Saving England's most threatened species from extinction

That was the year that was

That Was the Year That Was

The intention with this end-of-year blog was to avoid referencing gloomy current affairs and provide some light distraction for both blogger and reader alike, by picking out some highlights for Project Godwit from 2020. Nevertheless, it’s not possible to talk about how the project has fared this year without at least referring to the pandemic – as the vast majority of the team’s activities were either postponed or cancelled altogether. What I can promise is that there is definitely no mention of Brexit here.

How was the project impacted? There was sadly no head-starting of godwit chicks this year at WWT Welney, very little monitoring of the birds took place, all planned events and activities were cancelled, some members of the team were furloughed and those who weren’t furloughed have been perpetually under house arrest. It would take some pretty hefty sugar-coating to make out there weren’t some low points for the team this year.

Despite all this, there has been plenty to celebrate. In 2020, a total of 49 breeding pairs of black-tailed godwits were observed at our three project sites in the East Anglian Fens – this is an increase from 45 pairs in 2019. Of these 49 pairs, 32 pairs bred at RSPB Nene Washes, 10 pairs at WWT Welney (on the Lady Fen complex and the Ouse Washes) and 7 pairs at the RSPB’s Pilot Project site (which is adjacent to RSPB Ouse Washes).

Nests were recorded on the Ouse Washes this year for the first time since 2013 and there has been a 460% increase in breeding pairs (from 3 to 17 pairs) at the Ouse Washes since the project began in 2017. This means the Ouse Washes now has more godwits than in the last 20 years. Godwits were also spotted displaying (to attract a mate) at a recently created new wet grassland site near the Ouse Washes in the spring; a promising sign this threatened wader may breed at other suitable sites in the area in future.

Although no chicks were head-started this year, it is still worth acknowledging that since the project began in 2017 112 head-started chicks have been released into the Fens. Of these birds, 32 head-started godwits returned in the spring – bearing in mind that most young godwits don’t return to the UK following their first migration until around the age of two. Amongst the 49 breeding pairs, one or two head-started birds made up 16 breeding pairs (that’s 33%). For head-started birds to be breeding for themselves as adults is fantastic for the project and really helps bolster this small, vulnerable population.

To date, head-started godwits have been reported from 10 different countries.

The godwit aficionados will be aware that Project Godwit birds have been spotted outside the UK on many occasions now, with some head-started chicks spotted as far away as Senegal and Morocco. Did you know, however, that head-started godwits have been recorded from ten different countries outside the UK? A total of 28 head-started birds have been recorded from 21 sites in 10 countries: Belgium, Netherlands, France, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Austria, Morocco, Senegal and Mauritania.

Who can forget the amazing travels of Cornelia and that hers was the first ever geolocator tag to be retrieved from a head-started black-tailed godwit in the UK. Unlike a GPS tag, a geolocator has to be physically retrieved from the bird in order for the data to be downloaded, requiring for the bird to be caught. Female godwit Cornelia was head-started as a chick at WWT Welney in June 2018 and her geolocator tag revealed she travelled on migration from RSPB Nene Washes in Cambridgeshire in August 2018 to the wetlands of south-east Mauritania in an incredible 48 hours! It is possible this may even have been a non-stop flight.

Cornelia as a chick in June 2018 at WWT Welney

Then there were the adventures of RSPB staff and intrepid couple Jen and Mark Smart, who cycled 600 miles in eight days to raise money for Project Godwit and the International Wader Study Group (which gives out small grants each year to support wader projects around the world). Jen and Mark visited all 11 nature reserves in England where head-started black-tailed godwits reared and released by Project Godwit have been spotted before migrating to Africa. It was not plain sailing for Jen and Mark though, as their endurance challenge coincided with some of the worst weather the UK had experienced all year – including storms with 45mph winds. Multiple punctures and a broken bike chain were also thrown their way, but Jen and Mark’s resilience never wavered. They raised over £6000 for Project Godwit – thank you Jen and Mark!

Jen & Mark Smart at the finish line at RSPB Nene Washes, after cycling 600 miles in 8 days for wader conservation.

During the first national lockdown in the spring, the team asked the public to help us create a virtual godwit flock for an online art gallery here on the Project Godwit website. People of all ages enthusiastically answered our call and sent in an array of wonderful images of paintings, drawings, sculptures and models of black-tailed godwits. This has been a wonderful distraction for the team this year – and we sincerely hope for the artists involved too. Here’s just a handful of our favourite installations as we sign off for the year. Thank you so much to everyone who contributed. Do check out the rest of the gallery for yourself – and it’s not too late to submit artwork.


By Rosie Drew on Facebook
By Chris Jones on Facebook 
By @Single_Source on Twitter 
Mighty godwit by Ray Mathias, WWT Welney volunteer. 
By Lorraine Auton

Thank you for supporting Project Godwit this year. We have some staff changes in the team in the new year, but will be in touch again very soon with the latest news.

Best Wishes for the new year from all the team at Project Godwit.

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