'Headstarted' wader chicks released in the Fens in British first


A total of 25 young Black-tailed Godwits were released in the Cambridgeshire Fens on 12 June 2017 as part of ‘Project Godwit’, a joint initiative by the RSPB and the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT).

Researchers used a technique known as ‘headstarting’. Eggs were removed from nests earlier in the season and hatched in incubators. Staff at Welney WWT, Cambridgeshire, then hand-reared the chicks until they were old enough to survive in the wild. This is the first time such a technique has been used in Britain.

Black-tailed Godwit is Red-listed as a Species of Conservation Concern in the UK and considered Near Threatened globally due to a rapid decline in its world population. Headstarting will dramatically increase the number of young that successfully fledge in Britain this summer.

The Black-tailed Godwit chicks were hand-reared at Welney WWT, Cambridgeshire, (Bob Ellis (www.wwt.org.uk)).

Away from the dangers of predators and flooding, the surrogate human ‘parents’ are able to raise far more chicks safely than the adult godwits can. Also, by removing the eggs from their nests early, researchers have prompted each pair of godwits to lay a second clutch, giving the parent birds a chance to raise a brood of their own.

Nicola Hiscock of the WWT oversaw the hand-rearing process. She said: “It has been a nerve-wracking day, but I’m delighted to say that all the godwits have now taken their first flights in the open air and started to explore.

“The biggest worry for us is that they’d fly off somewhere unsuitable for them, but we have observed several birds in the wetlands here at Welney WWT, which is their ideal habitat.

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“Over the next few weeks we’ll keep a daily check on them, just to make sure that they’re doing OK. But then they’ll be off on migration and we probably won’t see them again until they return to breed in two years’ time.”

The RSPB’s Hannah Ward, who manages Project Godwit, added: “We’re delighted with how well this first year has gone. This is essentially still the pilot year and we hope to continue to headstart godwit chicks each summer for the next four years.

“The Fens has far and away the biggest number of Black-tailed Godwit nests in Britain, but in recent years they have really struggled to hatch and raise their chicks in safety. Project Godwit will boost the number of young birds entering the population each year.

“At the same time we’re trialling different ways to help the birds to breed successfully in the wild, while also doing an intensive study on the population, attaching tags and trackers to the fledglings so we can really understand the threats they face.

“We’re appealing to birders to keep an eye out for and report any sightings of Black-tailed Godwits marked with rings.”

Click here to report your sightings of ringed Black-tailed Godwits.

Written by: BirdGuides news team