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Nature: Long-flying godwits make rare pit stop near Toledo

A juvenile Hudsonian godwit at Maumee Bay State Park


November 5, 2017

NATURE
Jim McCormac

The average American flies about 1,500 miles per year. That figure is dwarfed by the travels of certain birds.

In mid-October, I spent time with one of the world’s great long-haul migrants, the Hudsonian godwit. These Pinocchio-billed sandpipers travel more than 10 times the average annual air miles of jet-assisted humans.

Rick Nirschl, an ace naturalist in Toledo, had reported Hudsonian godwits from Maumee Bay State Park, just east of Toledo. As I had business in the area, I stopped to look for the birds.

Soon after arriving at the park beach, I heard the distinctive calls of godwits. The slightly comical sound is like an amped-up kitten putting the hurt on a squeaky toy.

Three of the big shorebirds soon materialized, whooshing by at high speed as they investigated the situation before setting down. In flight, the godwits revealed their striking black-and-white wing pattern and long, powerful wings.

Eventually the godwits gracefully landed in shallow water just off the beach and began preening. I and fellow photographer Kim Smith went prostrate on the sand to minimize our profiles, and soon the birds had wandered into close range.

While clicking photos, I admired the handsome birds. The Hudsonian godwit is the smallest of the world’s four godwit species, but it’s still hefty. It dwarfs our best-known shorebird, the killdeer, outweighing that species by a factor of three.

Perhaps the godwit’s most-striking feature is its huge bill. This long, upswept appendage is probably a third of the length of the bird’s body. A feeding godwit often plunges its beak deep into the mire, seeking small invertebrate animal life.

The bird is named for Hudson Bay, where the first specimen was procured in the early 1800s. Fieldwork in the intervening two centuries has shown that this species has small, widely scattered breeding populations in boreal and arctic regions of Alaska and Canada.

The bird is named for Hudson Bay, where the first specimen was procured in the early 1800s. Fieldwork in the intervening two centuries has shown that this species has small, widely scattered breeding populations in boreal and arctic regions of Alaska and Canada.

Pioneer ornithologist John James Audubon said this of the godwit: “I had never seen it in the flesh, until I went to Boston in 1832, when I found specimens of it in the market late in September.” Mass harvesting of easily shot shorebirds decimated the ranks of many species, and the practice continued well into the 20th century. Hudsonian godwit numbers may have never fully recovered from the indiscriminate shooting.

The trio of birds we saw, one of which is pictured with this column, were juveniles born somewhere several thousand miles north of Ohio last summer. Adult godwits depart breeding areas before the juveniles. In a mind-bending feat of migration, the young birds make their way to the other end of the world, unguided, thanks to a genetically encoded GPS system.

It’s possible the godwits we saw flew from Maumee Bay to northern South America — an epic flight of several days and several thousand miles. Eventually they will join others of their ilk in Tierra del Fuego province in southern Argentina.

Most godwits fly over most of the U.S. and other populated regions, hence the relative scarcity of observations. When they do stop to refuel, birds often spend several days feeding and fattening up for the long flights ahead.

Protection of wetlands used by godwits in migration is vital to their conservation, just as much as is protection of breeding and wintering grounds. Scores of other species also benefit by preserving these wetlands.

Naturalist Jim McCormac writes a column for The Dispatch on the first, third and fifth Sundays of the month. He also writes about nature at www.jimmccormac.blogspot.com.

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