Episode 260 – Bar-Tailed Godwit: Long-Haul Birds

“…and today we are talking about Godwit the Soarin. But more on that later.”

If you’re looking wistfully out the window at a frozen or snowy gray day, you know that winter can be a real drag. Some birds fly south for the winter, and sometimes those birds clog up South Florida roadways. But what if you could fly so far south that it became springs again? That’s what the Bar-Tailed Godwit does, but soaring into the wild blue yonder in search of opportunity can really pay off in Life, Death, and Taxonomy.

Description of the Bar-Tailed Godwit

  • Looks like a big sand piper with a longer beak
  • Its feather color depends on the time of year.
    • During breeding season, males have chestnut feathers on their faces and bellies with dark brown and white plumage on their wings and tails.
    • Other times of the year, they have white-gray feathers  
  • It gets its name from the horizontal black bars that go across its tail feathers
  • It has the long, angled wings of a typical gull
  • And a thin, sharp, long beak for snapping up underwater worms and clams – like a typical sand piper
  • It also has thin, long legs for splooshing around in the water

Measure Up

Welcome to the beloved Measure Up segment. The official listener’s favorite part of the show! The part of the show when we present the animal’s size and dimension in relatable terms through a quiz that’s fun for the whole family. It’s also the part of the show that’s introduced by you when you send in audio of yourself saying, singing, or chittering the words Measure Up into ldtaxonomy at gmail dot com. We don’t have a new Measure Up intro!

  1. Sheep 
  2. Capuchin Monkey
  3. Raven
  4. Bar-Tailed Godwit


  • 37–41 cm (15–16 in)
  • How many godwits go into the length of Frodo’s journey from the Bag End to Mount Doom?
  • Hint: There are several estimates for the distance traveled, but we are going with the estimate made by cartographer Karen Wynn Fonstad. The trip also took 183 days.
  • 7,044,840 godwits. The trip was around 1,779 miles (2,863 km).

Female Weight

  • 260–630 g (9.2–22.2 oz)
  • Around four godwits equal the weight of this early Renaissance period sword.
  • Hint: This sword was developed to sacrifice speed for reach and power. It played a pivotal role in the 1689 battle against the forces of William of Orange. The swords’ wielders withstood a round of musket fire before hacking the shooters to bits. Shortly after this, the sword was made obsolete by developments in firearms.
  • The claymore was around 5.5 pounds.

Fast Facts About the Bar-Tailed Godwit

  • Range: During the summer, the godwit spends its time hunting in the Arctic. Mostly in Northern Siberia and Alaska. One subspecies lives in north Scandinavia. And that’s that. I’m sure they spend the whole time up there and never travel or migrate anywhere right Joe?
    • Where they migrate to during the winter depends on where they spend their summer.
    • East Siberian subspecies migrate to Southeast Asia and Oceana
    • West Siberian species migrate to more central areas such as India, Saudi Arabia, and Madagascar
    • The Scandanavian species migrates to West Africa
  • Diet: They eat mostly bristle-worms (basically ocean centipedes) as well as clams, snails, and crustaceans. They prefer to hunt in mudflats and estuaries.
  • Behavior:
  • Etymology
    • “Godwit” is either an onomatopoeia for the bird’s call or it comes from the Old English phrase “god whit” which means “good creature”

Major Fact: Long Haul Birds

Bar-Tailed Godwits have the current record for the longest seasonal migration in the animal kingdom. 

Godwits breed in the summer of the northern hemisphere in the Arctic. But they won’t stand for arctic winters. They make a long journey south to temperate climates to wait out the big freeze. 

Different subspecies travel to different locations throughout the year:

  • lapponica subspecies travels between Scandinavia and Africa.
  • menzbieri travels between siberia and Australia
  • baueri subspecies travels between Alaska and Australia or New Zealand throughout the year. 

The baueri subspecies takes the cake for the longest migration. They can travel a total of about 11,000 km (6,835 mi). But they also travel distances of 6,000 km (3,728 mi) to 8,600 km (5,344 mi) in single shots. 

To do this, they need abnormally large fat reserves. In fact, they carry the most fat stores of any migratory bird. However, they still need to get up in the air, so they reduce weight by having extra small digestive organs. The small organs may also mean more is stored as fat since there is less organ for processing food.

They also use weather patterns and seasonal wind shifts to aid in their flight. They seem to be able to predict changes in the wind and prepare for departure at the exact right time. 

Ending: So wade into your neighborhood estuary, catch yourself a bivalve mollusk or two, then be sure to take a quick 18,000 mile jaunt to the tropics like the Bar-Tailed Godwit here in LDT.