Hand-reared godwits head south


A total of 26 Black-tailed Godwits, hand-reared at Welney WWT, Norfolk, have departed the county on migration.

The first-winter birds were released from captivity just 11 weeks ago and have already been sighted in various locations along the north Norfolk coast thanks to the sharp eyes of site staff and local birders. Two siblings have even been spotted together at Old Hall Marshes RSPB, Essex. It is hoped they will eventually all join other Black-tailed Godwits as far south as sub-Saharan Africa in the coming months.

The eggs of the endangered birds were collected from the wild by RSPB and WWT staff and hatched and raised in captivity as part of Project Godwit, a partnership between the two organisations with major funding from the EU LIFE Nature Programme, the HSBC 150th Anniversary fund, Natural England and the Heritage Lottery Fund. The project aims to secure the future of the species in the fens.

It focuses on two wetlands in the east of England – the Ouse and Nene Washes – where conservationists are trying to increase the British Black-tailed Godwit population by enhancing breeding habitat, trialling methods to increase egg and nestling productivity, improving the understanding of local and migratory movements, rearing and releasing chicks, and increasing support among local communities. The Nene Washes and Ouse Washes have both been designated as SPAs by the UK government, reflecting the international importance of these sites for rare and migratory birds.

Dr Baz Hughes, Head of Conservation Action at WWT, said: “All 26 birds have now dispersed from the Ouse Washes and sightings are starting to come in from the south of England. Perhaps we’ll get a sighting from Spain or Portugal in the next few weeks, and a winter record from Africa would be even better.

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“Please keep your eyes peeled for the Black-tailed Godwits with their distinctive lime-green rings with the letter E on their right legs, and report any sightings.”

Raising young birds from eggs collected in the wild is known as 'headstarting'. The technique is proving a powerful tool for bird conservation, having been used to successfully stabilise numbers of Spoon-billed Sandpiper in Asia.

By headstarting Black-tailed Godwits, the WWT and RSPB are aiming to increase the small breeding population at the Ouse and Nene Washes, two of just a handful of breeding sites of the European subspecies limosa across the UK. The miniscule East Anglian population has suffered setbacks in recent years because of summer flooding. The British breeding population has remained at around 50-70 pairs for the last few decades.

Hannah Ward, RSPB Black-tailed Godwit Recovery Project Manager, added: “Young godwits don’t usually return to breed until they are two years old – when they have matured – so we’re going to have to be very patient while we wait for them to come back to the Fens to breed for the first time.” 

Register your own sightings of ringed Black-tailed Godwits at projectgodwit.org.uk.