Godwits bulk up for 7,000-mile flight

September 18, 2010 

For weeks, thousands of bar-tailed godwits have gorged themselves this summer and fall along the Alaska Peninsula on insects and crustaceans, getting ready.

The birds -- members of the sandpiper family -- fattened up to about twice their normal weight in preparation for a long trip south this month.

Their journey is one of continuous flapping, minute after minute, hour after hour, day after day. Not until they reach the shoreline of New Zealand, some 7,000 miles away, do they pause. And, finally, eat again.

"We like to claim that for a bird that is flapping during flight, it's the longest migration," said Audubon Alaska Executive Director Nils Warnock. "They're physical marvels.

"Arctic terns, as far as the longest migration, they go farther. But terns take some breaks and can sit on the water for a while.

"I've flown to New Zealand before, and we spend the time relaxing in this big metal tube -- and it still seems exhausting."

Adds Robert Gill, a U.S. Geological Survey scientist who has studied godwits extensively: "Even those of us versed in science have to sit there sometimes and scratch our heads."

Bar-tailed godwits are among 49 species on Audubon's recently issued WatchList considered in trouble or vulnerable to problems in the future. Twenty-one -- including bar-tailed godwits, whose worldwide population is estimated at 100,000 -- are declining. Ten are listed as depressed.

The WatchList -- a compilation of agency reports, peer-reviewed publications and an array of online data -- is issued every few years in an effort to spotlight vulnerable species that spend at least part of their year in Alaska. A listing confers no special legal status on any bird.

"Attempting to recover species at the brink of extinction is difficult, costly and controversial," wrote report author Matt Kirchhoff, the organization's director of bird conservation. "Working cooperatively to protect birds and their habitats before crises arise is far more effective."

And not all the news is troubling.

Majestic trumpeter swans, the world's largest waterfowl, were endangered in the early 1900s due to extensive hunting, its population nearing extinction. By 1968, trumpeters were off the national endangered list -- though they earned a spot on Alaska's WatchList during the last count in 2005.

Now they're off -- and biologists consider the population strong at about 18,000 in the Pacific Region, including Alaska.

"The swan has recovered remarkably with populations in Alaska continuing to increase," Kirchhoff wrote.

The authors would love to see other species made similar rebounds using the WatchList as an early warning beacon.

Lesser yellowlegs, for instance, are believed to number around 400,000 worldwide and are common each summer in Alaska.

But the numbers have declined markedly over the past few decades, perhaps due to habitat loss. Scientists speculate that some of the bogs yellowlegs prefer are drying up. There's also concern about habitat loss in their winter grounds, largely at the mouth of the Amazon River.

"Many people don't realize they're declining dramatically," Kirchhoff said in a press release. "But that's the point of the WatchList -- to raise awareness about vulnerable birds while there is still time to do something about it."

Warnock and Lee Tibbetts, a biologist with U.S. Geological Survey, spent time at Potter Marsh this summer tagging lesser yellowlegs.

"As more areas get developed," Warnock said, "they can have problems."

And not only due to development. Warnock and Tibbets have watched adult yellowlegs walk day-old chicks from Rabbit Creek to Potter Marsh, a trek fraught with such dangers as magpies, ravens, dogs and other creatures seek an easy meal before the chicks reach the greater safety of the marsh.

"Once they hatch, they're on the move," Tibbets said. "That's their protection. But it requires walking across roads and yards, so that can put them in peril too."

Reach reporter Mike Campbell at mcampbell@adn.com or 257-4329.

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