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Conservationists “stunned” as UK first project reveals bird migration mysteries

Conservationists “stunned” as UK first project reveals bird migration mysteries
  • A UK first project is shedding new light on the amazing journey of the Bar-tailed Godwit, one of the UK’s most tenacious migratory bird species, and the role that England’s east coast plays in their survival
  • Previous studies recorded the longest known non-stop flight of any bird by a Bar-tailed Godwit from Alaska to Southern Australia – now conservationists are seeing how our native counterpart compares
  • The study has already uncovered behaviour completely new to conservationists, with ‘Clive’, an adult Bar-tailed Godwit, recently making an incredible journey of more than 2000 miles in just 4.5 days, aborting migration after encountering unseasonal storms. 

For the first time a new project is uncovering the journeys of one of the UK’s most internationally important migratory bird species, the Bar-tailed Godwit. Hundreds of thousands of these long-legged and long-billed wading birds pass through the UK each year on migration, spotted in their largest numbers along our estuaries between November and February.

Despite weighing just 300 grams (the equivalent of half a dozen eggs or two oranges), the Bar-tailed Godwit has one of the longest migrations of all birds. Last year, one Bar-tailed Godwit set a new world record with a non-stop flight from Alaska to southern Australia over just 11 days.

Now, conservationists are seeing how our native counterpart compares, with GPS tagging shedding new light on where these birds travel and the vital role that England’s East Coast Wetlands – a potential Natural World Heritage Site – play in their survival. 

Using the latest non-invasive technology, five Bar-tailed Godwits from The Wash, an area of the East Coast Wetlands, have been tagged in the UK first project, with the data collected helping to support future conservation efforts. The birds have been tagged by the Wash Wader Research Group (WWRG), which has been studying wading birds using The Wash since 1959, working closely with the RSPB and supported by the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust and Natural England.

Having recently joined the UK’s Tentative List of UNESCO World Heritage Sites as part of England’s East Coast Wetlands, the Wash is the UK’s most important estuary for migratory waterbirds, home to England’s largest common seal colony and an important fishery. These critically important sites sit on the East Atlantic Flyway, one of just eight ‘superhighways’ for migratory birds around the globe, used by millions of birds, including Bar-tailed Godwits, each year.

Dr Guy Anderson, Migrants Recovery Programme Manager at RSPB, said: “We’re lucky to have an amazing array of wildlife here in the UK, and The Wash is one of our globally important sites for migratory birds taking a pit-stop on their globe-spanning journeys, but for some – like the Bar-tailed Godwit – we don’t know much about where they go when they’re not here. This project will help build our understanding of one of the most important migratory bird populations that use The Wash.”

The team have already begun following the movements of the birds, with one adult male, named ‘Clive’ after the founder of the WWRG, showing behaviour completely new to conservationists.

Clive recently set off on its mammoth journey from Norfolk and looked to be heading for Mauritania in West Africa, approximately 2500 miles away. Tracking data and meteorological charts studied by the project team however revealed that the bird flew an incredible loop covering more than 2000 miles over 4.5 days back to where it started. It is believed the journey, which has stunned the team, occurred as Clive attempted to navigate around a rapidly approaching unseasonal storm.

The route took in Birmingham, North Wales, the Irish Sea, Ireland, the Atlantic, France and the Bay of Biscay close to Spain, before returning to the same feeding grounds in The Wash via the Thames Estuary.

Dr Nigel Clark from the WWRG, said: “It is absolutely incredible what this project is already revealing about the increasing hazards faced and choices birds have to make on their long and challenging migrations – it’s a lot more complex than we ever imagined or would have predicted.

“The fact that Clive has returned to The Wash and the rich feeding areas of the East Coast Flyway in England goes to show just how important these coastal wetlands are for their survival. The Wash really is the place to be if you’re a Bar-tailed Godwit in the autumn.”

It is expected that Clive will remain on The Wash to feed and fatten for a few weeks before attempting the journey again. 

Of the five birds tagged, two are likely to stay on The Wash for the winter and two, including Clive, may venture to West Africa. It is not known what the fifth, a juvenile, will choose to do. All of the birds should return to Europe in early May, before moving to their breeding grounds in Scandinavia or Siberia by early June. The team hope the study will uncover more about these movements and how and why some of our native bird species use the East Coast Flyway.

Michael Copleston, RSPB England Director, added: “It’s really exciting to begin to uncover some of the mysteries of these birds’ journeys but also sobering to see how changes in our climate and environment could be impacting them. The importance of areas like The Wash to these birds is clear and we need to do everything we can to ensure these places remain for future generations of birds and people to enjoy them.”

There are four species of long-billed and long-legged godwits (Limosa) in the world. Two regularly occur on the east coast; the Bar-tailed Godwit and the Black-tailed Godwit. Both these species are of global conservation concern; classified at ‘Near Threatened’ by IUCN and BirdLife.

For regular updates on Clive and the other bird’s journey’s follow RSPB England on X/Twitter @RSPBEngland.