• Sim Elliott

A Whimbrel & two Bar-tailed Godwits: a peak birding experience, Widewater Lagoon, Shoreham, 20.04.21


At 15.00 I had a coffee and an ice-cream with a friend at Carat's Café, just east of Shoreham and Widewater Lagoon. I had planned to go birding afterwards, but it was so cold and misty and after my friend left for home, I thought I'd go home too instead of birding; but, on third thoughts, I decided to just pop along to Widewater, as I was so close. and see what I could see, not expecting to see much of interest as it was so misty.


After looking at a usual Little Egret for a while, I noticed two birds which I thought were Redshanks, as I see Redshanks at Widewater nearly on every visit. When I looked at them through my camera on full zoom (400mm) I realised they were not Redshanks, but I wasn't quite sure what they were yet.

16.54

17.54

When I focussed in on the birds' bills, I had a hunch they were Godwits, as their bills were the unusual shape of Bar-tailed Godwits Limosa lapponica. I checked this identification with The Cornell Ornithology Lab's Merlin identification App Merlin Bird ID – Free, instant bird identification help and guide for thousands of birds (allaboutbirds.org)

17.55

But I am never confident with identifying a bird that I haven't seen before, even when I have checked with Merlin, so I posted this picture in the Shoreham and District Ornithological Society Facebook group, and soon the identification was confirmed.


Bar-tailed Godwits, UK conservation status: Amber “ It breeds in the Arctic of Scandinavia and Siberia and hundreds of thousands of them pass through the UK, on their way further south, or stop off here for the winter. UK population wintering: 41,000 birds” . Bar Tailed Godwit Facts | Limosa lapponica - The RSPB These two Godwits are still in their winter plumage.

At 16.58 something spooked the Godwits and they flew off westward down the Lagoon.

After passing a few Black-headed Gulls and Herring Gulls,

... I found the Godwits again.


17.20. I noticed another birder watching the Godwits with her binoculars. She turned out to be another Shoreham and District Ornithology Society member. We chatted and confirmed the Godwit identification; we were both excited as neither of us had seen Godwits before.


One of my friends has subsequently told me that in New Zealand the church bells toll to celebrate the return of the godwits as they mark the arrival of spring; and that he Maori have a saying, “rarer than a Kuaka's (Godwit’s) nest” as they didn’t know where they nested (nor did I until I read the RSPB website).

Some of the Herring Gulls did not seem that pleased by the arrival of the Godwits in their midst.

... and then the fellow birder noted that a Whimbrel, Numenius phaeopus, had joined the Godwits and Herring Gulls and she pointed it out to me. There has been a Whimbrel observed on the Adur Estuary on a couple of times over the last few days, so we were pretty sure it was Whimbrel, especially as the shape of its bill is so characteristic.

RSPB: UK conservation status: Red “In the UK, this species only breeds in north Scotland. It is a passage migrant to other areas in spring and autumn on its way from and to its wintering areas in Africa” UK breeding: UK population: 400-500 pairs; UK wintering: 30 birds. (RSPB). Yes, only 400-500 pairs in UK!!!! Mega birding! Whimbrel Bird Facts | Numenius Phaeopus - The RSPB


This site of the two Godwits and the Whimbrel (17.45) filled me with awe; time stopped still, I was fully focussed on the rarity of seeing a Whimbrel and two Bar-Tailed Godwits at the same time. I felt the wonder of the natural world, the great beauty of all creatures; and I felt at one with nature.



Whimbrel and Herring Gull (17.45)

Bar-tailed Godwits (17.48)


18.23 On the way home, I stopped for a while on Shoreham Beach, to watch the strange light effect of the early evening sun breaking through the mist at the end of the Widewater Lagoon, and reflected on the wonder of the afternoon's experiences.


The view back from Carat's Café/Shoreham Power Station to Shoreham on the way home.

You can see a panoramic view of the beach by Carats here: https://photos.app.goo.gl/Rjpci54K3sgiXbw77


A view of Shoreham Power Station in the mist

It reminded me of the romantic "sublime" landscapes of Caspar David Frederich. Winter Landscape with a Church (1811, Caspar David Friedrich,

Source Wikimedia Commons


21.04.21 Update


I returned to Shoreham today (Wednesday) to meet with a friend for a coffee; whilst there I popped back to Adur Estuary and Widewater Lagoon to see what I could see briefly (14.30-15.00), and I saw two Godwits and a Whimbrel again at Widewater, and a Bar-tailed Godwit on the Estuary, this time in the sun. These these passage migrants must be stocking up on food before they continue their journey to their breeding grounds (Godwits: Arctic Scandinavia and Russia; Godwits: Shetland & Orkney)


Adur Estuary


Widewater Lagoon




Peak Experiences


Peak experiences are"rare, exciting, oceanic, deeply moving, exhilarating, elevating experiences that generate an advanced form of perceiving reality, and are even mystic and magical in their effect upon the experimenter."

