Guest blog by RSPB NI volunteer Ian Enlander

What’s in a name?

The term godwit is thought to mean ‘good fellow’, but this refers to their being good to eat! Indeed they are recorded as “the daintiest dish in England”. Today we should see them as a good fellow to look at, especially black-tailed godwits which we are privileged to see almost year round in Northern Ireland. The Irish name for black-tailed godwit is ‘guilbneach earrdhubh’.

Black-tailed versus bar-tailed: telling them apart

There are actually two species of godwits in Northern Ireland, black-tailed and bar-tailed godwits. They can be tricky to tell apart. Both species are smaller than curlews and larger than redshanks, and are often found along our shores. They are still relatively long-legged but - compared to curlews - their bills are relatively straight. In winter, black-tailed godwits are a fairly uniform pale grey-brown while bar-tailed godwits have streaking on their upper parts – similar to curlews. 

 Image credit: black-tailed godwit (left) and bar-tailed godwit (right), Kate Bloomer.

In summer, both develop a rich chestnut plumage to the neck but in bar-tailed godwits this continues over the belly. Year-round, black-tailed godwits have noticeably longer legs while bar-tailed godwits have a gentle upturn to their bills.

 Image credit: Moulting into summer plumage, Ian Enlander

In flight, black-tailed godwits have distinctive white wing bars and a square white rump, contrasting with its black tail (hence the name). Bar-tailed godwits lack wing bars and have a distinctive white ‘V’ on their backs.

 Image Credit: Ian Enlander 

All the way from Iceland

We know from ringing recoveries, where the unique number on a bird’s ring has been read and reported to the relevant ringing authority who record birds' movements, that the black-tailed godwits which visit Northern Ireland are birds which breed in Iceland. As they don’t breed until their second year, it is not unusual to find non-breeders spending the summer here showing off their somewhat purposeless first attempt at a breeding plumage.

Ups and downs

Black-tailed godwits were a relatively scarce species in Northern Ireland as recently as the 1950s. Their numbers continue to increase, which is thought to be a reflection of the breeding population in Iceland doing well.

Even 20 years ago, doing my monthly wetland bird surveys (WeBS) of Belfast Lough, it was a treat to see sizeable groups of black-tailed godwits. Initially total counts of black-tailed godwits were typically a few hundred which gradually rose over the years to regular counts of almost 2,000.

Significant numbers also winter in the Lough Neagh and Lough Beg areas, where large flocks can be seen on migration (especially in spring); these are likely to be birds that wintered elsewhere in Ireland.

 Image credit: Black-tailed godwit winter plumage, Ian Enlander

Godwits and the ‘WOW’ factor

Undoubtedly THE best place to see this species up close is at RSPB Belfast’s Window on Wildlife (WOW) reserve, where more than a thousand birds have been recorded at a time.

This provides an opportunity to tell males from females (former are typically smaller with often richer coloured breeding plumage) and young birds from adults. Due to Covid-19 restrictions Belfast WOW is currently closed, but hopefully as restrictions ease over the coming months there will be opportunities to once again get up close views of Belfast WOW’s wildlife.

 Image credit: Black-tailed godwits at Belfast's Window on Wildlife, Stephen Maxwell

Elsewhere on Belfast Lough, large numbers can be present at Whitehouse Lagoon and Dargan Bay, while the north end of Strangford Lough is another regular spot. Smaller numbers can be found at Dundrum Inner Bay in County Down and the Bann Estuary in County Derry/Londonderry (this again is a noted spot for spring migrants to refuel).