Perfect teamwork that’s boosting our black-tailed godwits

PUBLISHED: 16:10 22 February 2018 | UPDATED: 16:10 22 February 2018

Getting a helping hand: the black-tailed godwit. Picture: Jonathan Taylor/ RSPB

Getting a helping hand: the black-tailed godwit. Picture: Jonathan Taylor/ RSPB


An innovative partnership is helping our black-tailed godwits, says James Robinson of the RSPB.

In the shallows of the Tagus Estuary, mere miles from Lisbon, stands hundreds of waders, ankle deep, bills open, skimming the water for the fish, molluscs and crustaceans that the estuary is renowned for. In among the masses are handfuls of warm mottled grey-brown bodies, two stand out with lime-coloured rings, stamped with the letter E on their legs. These black-tailed godwits were born here in Norfolk. These are Project Godwit birds.

Lime Lime Green Lime (E) and Orange Yellow Green Lime (E) – you’d think we’d come up with catchier names! – hatched here on the Norfolk-Cambridgeshire border last spring. As they ventured further from home, Lime Lime Green Lime (E) visited WWT Steart Marshes in Somerset, and Orange Yellow Green Lime (E) made a pit stop at RSPB Old Hall Marshes in Essex, before heading over 1,200 miles south for winter, presumably spending a large chunk of time on the Tagus.

A team of Dutch ornithologists spotted and reported their sightings of these birds – a truly global affair. It’s always exciting to hear of the incredible migratory journeys of birds born here in the UK, however the sightings were all the more special given these individual’s unique upbringings.

Lime Lime Green Lime (E) and Orange Yellow Green Lime (E) are two of 26 black-tailed godwits that were given an extra helping hand early in life by Project Godwit – a partnership between WWT and RSPB, funded by EU LIFE Nature Programme, HSBC, Natural England, Back from the Brink and the Heritage Lottery Fund, aiming to increase the number of young black-tailed godwits that fledge from the birds’ two main breeding grounds in the UK – the Ouse Washes and the Nene Washes – through a mix of research and conservation initiatives.

At present, fewer than 60 pairs nest in the UK and almost all of these can be found in the Fens meaning that breeding success in the area is pivotal to the fortunes of the species as a whole. Spring floods and predation are two of the biggest challenges these godwits face in this landscape. So in a bid to increase numbers, alongside breeding habitat improvements and scientific monitoring, Project Godwit has employed an innovative conservation technique called headstarting.

During the 2017 breeding season, staff collected a small number of eggs from the wild, which were safely incubated at WWT Welney on the Ouse Washes. Chicks hatched from the safety of their eggs, and the cinnamon-speckled chicks were raised in captivity through their most vulnerable time by Project Godwit mums and dads. Meanwhile their real godwit mums and dads had the opportunity to rear a second brood, in effect doubling the number of chicks. Once old enough, the 26 hand-reared chicks were released back into the wild.

It was a tense time, waiting to see if headstarting would be a success, and we won’t know for sure for a few years yet, until we receive more data. However, sightings like these, of Project Godwit birds, going about their daily business, making long-haul journeys, give us hope. These sightings also highlight the value conservation organisations working in partnership.

Working alone, we would give saving this iconic fenland species our best shot, but working together, with WWT across multiple reserves, with a pool of expertise, we will give black-tailed godwits a greater chance of survival.

Conservation organisations are all working towards the same vision: saving nature. Whilst we may work to achieve it in different ways, we must not lose sight of the shared end goal. Our combined expertise; passion for education; drive to increase our knowledge; understanding for the need of better, more joined-up habitat; ambition to give nature a voice on a local, global and national stage; and complete appreciation of the value of the natural world and all it has to offer; is our greatest tool in achieving it.

To learn more about project godwit, and to report sightings please visit

James Robinson is Regional Director for the RSPB

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