Maslow, A.H. (1964). Religions, values, and peak experiences.


and entail:

  • loss of judgment to time and space

  • the feeling of being one whole and harmonious self, free of dissociation or inner conflict

  • a free mind that is flexible and open to creative thoughts and ideas

  • complete mindfulness of the present moment without influence of past or expected future experiences

Maslow, A. H. (1962). Toward a psychology of being.


Godwits Bounce Back


The text below if the text of a very interesting RSPB article Black-tailed godwits bounce back (rspb.org.uk)


The black-tailed godwit became extinct as a UK breeding bird in the 1800s. They returned as a breeding bird in the 1930s, but by 2016 their main nesting spot, Nene Washes in Peterborough, still held only 42 breeding pairs.


Now, thanks to the hard work of the RSPB and the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT), there is hope for these lanky, orange-breasted wading birds.


Hand-rearing chicks


The RSPB and the WWT joined forces under the Back from the Brink partnership to pioneer an innovative approach – hand-rearing black-tailed godwit chicks, or ‘head-starting’. A common technique with amphibians and reptiles, head-starting with birds is relatively new and this was the first time it was tried with wading birds in the UK.


The team knew, however, that bold action was needed to make sure that at least some chicks survived predation and spring flooding. Godwit parents also lay a second clutch once the first one is removed, so removing eggs potentially doubles the number of chicks.


A blooming population


This project has been a huge success. Over the last three seasons the team has released 112 head-started godwit chicks into the Fens, doubling the UK’s breeding population. RSPB Ouse Washes, for example, has more godwits now than it has had in the last 20 years.

The ‘head-started’ chicks have now been spotted on their migration paths as far away as Senegal and Morocco and some are already raising families of their own.


Rebecca Pitman, RSPB Senior Project Manager for Project Godwit, says: “It’s been amazing to see the team’s years of hard work and dedication really pay off, and to know that these birds now stand a fighting chance. With fewer than 50 breeding pairs, however, black-tailed godwits in the UK are still very vulnerable. They really need all the help they can get.

“Project Godwit is still working hard to give black-tailed godwits that helping hand. As well as hand-rearing the chicks, the project is also creating and managing wet grassland habitat in the East Anglian Fens. We are also studying their movements to understand where they go on migration and are continuing to work with local communities to help conserve black-tailed godwits and their wetland habitat into the future."


Project Godwit is a partnership between RSPB and WWT with major funding from the EU LIFE Nature Programme, HSBC 150th Anniversary Fund, Natural England, the Heritage Lottery Fund through the Back from the Brink Programme and the Montague-Panton Animal Welfare Trust.


Whimbrel Migration


The text below if the text of an superb blog post by Graham Appleton from his WaderTales blog which celebrates waders and wader research. His aim is "making wader science available to a broader audience." Whimbrels on the move | wadertales (wordpress.com)


You may hear the distinctive seven-note call of a Whimbrel overhead in late April or May but where is it going and where has it been?


Many pairs of Whimbrel nest in the flood-plains of Iceland’s rivers (Tómas Gunnarsson)

In a 2016 paper in Wader Study, Tómas Gunnarsson and Guðmundur Guðmundsson analysed the ringing recoveries of Icelandic Whimbrel and demonstrated that many probably make non-stop flights from Iceland to western Africa. The study also helped to explain the timing and origins of flocks of Whimbrel in different parts of the British Isles in spring and late summer.


Migration and non-breeding distribution of Icelandic Whimbrels Numenius phaeopus islandicus as revealed by ringing recoveries: Tómas Grétar Gunnarsson and Guðmundur A. Guðmundsson (Wader Study). The paper is available here.


Since the publication of this paper, further details has been added using geolocators, small tags that collect information on the movements of birds over a twelve-month period, and now using satellite tracking. There’s more about this work at the end of this blog.


Whimbrels in Iceland


It is estimated that 250,000 pairs of Whimbrel breed in in Iceland, representing 25% of the combined global population for all seven subspecies of Whimbrel and making Iceland a very important country for the species. The Icelandic breeding population is believed to be relatively stable but others, such as those in North America, are in decline.

There are two blogs about how volcanic dust affects Whimbrel. In the long-term volcanic ash provides important fertilizers but short term effects can be seen in breeding success.

The Whimbrel is one of the commonest of Iceland’s breeding wader species, with most nests estimated to be at elevations lower than 200m and particularly along river flood-plains.

Iceland is a country in a state of constant flux, both because of geothermal activity and the subsequent physical processes associated with wind and water flow, and as a result of human interventions. Volcanic ash has been shown to affect the breeding success of Whimbrels in the short term and their distribution in the longer term. Land use is also changing rapidly, particularly as a result of afforestation and the ways that land is farmed, and work is ongoing to understand how these processes might impact upon breeding waders, including Whimbrels.


