Geolocators lead to better measures of timing and renesting in black-tailed godwits and reveal the bias of traditional observational methods

Mo A. Verhoeven*, A. H.Jelle Loonstra, Alice D. McBride, Pablo Macias, Wiebe Kaspersma, Jos C.E.W. Hooijmeijer, Egbert van der Velde, Christiaan Both, Nathan R. Senner, Theunis Piersma

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journal/periodicalArticleScientificpeer-review

21 Citations (Scopus)


Long-term population studies can identify changes in population dynamics over time. However, to realize meaningful conclusions, these studies rely on accurate measurements of individual traits and population characteristics. Here, we evaluate the accuracy of the observational methods used to measure reproductive traits in individually marked black-tailed godwits (Limosa limosa limosa). By comparing estimates from traditional methods with data obtained from light-level geolocators, we provide an accurate estimate of the likelihood of renesting in godwits and the repeatability of the lay dates of first clutches. From 2012 to 2018, we used periods of shading recorded on the light-level geolocators carried by 68 individual godwits to document their nesting behaviour. We then compared these estimates to those simultaneously obtained by our long-term observational study. We found that among recaptured geolocator-carrying godwits, all birds renested after a failed first clutch, regardless of the date of nest loss or the number of days already spent incubating. We also found that 43% of these godwits laid a second replacement clutch after a failed first replacement, and that 21% of these godwits renested after a hatched first clutch. However, the observational study correctly identified only 3% of the replacement clutches produced by geolocator-carrying individuals and designated as first clutches a number of nests that were actually replacement clutches. Additionally, on the basis of the observational study, the repeatability of lay date was 0.24 (95% CI 0.17–0.31), whereas it was 0.54 (95% CI 0.28–0.75) using geolocator-carrying individuals. We use examples from our own and other godwit studies to illustrate how the biases in our observational study discovered here may have affected the outcome of demographic estimates, individual-level comparisons, and the design, implementation and evaluation of conservation practices. These examples emphasize the importance of improving and validating field methodologies and show how the addition of new tools can be transformational.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere02259
JournalJournal of Avian Biology
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 01 Apr 2020


  • geolocators
  • ground nesting
  • Limosa limosa
  • observer bias
  • renesting
  • repeatability
  • timing


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