Bar-Tailed Godwit (Limosa lapponica)

Birds are cool animals. Their mastery of the skies has always impressed and inspired us. That being said, some birds seem to have the whole flying thing down a lot better than others. Some are expert gliders, others can dive at incredible speeds, and some can even fly backwards. Today’s animal, the bar-tailed godwit, deserves the prize for stamina, as you’ll see.

There are three subspecies of bar-tailed godwit, which are divided based on their breeding and wintering grounds. Godwits breed in Scandinavia, Northern Asia, and western Alaska. Their wintering grounds (depending on subspecies) are extremely varied, from the western coasts of Europe to South Africa to southeast Asia to Australia and New Zealand.

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A male bar-tailed godwit wearing his breeding attire. Image credit: Andreas Trepte via Wikipedia

Bar-tailed godwits reach lengths of 37-41 cm and have wingspans of 70-80 cm. Both sexes are fairly drab during most of the year, being covered in grey-brown plumage. They have black bars on their tails, which gives them their common name. During the breeding season, male godwits turn a lovely chestnut red, while the females continue to look boring. Godwits have long, blue-grey legs, and an impressively long beak.

The birds use this spiffy bill to feed in their preferred habitats: marshy tundra in the summer and muddy coastline in the winter. Godwits use their long legs to stand in the water and then probe the soft mud for insects, crustaceans and molluscs.

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A bar-tailed godwit feeding in some muddy water. Image credit: Peter Fuller

In order to get to their wintering grounds, bar-tailed godwits have travel a very long way. The distance from Alaska and Siberia to New Zealand, for example, is about 10,400 kilometres. The birds want to make this journey as quickly as possible, so they do it in one go. Yup, they don’t even stop to eat. This is the longest non-stop flight of any bird. They can complete this flight in about 175 hours.

To prepare for this flight, bar-tailed godwits have to put on a lot of weight so they can draw on fat reserves during the journey. Before migrations, godwits weigh about twice their normal weight. They also shrink their internal organs, so they weigh less in flight.

I can’t get over how impressive these birds are. They fly the equivalent of 279 marathons, all without stopping to eat or rest. I can’t even jog for two miles on an empty stomach. It’s a good thing I’m not a bar-tailed godwit!

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