their sightings. If you see a bird with a lime E, you can report this through our website.