For many years the elegant black-tailed godwit remained almost a rarity here, but in more recent times this fine wader has become much more abundant. A sign of things to come was the presence of a pair at Hickling in the spring of 1934. Jim Vincent, the estate keeper, described the male 'mobbing anyone coming on to the marsh and flying round on quivering wings and calling loudly.'
Unfortunately, no young hatched and no further local breeding attempts are on record until 1952 when a pair of black-tails nested on the Ouse Washes. This unique area of regularly flooded marshland has continued attracting this distinguished summer visitor; up to 65 nesting pairs have been located in a single season.
In some years a considerable part of the colony breeds in Norfolk, but in wet springs the favoured washes become too wet and the birds either move into Cambridgeshire or on to adjoining wheatfields. Continental black-tailed godwits, in fact, breed on heaths and in sand-dunes. As a result, the total of successful washes nests varies considerably from year to year.
Black-tailed godwits favour nesting in meadows which have been mown for hay or grazed in the previous season. Ungrazed washes quickly become covered in tall grass and thistles and are then unsuitable. Nesting is largely controlled by water levels, but generally the first eggs are laid in mid-April. Newly fledged young have been found as early as May 21, suggesting a laying date of about March 20.
The washes are normally occupied by black-tailed godwits from the second week in February. Soon after arrival, the unique ceremonial display flights begin. The male rises steeply from the ground with rapid wing-beats, wildly calling. Suddenly, the flight becomes very slow and the fanned tail is twisted first to one side and then the other. With each tilt the body swings in the same direction as the tail. Finally the bird plunges earthward with wings and tail closed. On alighting, the white-lined wings are momentarily held aloft in a splendid gesture.
Like all wader chicks, newly hatched godwits leave the nest almost as soon as they are dry. Enchanting creatures, their pinkish-buff down is marked in black and brown. Light weight and enormous toes enable them to negotiate rank vegetation by simply walking over the top. Within hours the parents begin walking their nestlings, seeking shallow pools where the mud is soft enough to allow probing. The young readily swim the dykes between individual washes, some families travelling as much as 10 or 12 washes.
At these times the parents take care of their mobile balls of fluff in the most zealous way. All birds which by any stretch of imagination could be regarded as a potential menace are intercepted in the air and furiously pursued. Carrion crows, large gulls, hawks and herons all receive severe punishment.
Young godwits start flying in early June and although some linger on the washes a few weeks, others leave accompanied by their parents within a few hours of being able to fly. By early July considerable numbers may be found on the Wash muds.
The black-tailed godwit breeding range extends over most of Europe from Denmark and southern Sweden in the north, to France in the south and Russia in the east. The birds are perhaps most abundant in Holland where extensive reclamation schemes have not had quite the disastrous effect that might have been expected. Active conservation has been most marked in Friesland where one reserve of 66 acres held 67 godwits' nests in a single spring.
Dutch ornithologists report that the male godwit usually spends each night on the eggs and both birds share the long daytime sessions. During a night watch, while the male godwits were incubating, it was noted that the females stood sleeping on the poles with their bills tucked backwards in their mantles.
Godwits' eggs are vulnerable. On one occasion at a Dutch reserve some 30 birds were in a state of alarm, fluttering with dangling legs low over the ground. A stoat which had removed three eggs was the enemy.
Black-tailed godwits nesting in western Europe and undoubtedly including our own breeding birds winter south of the Sahara in west Africa. At the same time as the wonderful song-flights of male godwits echo across the Ouse washes and nesting is well under way, impressive flocks of brilliant mahogany-red black-tails appear on these wetlands. These long distance travellers belong to an isolated population breeding in south-western Iceland 800 miles from the nearest European birds. They do not return to the vast hummocky moorlands until late May or even early June.
The Suffolk Blyth estuary also attracts Icelandic godwits in spring with a peak in early April. On one memorable occasion I found well over 400 assembled there at high-water. All were resting on the broken river walls. As soon as the muds reappeared the first groups quickly returned. Busy feeders, the head and long bill of first one bird and then another would disappear as they probed below the surface. And all the time there was a loud twittering chorus.
are soon on the move again with the main exodus from their lonely breeding
grounds in August. The bulk of the population winters in the south of
Ireland with increasing numbers in south-west England and also on the
Stour. This estuary attracts over a thousand, some of whom apparently
visit the Blyth before the long return flight to a land of volcanoes,
hot springs and geysers
By Michael J. Seago