limosa Black-tailed Godwit – Titchfield Haven, Hampshire

Another trip down to Titchfield Haven with Dad. We spent a few hours in the Meon Shore hide with the gulls, terns and waders providing their usual noisy spectacle. Dad was hoping to see one of Monday’s two Roseate Terns but there was no sign. There seemed to be fewer Common Terns and the Mediterranean Gulls were also down to a handful of individuals.

There also didn’t seem to be very many young Avocet chicks, far fewer than there were on my previous visits. Titchfield Haven has recently installed a fence around the entire perimeter of the reserve and so fox predation is much reduced, the Lesser Black-backed Gulls were probably to blame for the low Avocet chick numbers. Six Dunlin fed around the shallow margins of the islands, a similar number of Redshank were dotted around the scrape and a pair of Moorhens were feeding their incredibly tiny chicks.

I noticed an adult Avocet in a tussle with Oystercatchers and when I switched to telescope I could see that one of the Oystercatchers was holding the Avocet by the wing and pinning it down. The Avocet’s head was only just above the water level and I began to worry that this might end badly. Three other Oystercatchers stood close by, in a ring, watching. The Avocet regularly struggled to free itself but the more powerful Oystercatcher held firm each time. Minutes went by with the Avocet looking resigned to its fete. Eventually the Avocet summoned the strength to wriggle free before flying off complaining loudly and I breathed a sigh of relief.

I find Black-tailed Godwits, or any waders for that matter, difficult to sketch as they seem to be able to adopt lots of subtly different shapes especially long legged and long necked species like godwits. They also move quickly. A pencil line a millimetre misplaced can look dreadful where other bird shapes seem to be more forgiving.

There were around 100 Black-tailed Godwits, all were moulting adult type birds presumably returning from their breeding grounds in Iceland. One of the adults was wearing colour rings including a pale lime ring with the capital letter E. I always make an effort to record ringed birds as you feel an attachment to the bird if you’re able to reveal parts of their personal story.

I contacted Project Godwit and was delighted to hear that he wasn’t from Iceland as I’d assumed but that he was more interesting, a two year old male of the nominate race ‘limosa’, an English breeder from the Nene and Ouse Washes. ‘Morgan’ was a headstarted naturally born English bird.

There are two recognised forms of Black-tailed Godwit in the UK. The familiar Icelandic form, Limosa limosa islandica breeds within sub-Arctic moorland and tundra and in the autumn and winter, large numbers make use of coastal and inland wetland sites in the UK. Most of these birds breed in Iceland but some make the journey across from continental Europe before heading south to Portugal and West Africa.

In contrast, the nominate form Limosa limosa limosa is a bird of temperate grasslands and marshes that winters primarily in freshwater habitats to the south of the Sahara. Their breeding stronghold remains The Netherlands with much of the remaining population spread across central and eastern parts of Europe.

However, a small and relatively stable breeding population of around 50 pairs remain in and around the Ouse and Nene Washes of Norfolk and Cambridgeshire. Because of their vulnerable population they are red-listed in the UK and possess Near Threatened status globally meaning they are likely to be threatened with extinction in the near future.

In the UK, limosa became extinct as a breeding bird at the start of the 19th century. This was probably as a result of hunting and the draining of natural wetlands. After an absence of more than a century they returned to breed in England in the 1930s. After reaching a peak of 65 breeding pairs on the Ouse in the early 1970s a series of spring floods saw numbers halve by the late 1980s. Now the majority of this population is found at the Nene Washes where 42 pairs were recorded in 2016. The breeding population continues to be affected by flooding and predation both of which can result in the loss of nests and chicks.

