I'm an obsessive when it comes to Black-tailed Godwits. I just love watching them and it has become an obsession since I started logging their colour rings as part of Operation Godwit. I'm lucky enough to live less than a five minute drive to a major moulting site at Gilroy 'Godwit Field' in West Kirby where we regularly get 2,000 or more from mid-July to the end of October. I must spend a total of at least 100 hours there during that period just watching them. Mad? Yes! But they are just so fascinating. In this article I share some of my observations.
Probably the question most asked by passer-bys and visiting birders at Gilroy, and it's a very good one. Gilroy isn't the most obvious place to host internationally important numbers of wetland birds being bordered on one side by a busy housing estate and the other a heavily used cycle track and footpath. However, the field itself is largely unvisited and the great attraction for the godwits is the large area of shallow water making an ideal wader scrape of just the right depth. They like an uninterrupted flight path and there are no tall trees nearby, it is also sheltered and obviously free of tides with the constant movement that entails. The closeness of the estuary is crucial and it is less than a five minute flight to the rich mud south of West Kirby Marine Lake when they feel hungry, and back again when they want a nice safe place to roost.
The comings and goings of the godwits
are surprisingly difficult to predict, but to cut a long story short
they are usually at Gilroy several hours either side of high tide,
often being there over eight hours during the day - we have no idea
what they do at night.
The most exciting time is when they come in from the estuary. They fly in in groups of around two to three hundred over a period of an hour or so. They fly low and you can hear the whoosh of the wings as they come over - flock after flock. Sometimes they circle before landing and at other times they come straight in but it causes great excitement for the birds already on the ground with a great deal of noise made. It's a wonderful sight.
Leaving can be similarly spread out, usually preceded by a lot of preening and walking around. Ones and twos leave first then suddenly a couple of hundred will jump into the air and be off. Unpredictable as always sometimes half the flock will decide not to go at all and stay for several more hours, other times the whole flock will leave in one spectacular mass.
A quick visit to Gilroy may give you
the impression that all they do is sleep. They certainly do a lot of
that but look closer and you will always see some movement with birds
preening, scratching, walking and feeding. They also
have what I call activity sessions when the whole flock becomes very
vocal whilst they have a mass wash and preening session with birds
constantly walking in and out of the water.
They also have four other activities at Gilroy:
1. Sky Search. An amusing behaviour they have is to put their head on one side whilst looking up at the sky, presumably to search for raptors. Their vision is monocular (i.e. each eye has a separate field of view, unlike our own binocular vision) so they need to do this for one of their eyes to view the sky fully, but it looks very comical.
2. Wing Stretch. This seems to be an infectious behaviour as when one or two birds do it the whole flock often follow. They stretch both wings fully above them so the whole flock suddenly flashes white. This can occur at any time but becomes more frequent as the time to leave for the estuary approaches.
3. Lying Down. Probably best described as an inactivity rather than activity! But how often do you see waders actually lying down? On a sunny day the majority of the birds at Gilroy do it, and what a great luxury it must be for them being able to lie on dry grass. It also must say something about how safe they feel at Gilroy.
4. Heads Up. This happens very quickly with the flock seemingly fast asleep then in a split second they all have their heads up with neck fully stretched. Obviously this is due to a perceived threat but more often than not it's a false alarm and heads go back down almost as quickly. If it's a real threat then what they do next depends on what it is, which brings me on to the next section.
"Those BL***Y powered para-gliders
muttered as the birds disappeared into the distance. The godwits
absolutely hate them and one has only to appear on the horizon for them
to take flight and fly in the opposite direction. Luckily, this year
they have so far been absent but they have been one of the worse causes
of disturbance both at Gilroy and over the Dee estuary and north Wirral
as a whole over several years. You would think a low flying noisy
helicopter would have
the same effect but that isn't the case. When the Golf Open was at
Hoylake a couple of years ago the helicopter landing field was just a
few hundred yards away with low flying helicopters coming right over
the Gilroy field. Yet the godwits hardly reacted. The difference
between something that looks like a large bird of prey and something
that looks like a flying brick!
You get to know what bird of prey is about by their reaction. A Peregrine really scares them whilst Kestrels are ignored. Buzzards and Sparrowhawks get the whole flock into the air but they soon come back down again, I was lucky enough to have a Red Kite overhead last year and they reacted in the same way as with a Buzzard. Of the birds that are a potential threat Crows are the most numerous. Although the Godwits don't like them they are obviously not that scared of them, if a Crow flys low overhead some Godwits might take to the air but rarely the whole flock, and if one lands nearby in the field they just walk away from it. Last year I saw a Crow deliberately single out a godwit and chase it across the field, it didn't catch it but you can certainly understand their nervousness when they are nearby.
Other disturbances are perhaps more unexpected. One spring we had an 'angry Coot' which quite clearly did not like Godwits on its territory and would charge at them. We loved that Coot as it got the Godwits walking around so we could see their legs and hence the colour-rings! Quite often we get Moorhens having territorial disputes through the middle of the flock with the Godwits hastily getting out of the way as the Moorhens chased each other. Geese and horses blunder their way through the flock so they have to move. You wouldn't expect Lapwings to cause a disturbance but they are so flighty they fly up in a panic at absolutely nothing - which in turn disturbs the Godwits.