Movements of Icelandic Whimbrel


Nesting Whimbrel hunkers down in heathland vegetation – a very different habitat to the mud and mangroves of West Africa (Tómas Gunnarsson)


Over 6000 Whimbrels have been ringed in Iceland since 1921, with 95% of these caught as chicks. 35 Icelandic-ringed Whimbrels have been recovered abroad and 4 foreign-ringed Whimbrels have been found in Iceland. In their paper, Tómas and Guðmundur show that most of the winter records of Icelandic birds are in west Africa, between Mauritania in the north and Benin and Togo in the south, but that there are two January records in Spain, suggesting that some individuals don’t travel further south than Europe. Spain and Portugal cannot be particularly important wintering areas for the species, however, as Whimbrel counts across Spain and Portugal don’t exceed 1000 birds, which represents a tiny part of the Icelandic population, even if they are all assumed to originate from there.


Reproduced from Gunnarsson & Gudmundsson 2016 with permission from Wader Study

Spring and autumn Whimbrel records that link Iceland with Britain and Ireland show strikingly different distributions for the two seasons. There are eight recoveries in the British Isles on spring passage; 1 in Ireland and 7 in western counties of the UK. There is only one autumn passage record (in the Outer Hebrides), despite the fact that autumn shooting of Curlew, which did not stop until 1981, might have been expected to have produced recoveries of similar Whimbrel. This strongly suggests that, while some whimbrel stop off on northwards migration, the southerly journey is straight to Africa. We know that this is possible, because a satellite-tagged Whimbrel was tracked making a direct flight from Iceland to Guinea-Bissau in late summer 2007.


Counts and recoveries of British birds


Some of the big WeBS counts for Whimbrel are made in the late summer, with over 1500 birds reported on the Wash (August), nearly 300 along the North Norfolk coast (August) and nearly 200 in July in each of Chichester Harbour (Hampshire) and Morecambe Bay. Largest counts in spring are mainly in the west and all in April, with 331 on the Severn, 339 on the Ribble and 654 in the Fylde area but one east coast site (Breydon Water in Norfolk) has had a spring count of 137. Although April & May flocks might seem large, they should be viewed in context – at least 500,000 Whimbrel travel back to Iceland each year.

The only British-ringed Whimbrels to have been found in Iceland have been two satellite-tagged birds, one of which is mentioned above, but metal-ringed birds have returned to breeding grounds in Finland, Russia and Sweden. Given that this new paper suggests no links between eastern Britain and Iceland in the autumn, it is likely that the large number of birds that spend the moult period on east coast estuaries such as the Wash are mainly of continental origin. The same is probably true for late-summer gatherings, such as the ones in Chichester Harbourand Morecambe Bay.

Tómas Gunnarsson


In order to understand more about spring flocks of Whimbrel in the UK, ringing and satellite tagging has been taking place in the Lower Derwent Valley (East Yorkshire). Birds tagged here have flown to both Iceland and Sweden which indicates that Icelandic and continental birds gather together in April and May flocks. Despite this mix of subspecies in Yorkshire, the lack of ringing recoveries of Icelandic birds in the east of the UK suggests that continental birds make up the majority of spring flocks in the east.


To summarise: if you hear a Whimbrel calling overhead in the autumn it is probably of continental origin, especially in the east. On spring passage, a seven-note call in the west may well have an Icelandic twang but in the east it could sound that little bit more Scandinavian. If only we could tell them apart.


To learn more about the migration of over 40 wader species to, from and through Britain & Ireland, check out this WaderTales blog.


Update: Tracking helps to provide more insights


Tómas Gunnarsson

This analysis of metal-ringed birds set the context for new studies to understand the migration strategies of individual Icelandic birds, using geolocators and satellite tags.

The first paper using these data appeared in Nature’s Scientific Reports. In it, José Alves and his colleagues show that four birds completed the autumn migration in one flight. On return in spring, two of these birds stopped off in Ireland and two flew straight to Iceland.

Camilo Carneiro developed the work further, working with supervisors Tómas Gunnarsson and José Alves. By increasing the sample size of birds carrying geolocators from Iceland and back again, he was able to show that all of the adults in his sample were able to migrate directly from Iceland to West Africa at the end of the breeding season. Only 20% of journeys north in the spring were completed without refuelling. Most of these stops were in Ireland and western Britain, as predicted from the results of the ringing analyses summarised above. See Iceland to Africa non-stop.


By tracking birds in more than one year, Camilo has gone on to show that the fixed point in an Icelandic Whimbrel’s annual cycle is spring departure from Africa. See Whimbrel: time to leave.


With further research it should soon be possible to understand how these epic sea crossings from Iceland to Africa are affected by prevailing winds and varying weather patterns, whether individuals use the same strategies in different years and if a juvenile can make it all the way to Africa on its maiden flight.


Meanwhile, you can help with the studies of migration by looking out for and reporting colour-ringed Whimbrel. Most of the ones seen in Britain & Ireland will have been marked by researchers in Iceland and they will be delighted to hear news of their birds at icelandwader@gmail.com.


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