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.

Introduction

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

Each year a couple return to the wetland spot where they first met. They court, nest and hatch eggs. Exhausted, the mum 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 problem

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.

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.

Key achievements

  • 64 hand-reared birds have been released into the wild since the project began in 2017 - this boosted the output of the UK population by around 350%.
  • Nine godwits, headstarted in 2017, returned to the Ouse and Nene Washes in 2018. Two of them are known to have attempted breeding, and one of these breeding attempts was successful.
  • Outside of the breeding season, birds from the 2017 cohort were re-sighted in France, Portugal and Belgium. Early signs suggest they are surviving as well as wild-reared birds.
  • Three 2018 headstarted chicks have been sighted in France as they head south for the winter.

You can get involved

  • See black-tailed godwits in the wild

    In winter in coastal areas around England, Wales and Northern Ireland. WWT sites with highest numbers of wintering birds are Llanelli, Martin Mere, Slimbridge and Welney. In Spring many of these birds head to Iceland but are replaced for the summer by migrants from the south. They breed on our reserves at Slimbridge and Welney. At Welney, visit our rear-and-release facility in May to see hand-reared chicks.
  • Find out more about Project Godwit

    Find out more about our habitat and rear-and-release work in East Anglia at www.projectgodwit.org.uk
  • Report a sighting

    Help our research by reporting a sighting of any leg-ringed black-tailed godwits you see.
  • Make a donation

    Donate to our appeal to help us continue our work protecting the remaining black tailed godwit populations

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.