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Photo by R. Gill, US Geological Survey.
A large, widespread shorebird of the Old World, Bar-tailed Godwit is one of a small group of Siberian species that also breeds in western Alaska.
Bar-tailed Godwit is easily identifiable as a godwit by its large size and large, upturned bill. In breeding plumage, males have rich chestnut-red heads and underparts, and dark wings and upperparts touched with small amounts of chestnut. Breeding females are less colorful than males, with some light chestnut coloring on the upper breast fading to white down below. Non-breeding birds are much drabber, with grayish-brown upperparts, gray streaking on the breast, and white underparts. In its limited North American breeding range, Bar-tailed Godwit is only likely to be confused with Hudsonian Godwit, which also breeds in western Alaska. Breeding male Hudsonian Godwit, however, does not have the rich chestnut-red coloration of Bar-tailed Godwit on its head, and has a prominent white eye-line. In flight, Bar-tailed Godwit lacks the white wingbar of Hudsonian Godwit.
Bar-tailed Godwit is a widespread Old World species, but in the New World, it is found only in western Alaska, where it breeds. This species' breeding range stretches, in a broken distribution, from Alaska westward across northern Siberia to northern Scandinavia. Birds that breed in western Alaska and eastern Siberia winter in southeast Asia, Australia, and New Zealand. Breeding birds from western Siberia and Scandinavia winter along the coast of western Europe, the west coast of Africa, the Arabian peninsula, and western India. There is no information on the population trends of Bar-tailed Godwit breeding in Alaska.
On its breeding grounds in Alaska, Bar-tailed Godwit nests on tundra hillsides with short shrubby growth and hummocky ground cover. Breeding birds will sometimes leave nesting habitat to feed at coastal lagoons located some distance away. During migration and on wintering grounds, Bar-tailed Godwit is found primarily on coastal mudflats, where it probes in exposed mud or shallow water for crustaceans, mollusks, insects, and annelid worms. In Alaska, birds feed heavily on aquatic insects, but will occasionally eat seeds and berries. Individuals do not reach sexual maturity until two years of age. Males perform elaborate courtship and territorial displays in which they call loudly and circle high above the tundra in flight. The nest is a shallow depression, lined with grass, moss, and lichens, placed on a raised hummock surrounded by grass. Clutch size is usually four eggs, and both sexes participate in incubation, which lasts about three weeks. A short time after hatching, chicks are led by both parents to marshy areas, where the young find all their own food. On migration, it is believed that Alaskan breeders fly long distances over the Pacific Ocean en route to Australia and New Zealand, rather than quickly crossing the North Pacific and then moving south along the Asian coastline.
There is some subsistence hunting of Bar-tailed Godwit in both western Alaska and along the east coast of China. The estimate of "large shorebirds" (either Bar-tailed Godwit or curlews) collected annually by indigenous people in Alaska ranges from 200 to 1,900 birds; it is believed that most of these birds are godwits. Perhaps 2,000 to 3,000 migrating Bar-tailed Godwit are taken for food in eastern China each year, but the percentage of Alaskan breeders in this number is unknown.
The U.S. Shorebird Conservation Plan lists Bar-tailed Godwit as a "Species of High Concern," based on its low relative abundance, threats on non-breeding grounds, and restricted U.S. breeding distribution. The breeding population of Bar-tailed Godwit in North America is concentrated in a limited area along the coastal plain of western Alaska, placing it at higher risk to potential disturbance. While Bar-tailed Godwit is protected in the United States under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and is also protected on its wintering grounds in New Zealand and Australia, it is not protected on the migratory pathway along the eastern coast of Asia. If Alaskan Bar-tailed Godwits do follow the Asian coastline southward more than is believed, hunting in eastern China could have a serious negative impact on the North American population of this species.
What Can You Do?
U.S. National Wildlife Refuges provide essential habitat for Bar-tailed Godwit, and a great number of other species throughout the U.S. and its territories. Unfortunately, the refuge system is often under-funded during the U.S. government's budgeting process. To learn more about how you can help gain much needed funding for U.S. National Wildlife Refuges, visit: http://www.audubon.org/campaign/refuge_report/
Brown, S., C. Hickey, B. Harrington, and R. Gill, eds. 2001. The U.S. Shorebird Conservation Plan, 2nd ed. Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences, Manomet, MA.
Hayman, P., J. Marchant, and T. Prater. 1986. Shorebirds, An Identification Guide. Houghton Mifflin
Kaufman, Kenn. 1996. Lives of North American Birds. Houghton Mifflin Company, New York.
McCaffery, B., and R. Gill. 2001. Bar-tailed Godwit (Limosa lapponica). In The Birds of North America, No. 581. (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA.