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Unraveling the Wonders of the Bar-tailed Godwit – Migration Plumages and Behavior

The Bar-tailed Godwit is a remarkable bird that is well-known for its incredible migratory feats. In this article, we will delve into the identification, plumages, and molts of this species to provide readers with a better understanding of this fascinating bird.


The Bar-tailed Godwit is a shorebird that is approximately 40-45 cm in length and has a wingspan of 75-85 cm. These birds have long, straight bills that are slightly upturned, and their legs are a distinct blue-gray color.

During the breeding season, the birds display a chestnut and white speckled pattern on their head, neck, and breast, while their backs are a pale brown color. In contrast, during the winter months, the birds are an overall gray-brown color with a slightly lighter underbelly.



When looking to identify this species in the field, there are a few key features to look out for. Firstly, the distinct blue-gray coloration of their legs is a dead giveaway.

Additionally, their long bills and overall size can be used to differentiate them from other shorebirds, such as plovers or sandpipers. During the winter, the birds can be easily identified by their overall gray-brown coloring.

Similar Species

One species that can be easily confused with the Bar-tailed Godwit is the Black-tailed Godwit. However, the Black-tailed Godwit has a longer bill that is slightly curved, and its legs are a pinkish color.

Other similar species include the Whimbrel, which has a distinctive downcurved bill, and the Red Knot, which is smaller in size and has a shorter bill.


As with many bird species, the Bar-tailed Godwit has different plumages during different times of the year. During the breeding season, the birds display a striking chestnut and white speckled pattern on their head, neck, and breast.

Their back is a pale brown color, and they have a distinct black band across their tail. In contrast, during the winter months, the birds are an overall gray-brown color with a slightly lighter underbelly.

The black band on their tail is still present but less distinct.


Like most birds, the Bar-tailed Godwit goes through various molts throughout the year. During the breeding season, the birds are in their fresh plumage.

After breeding, the birds undergo a prebasic molt, during which time they will replace their feathers, resulting in their winter plumage. Then, during the winter months, the birds go through a prealternate molt, which is when they will replace their feathers once again, resulting in their breeding plumage.

In conclusion, the Bar-tailed Godwit is a remarkable bird with a distinctive appearance and fascinating life cycle. By understanding the various plumages and molting patterns of this species, we can appreciate their incredible feats of migration and the role they play in the ecosystem.

Systematics History:

The Bar-tailed Godwit (Limosa lapponica) belongs to the family Scolopacidae, which includes other species like sandpipers, curlews, and snipes. Historically, the Bar-tailed Godwit was classified as a single species with two subspecies, the L.

l. lapponica in the Northern Hemisphere and the L.

l. baueri in the Southern Hemisphere.

However, more recent genetic research has shown that there are four distinct clades within the Bar-tailed Godwit species complex. Geographic Variation:

The Bar-tailed Godwit has a circumpolar distribution in the Northern Hemisphere, breeding from Scandinavia to Siberia and Alaska.

During the non-breeding season, the birds migrate to coastal areas in South Asia, Australasia, and West Africa. The birds themselves are migratory, covering thousands of miles each year as they travel between their breeding and non-breeding ranges.

Within this range, there are regional differences in the size, shape, and plumage of the birds, which have been used to identify various subspecies. Subspecies:

There are four subspecies of the Bar-tailed Godwit that have been recognized based on their geographic range and physical characteristics.

1. L.

l. lapponica: This subspecies breeds in the tundras of Scandinavia, Greenland, and parts of Russia.

It is larger and has a more contrasted plumage than the other subspecies. During the non-breeding season, it migrates to the coasts of Europe, West Africa, and South Asia.

2. L.

l. taymyrensis: This subspecies breeds in the Taymyr Peninsula in Siberia and is slightly smaller than the L.

l. lapponica.

Its breeding range is separated from the other subspecies by the Ural Mountains. During the non-breeding season, it migrates to coastal regions in East Asia and Australia.

3. L.

l. baueri: This subspecies breeds in Alaska and migrates to Australia and New Zealand during the non-breeding season.

It is smaller and has paler plumage than the L. l.

lapponica. 4.

L. l.

menzbieri: This subspecies breeds in eastern Siberia and has the darkest coloration of all the subspecies. During the non-breeding season, it migrates to coastal regions in East Asia.

Related Species:

The Bar-tailed Godwit has a close evolutionary relationship with other godwit species, particularly the Black-tailed Godwit (Limosa limosa). These two species were once grouped together as a single species, but they are now recognized as separate species.

The two species hybridize in Iceland, where their breeding ranges overlap. Another related species is the Hudsonian Godwit (Limosa haemastica), which breeds in North America and migrates to South America.

Historical Changes to Distribution:

Historical changes in the distribution of the Bar-tailed Godwit have been driven by climate fluctuations, habitat loss, and human impact. During the last ice age, the birds’ non-breeding range extended further south than it does today.

As the ice retreated and sea levels rose, the birds’ range shifted northward. Today, the birds are facing a range of anthropogenic threats, including habitat loss due to coastal development, pollution, and hunting.