Project Godwit, a partnership between the RSPB and WWT, is aiming to turn around their fortunes. It is a headstarter project aimed at increasing limosa productivity on the Nene and Ouse Washes. The project also aims to improve habitat and increase our understanding of their migratory movements via colour-rings and tracker systems,

Project Godwit supplement populations by a rear-and-release programme of baby godwits, many artificially incubated and reared in safety before release in to suitable local habitat. My bird was a beneficiary of this. In May 2018 his parents were unable to nest on the Nene Washes due to flooding and so they nested on nearby farmland. His egg, caked in mud, was carefully cleaned and incubated at WWT Welney. He hatched on 19 May 2018 and was released on 19 June 2018.

He visited Titchfield Haven in August 2018 and presumably headed south into southern Europe in the autumn before being seen back at the Ouse Washes in June 2019. It was a while until he was next seen, in February 2020 on his wintering grounds in Portugal. He then returned to the Ouse Washes in May 2020 pairing up and appearing to be breeding before heading south in July. He was at Pagham Harbour at the beginning of the month before flying west to Titchfield Haven.

At all times limosa are structurally larger than islandica with a longer and broader-based bill, longer legs and wings which give the bird a rangier look. Limosa may start to moult in early to mid June and can be in full winter plumage well before August and so are usually well ahead of islandica. Separating the two in the field is very difficult, further help can be sought from Mark Golley’s excellent ID article which is available online.

Morgan was paired with an unringed female and was seen in early June with a large chick but the project don’t think the chick survived and this may be why he headed south in late June.

Turning my attention back to the terns I noticed a Little Tern on the causeway, the first I’ve seen on the scrapes. The nearest breeding sites are Langstone Harbour and Normandy Marshes, Lymington.

A quick trip over to the north scrape produced a male Beautiful Demoiselle and Roesel’s Bush-crickets singing from the hedgerows. From the Pumfrett hide a shy Green Sandpiper (quick mention of where from) showed briefly at the back of the scrape before disappearing around the corner and a female Marsh Harrier quartered over the distant reed beds.

We popped back into the Meon Shore hide for one last attempt for the Roseate Terns. I wished we hadn’t. There were no Roseates and we witnessed the grizzly end of a Black-headed Gull chick dispatched by an adult Lesser Black-backed Gull with two juveniles watching on.

Kittiwake – Titchfield Haven, Hampshire – 26th July 2020

There wasn’t anything obvious to go and see and so I decided to head back to Titchfield Haven to take advantage of the comfort of the Meon Shore Hide and hopefully some sketching opportunities. An unexpected gull was waiting.

I arrived in the Meon Shore Hide to see 40 Black-tailed Godwits roosting on the closest island. They were all adults and one of them was ‘Morgan’ my colour-ringed bird from Thursday. He was asleep showing the yellow ring with the letter E, the signature of the Project Godwit team. Eventually he woke up and began to feed, revealing the green flag and orange ring on his other leg. Jen Smart who runs Project Godwit is cycling around all of the 11 reserves where their headstarted godwits have been seen and she wants to meet the people who found them. She plans to visit Titchfield Haven on the 24th August and I’ll be meeting up with her.

Resting on island J I noticed a gull which I could see wasn’t the familiar Black-headed. Facing directly towards me I could see a cleanish white head and pale green bill. My initial thought was Common Gull but it turned its head to reveal a dark crescent smudge and I was surprised to be watching a Kittiwake. It was windy and this bird was probably taking a break from the choppy Solent although ‘wrecked’ sea birds like this, in strange surroundings, aren’t always well. When it flapped its wings I noticed that it was in very heavy primary moult and this may also account for its apparent stranding. A Turnstone also looked a little out of place roosting nearby, I’ve only ever seen them in the harbour and on the beach at Hill Head.

I regularly came across Common Sandpipers pumping their tails while picking insects from the waters edge. I think there were probably four although they were restless, moving around the scrape and so I may have double counted. Six Dunlin were equally restless, their trilling calls a regular sound as they moved between islands.  

I headed over to the Pumfrett Hide hoping for different birds on the north scrape. Unfortunately the only birds were those I’d already seen from the Meon Shore Hide. On the way back I popped in again, the Kittiwake had gone and so it was probably in better health than I’d feared.

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