Black-tailed godwit (Limosa limosa)
|French:||Barge à queue noire|
|Size||Wingspan: 63-74cm (2)|
Length: 37-42 cm (2)
|Weight||290-350 g (3)|
Included in the Birds of Conservation Concern Red List (high conservation concern) (3). Listed as a UK Species of Conservation Importance, and a species of European Conservation Concern. Receives general protection in the UK under schedule 1 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act and listed under Schedule ii of the EC Birds Directive (4). Classified as Near Threatened (NT) on the IUCN Red List 2006 (5).
The black-tailed godwit is a rare, large and elegant wading bird with a very long straight bill (3). In flight it displays a broad white bar on the wings, a white rump and a black tail. The feet are held out behind the tail, with the long bill projecting forwards, this gives the bird an elongated appearance when flying (2). During summer, adult males develop a brighter orange-reddish colouration on the breast than the female. In winter both sexes have greyish plumage. Juveniles have a buff covered head and breast (2). Two subspecies occur in the British Isles; the ‘nominate’ race Limosa limosa limosa, which breeds in the rest of Europe, and the Icelandic race Limosa Limosa islandia. The Icelandic subspecies has a shorter bill and shorter legs than the European birds and develops deeper red breast plumage during summer (2). This species produces a characteristic weeka-weeka-weeka call (3).
The Icelandic subspecies of the black-tailed godwit (L. l. islandica) breeds in Iceland, the Faeroes, and in the UK on Orkney and Shetland (4). These birds move south after the end of June to overwinter in the rest of Britain (6), Ireland, France reaching as far south as Morocco (7). In Europe, the nominate race (L. l. limosa) breeds in England, through Europe to Russia (4). The British breeding birds migrate to West Africa in order to overwinter (6). The current British breeding range of this subspecies has been greatly reduced. All breeding sites are in England, with a few clustered together in East Anglia (4).
The preferred wintering habitats of the Icelandic subspecies are muddy estuaries, and coastal lagoons with fine sediments (6) (3). Breeding occurs in lowland wet grasslands, wet meadows, pastures and in Shetland on marshes at the edge of moorland (3) (2). The occurrence of this species is a good indicator of farmland with a high value for nature conservation (4).
Whilst feeding, this sociable bird forms dense flocks and may occasionally mix with redshanks (Tringa totanus) (6). They wade in water or probe the mud with their bills for food (8). During winter they feed mainly on worms and bivalve molluscs. When the tide is in, black-tailed godwits fly to roost on damp pastures (6).
Black-tailed godwits meet in Iceland from mid-May to mid-June to breed, and in an amazing act of fidelity and timing, faithful pairs meet after over-wintering up to 600 miles apart. Arriving within three days of each other, pairs mate, breed and incubate their eggs together. The male remains with the hatchlings for a short time after the female has left to migrate back to her winter home. At the point the male leaves, he is unaware of the location of his partner, and so migrates elsewhere. This monogamous lifestyle can continue for up to 25 years and is only broken if the male and female fail to arrive within the same three days. There is, as yet, no understanding of how the pairs time their migrations with such accuracy. During the breeding season, black-tailed godwits become fairly noisy. A display flight is performed during which a loud nasal song is produced (2). The nest is built on the ground, and three or four eggs are produced. These are incubated for up to 24 days, and the young godwits will have fledged after a further 20 days (3). Whilst on the nest, black-tailed godwits tend to ‘sit tight’ when threatened, which earned the species the alternative common name of scammel, an old name meaning limpet (9).
Black-tailed godwits were once widespread in lowland England but suffered a precipitous decline, becoming extinct during the nineteenth century. The main reason for the decline was the widespread drainage of wetlands and agricultural intensification that has taken place throughout much of Europe (4). Drought in the West African overwintering range may also have caused problems. In 1952 they started to breed in England again, at the Ouse Washes (4). Spring flooding of breeding sites in the 1980s resulted in a decrease in the population, and by the end of the 1980s it was down to just 40 breeding pairs (4). At present, 30-50 pairs of black-tailed godwits breed in England (3).
This species is threatened in Europe. In Britain, Special Protection Areas (SPAs) have been designated in order to protect this species. The European Union has devised a Management Action Plan for the black-tailed godwit. Monitoring of this bird’s populations is underway with the hope of shedding light onto the factors that affect the species (4).
For more on British birds see the RSPB website:
For more information on this and other bird species please see:
- BirdLife International:
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- Subspecies: a population usually restricted to a geographical area that differs from other populations of the same species, but not to the extent of being classified as a separate species.
National Biodiversity Network Species Dictionary (January, 2004)
- Mullarney, K., Svensson, L., Zetterström, D. and Grant, P.J. (1999) Collins Bird Guide. HarperCollins Publishers Ltd, London.
RSPB A-Z of Birds: black-tailed godwit (February, 2004)
JNCC black-tailed godwit- breeding (February, 2004)
IUCN Red List (May, 2006)
- Lack, P. (1986) The Atlas of wintering birds in Britain and Ireland. T and A D Poyser Ltd, London.
JNCC black-tailed godwit- non-breeding (February, 2004)
- Holden, P. and Sharrock, J.T.R. (2002) The RSPB Guide to British Birds. Pan Macmillan, London.
- Greenoak, F. (1979) All the birds of the air. Book Club Associates, London.