Black-tailed godwits

These enigmatic wading birds mate for life but only meet up with their partner once a year. WWT is giving them a venue for their annual special date.

It’s one of nature’s most enduring romances.

Each year a couple of black-tailed godwits return to the wetland spot where they first met. They court, nest and hatch eggs. Exhausted, the mother quickly leaves. Dad feeds the hatchlings until they can feed themselves, then heads his own way too.

The couple will be separated by hundreds of miles the rest of the year. But next spring they will somehow return to their special place within three days of each other, to continue their brief annual affair. Loyal to the end, they may honour this annual date for up to 25 years.

The challenge

Romance can often turn to tragedy.

Eggs smashed and eaten, hatchlings drowned by rising floodwater and lonely birds confused by changed landscapes, unable to locate their estranged partner.

The black-tailed godwits’ main historic threat has been the draining of wetland habitat to provide land to grow food for humans. The birds have become concentrated into a few remaining spots, making them easy pickings for predators.

In the last 25 years, almost half of Europe’s black-tailed godwits have disappeared.

In order to tackle these challenges, Project Godwit was initiated - a partnership between WWT and RSPB, working together for black-tailed godwits in the Fens. With major funding to help achieve vital conservation steps for the species and their wetland home from 2017-2023.

What we are doing

WWT is creating new pockets of wetland home for the black-tailed godwit to nest and feed in. We’re controlling water levels and putting up anti-fox fencing to protect them.

We are boosting chick numbers through a rear-and-release programme. Using artificial incubation and protecting the hatchlings through their first vulnerable days, we can fledge three to four chicks from each nest, five times more than the birds can manage themselves.

We’ve placed tiny tags on some chicks and rings on others so that we can better understand their movements. We will be able to watch them follow in their parents’ wingbeats, meet other black-tailed godwits and begin lifelong romances of their own.

In 2018, we fitted ten new geolocators and collected two 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.

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.

Looking forward

Throughout Project Godwit we have shown that this conservation method works for boosting small populations of godwits, so it’s a tool we now have at our disposal.

The project as a whole has been successful in boosting population size. Our measures to increase breeding success in the wild have shown some success but not enough for godwits to be considered safe.

We’ve learned a lot more about the problems they’re facing and hopefully we can find solutions to these.

For godwits to thrive in the Fens, we need bigger, better wetlands where there’s a balance between predators and prey.

Two godwit chicks in the grass.

Key achievements

  • 205 hand-reared birds have been released into the wild during the project from 2017-2022 – this boosted the output of the UK population by around 400%.
  • 50 godwits, headstarted from 2017-21 have so far returned to the Ouse and Nene Washes since their release. Headstarted birds have attempted breeding with some successes since being released.
  • In 2021 there were 19 pairs breeding around and back on the Ouse Washes compared to three breeding pairs in 2017.
  • Released godwits and wild-reared godwits have been recorded in 10 countries outside of the UK: France, Germany, Belgium, Netherlands, Austria, Spain, Portugal, Morocco, Senegal and Mauritania

Partners and funders

Project Godwit is a partnership between RSPB and WWT with major funding from the EU LIFE Nature Programme, The HSBC 150th Anniversary Fund, Natural England and the Heritage Lottery Fund.