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Bar-tailed Godwit (Limosa lapponica)

Bar-tailed Godwits - photo by Phil Battley
Bar-tailed Godwits - photo by Phil Battley

There are four species of godwits distributed around the world. They differ from curlews in being noticeably smaller and in having slightly up-turned bills compared to the long, down-curved bills of curlews. Three species of godwit nest in North America: Bar-tailed, Marbled, and Hudsonian. Understanding the migration of the different sub-specific populations of the Bar-tailed Godwit was the main impetus for the Pacific Shorebird Migration Project. The population nesting in North America (L. l. baueri) numbers about 100,000 birds, breeds in western Alaska, and spends the Boreal winter mainly in New Zealand and southeast Australia. The population nesting in Eastern Siberia (L. l. menzbieri) numbers about 170,000 birds and spends the nonbreeding season along the coast in Western Australia. Our objective was to learn how these populations migrated between their respective far-flung seasonal haunts. We did this by placing satellite transmitters on birds captured between 2006 and 2010 in New Zealand (16), Alaska (5), and Western Australia (16).

These efforts confirmed one of, if not the most, extraordinary feats of endurance in the avian world. Godwits of the baueri race were followed throughout their annual cycle on three nonstop flights, the longest lasting over 10 days and covering distances exceeding 11,000 km. The entire annual cycle of a baueri godwit, for example, can involve nearly 30,000 km of flight entailing 20 days in the air. Both baueri and menzbieri godwits fly north in spring to the Yellow Sea region of East Asia where they ‘refuel’ to obtain the energy needed to complete flights to their respective breeding grounds. After nesting, the menzbieri godwits return to the Yellow Sea for several weeks before migrating back to Australia. Baueri godwits, however, remain in Alaska after breeding and move to coastal areas where they refuel for their flight back to New Zealand and eastern Australia—an incredible nonstop journey across the central Pacific Ocean.

Under the US Shorebird Conservation Plan, they are a species of High Concern mainly due to their small population size, threats to their non-breeding grounds (especially at migratory stopover sites in the Yellow Sea), and their relatively restricted breeding distribution within the United States (see

For more information:

Gill, R. E., Jr., D. C. Douglas, C. M. Handel, T. L. Tibbitts, G. Hufford, and T. Piersma. 2014. Hemispheric-scale wind selection facilitates Bar-tailed Godwit circum-migration of the Pacific. Animal Behaviour 90:117-130. doi: 10.1016/j.anbehav.2014.01.020

Battley, P. F., N. Warnock, T. Lee Tibbitts, R. E. Gill, Jr., T. Piersma, C. J. Hassell, D. C. Douglas, D. M. Mulcahy, B. D. Gartrell, R. Schuckard, D. S. Melville, and A. C. Riegen. 2011. Contrasting extreme long-distance migration patterns in Bar-tailed Godwits. J. Avian Biology 43(1):21-32. doi: 10.1111/j.1600-048X.2011.05473.x.

Gill, R. E., Jr., T. Lee Tibbitts, D. C. Douglas, C. M. Handel, D. M. Mulcahy, J. C. Gottschalck, N. Warnock, B. J. McCaffery, P. F. Battley, and T. Piersma. 2009. Extreme endurance flights by landbirds crossing the Pacific Ocean: Ecological corridor rather than barrier? Proc. R. Soc. B. 276:447-457. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2008.1142 [pdf file 557 kb]

Woodley, K. 2009. Godwits: Long-haul Champions. Penguin Group, Rosedale, New Zealand.

Stap, D. 2009. Flight of the Kuaka. Living Bird 28:28-34.

van de Kam, J., P. F. Battley, B. J. McCaffery, D. J. Rogers, Jae-Sang Hong, N. Moores, Ju-Yong Ki, J. Lewis, and T. Piersma. 2008. Invisible connections. Why migrating shorebirds need the Yellow Sea. Wetlands International, Wageningen. ISBN/EAN: 978-90-5882-009-9.

Gill, R. E., Jr., T. Piersma, G. Hufford, R. Servranckx, and A. Riegen. 2005. Crossing the ultimate ecological barrier: evidence for an 11,000-km-long nonstop flight from Alaska to New Zealand and eastern Australia by Bar-tailed Godwits. Condor 107:1-20. doi: 10.1650/7613

McCaffery, B. J., and R. E. 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.

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