Black-tailed Godwits talk to each
other. That's the only way I can describe it and when you get 2,000
birds chatting away that's quite some noise! They are at their loudest
when they have an 'activity session', it's a bit like the sound a large
flock of starlings make - but louder and more musical.
They make a different sound when about to leave for the estuary, much more of an urgent call repeated several times - you can almost imagine them saying "let's go, let's go, let's go".
In spring, whilst they 'talk' to each other, we sometimes hear snatches of their display song - exciting to hear when you think the next time they will utter that song will be in the wilds of Iceland.
"I see YNRX* is in the usual place". After several days of this it dawned on us that the same colour-ringed individuals were in the same place day after day. It was three years ago when we first noticed this phenomenon and the day I'm writing this, at the end of August 2016, YNRX, along with several other colour-ringed birds, is still in its favourite position in the field. We don't know why they do this or what significance it has, but it seems pretty remarkable behaviour.
* for those not familiar with the Black-tailed Godwit codes YNRX means the rings are Yellow over Black on the left leg and Red over a white ring with an engraved X on the right leg.
1. Species Spotlight - Black-tailed Godwit http://www.deeestuary.co.uk/news1206.htm.
2. Colour-ringed Black-tailed Godwits http://www.deeestuary.co.uk/news1208.htm.3. Colour-ringed Black-tailed Godwits Part 3 http://www.deeestuary.co.uk/news0111.htm.
4. Black-tailed Godwits at Caldy http://www.deeestuary.co.uk/news0813.htm
5. Rotterdam on the Dee
6. Colour Ring Reports in the Monthly Newsletter from September 2014 onwards.
7. The Godwits of Gilroy http://www.deeestuary.co.uk/news0915.htm.
8. The Godwits of Gilroy - update http://www.deeestuary.co.uk/news1015.htm#fourth.
9. Operation Godwit/Project Jadrakan - see https://archive.uea.ac.uk/~b026515/index.html.Richard Smith.
With the Black-tailed Godwits returning to Gilroy in large numbers we got plenty of ringed birds with a total of 130 records from 20 birds through the month, five of them are described below. We also had a selection of colour-ringed gulls but small waders remained elusive with just one distant ringed Sanderling spotted. Several ringed Little Terns were seen this season at Gronant although having such short legs trying to read the rings is a challenge! I report one below.
Smith and Matt Thomas.
Colour-rings were also reported by Henry Cook, Richard Beckett, Peter Haslem, Brian Tollitt, Alan Hitchmough, Steve Williams, Les Hall, Allan Conlin and Tanny Robinson.
For August there were exceptional numbers of Curlew Sandpipers. The usual pattern is for just ones and twos to turn up in the last week of August before, in a good year, larger numbers pass through in September (see Nov 2011 article "The Curlew Sandpiper Influx"). But this year the first juvenile arrived at Hoylake on the 16th and there were at least nine there by the 20th. Elsewhere there were three at Connah's Quay and two at Burton Mere Wetlands, at nearby Frodsham Marsh there was a remarkable 26 on the 21st - surely a site record for August.
There were good numbers of Greenshanks
as well with 56 at Burton Mere Wetlands the highest count there since
64 in August 2003 (it was then Inner Marsh Farm), the highest ever
count there was 85 in September 1998. There were several double-figure
counts at Connah's Quay max 15 on the 28th.
As you may gather from the above article there were good numbers of Black-tailed Godwits at Gilroy with 2,700 on the 10th a record August count. The passage of small waders was good but we didn't get the large numbers seen two or three years ago, The high tide birdwatch at Hoylake on the 20th produced 4,000 Dunlin, 800 Ringed Plover and 500 Sanderling.
Sandwich Terns remained all month with the highest count of at least 1,000 at Point of Ayr on the 20th. There were several reports of the much rarer Black Terns and four in the tern roost at Hoylake on the 19th with the same number at Point of Ayr the following day gave good views, there were also several reports of singles from Hilbre.
Another month and another record count of Spoonbills at Burton Mere Wetlands! There were 10 on the 10th and these had increased to 12 by the 14th, and stayed the rest of the month.
Although sea watching wasn't as good as some years some windy weather early in the month produced a Storm Petrel and 300 Manx Shearwaters off Hoylake.
17th September, 11.12hrs (BST), 9.7m.
18th September, 12.53hrs (BST), 9.8m.
19th September, 13.35hrs (BST), 9.8m.
20th September, 14.18hrs (BST), 9.6m.
Organised by the Wirral
Ranger Service , Flintshire
Countryside Service and the
RSPB (Dee Estuary):
All these events and walks have bird interest, even those not advertised specifically for birdwatching. No need to book for these events unless specified - please check below.
September, Raptor Watch at Parkgate
- Old Baths Car Park.
Join us for a chance to see up to seven different birds of prey including peregrine and merlin, plus two types of owl that all make their home on the RSPB Dee Estuary nature reserve. With its panoramic views of the saltmarsh, Parkgate is one of the best places to watch for the birds hunting.
Stick around until dusk for a chance to see the graceful and endangered hen harriers flying into roost for the night on the marsh close to the Old Baths car park, plus a ghostly barn owl emerging to hunt.
No booking required, come along any time between 1 pm and sunset. Dress appropriately for the weather and don't forget your binoculars! Public toilets and various pubs and cafes are situated close by along Parkgate promenade.
Ring 0151 353 8478 for further details.