Climate change is also affecting the availability of suitable breeding and non-breeding habitat for the birds, which could have a significant impact on their future survival. In conclusion, the Bar-tailed Godwit is a species complex with four recognized subspecies that differ in size, plumage, and distribution.

The birds have a circumpolar distribution, breeding in the tundras of the Northern Hemisphere and migrating to coastal regions of the Southern Hemisphere during the non-breeding season. Human activities, climate change, and habitat loss are all threatening the future survival of this remarkable species, making it more important than ever to protect and conserve their habitats.


Bar-tailed Godwits are widely distributed across the arctic and sub-arctic regions of the Northern Hemisphere. During the breeding season, they can be found along the coasts of northern Eurasia and subarctic North America.

The birds breed in tundra and heath areas near freshwater lakes and rivers. In areas where tundra is absent, the Bar-tailed Godwits may nest among rocky gravel beds or sandy areas close to the coast.

During the non-breeding season, Bar-tailed Godwits can be found along the coasts of Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Japan, and coastal areas of Southeast Asia. The birds are often found in estuaries, mudflats, and sandy shorelines along the coastline.

Movements and Migration:

Bar-tailed Godwits are long-distance migrants, traveling between the Northern Hemisphere breeding grounds to the Southern Hemisphere non-breeding grounds. During the breeding season, the birds are dispersed over a wide range of Arctic and sub-Arctic areas, but in September and October, they begin their migration to the coasts of Southeast Asia, Australia, and New Zealand.

The birds undertake a non-stop migration over the Pacific Ocean, covering a distance of 11,000 km in 7-9 days. This migration has been documented as the longest non-stop migration flight of any terrestrial bird species.

Upon arrival at their non-breeding sites, Bar-tailed Godwits typically adopt a narrow range or site fidelity. This means that they will return to the same location year after year.

Researchers have also observed that the birds form loose non-breeding flocks, often joining other migratory shorebird species that share their wintering areas. In preparation for migration, Bar-tailed Godwits undergo a period of hyperphagia or increased feeding.

This is necessary to enable them to store up enough fat reserves to fuel their long-distance migration. During their non-stop flight across the Pacific, the birds can lose up to 55% of their body weight.

Bar-tailed Godwits usually depart from their non-breeding areas from March to May, when they start to return to their breeding grounds. They stop at staging areas along the coastline to replenish their energy reserves before continuing their journey.

During migration, Bar-tailed Godwits fly at high altitudes to take advantage of favorable tail winds. They often travel in flocks and can fly day and night without rest.

The timing of Bar-tailed Godwit migration is influenced by both environmental and social cues. For example, the birds are influenced by daylight length and temperature, and may also use the presence of other migrating shorebirds as a cue to begin their migration.

In conclusion, Bar-tailed Godwits are remarkable migratory birds that cover immense distances between their breeding and non-breeding areas. These birds require specific habitats during the breeding and non-breeding seasons and are highly adapted to their environments.

The birds are threatened by climate change and habitat loss, making it more important than ever to understand their movements and protect their habitats. By studying the migration patterns of Bar-tailed Godwits, we can better understand their needs, and take steps to conserve and protect them.

Diet and Foraging:


Bar-tailed Godwits are omnivorous and feed on a variety of prey species, including insects, worms, mollusks, and crustaceans. During the breeding season, their diet consists mainly of insects and other invertebrates, which they forage for on the ground.

During their non-breeding season, the birds feed on mollusks and marine crustaceans found along the coast. The birds have a number of adaptations that enable them to forage efficiently, including their long bills, which they use to probe into the mud or sand to locate prey.


The Bar-tailed Godwit’s diet changes depending on the season and their location. During their migration, the birds will stop at various sites along the coast to rest and refuel.

During these stops, they forage for invertebrates in the mudflats and tidal flats. The birds are known to feed on small crustaceans, including crabs, shrimps, and small bivalves, as well as terrestrial insects and worms.

In their breeding grounds, the birds feed mainly on invertebrates, particularly insects and their larvae, which they locate by probing their bills into the ground.

Metabolism and Temperature Regulation

Bar-tailed Godwits have a high metabolism rate, which allows them to carry out their long-distance migration without stopping to rest or feed. During their non-stop flight across the Pacific Ocean, the birds make use of stored body fat as their primary fuel source.

This requires a significant amount of metabolic energy, which is facilitated by the bird’s high metabolic rate. The birds also have adaptations to help regulate their body temperature during the flight, including a specialized circulatory system that allows them to maintain a higher body temperature while flying.

Sounds and Vocal Behavior:


Bar-tailed Godwits are generally silent birds, but they do make a variety of vocalizations during the breeding and non-breeding seasons. During the breeding season, males make a distinctive whistle call that is used to defend their territory and attract mates.

The call is a series of short, clear whistles that sound like “kett-weeet.” Females may also make a similar call, which is used as part of their courtship behavior. During the non-breeding season, Bar-tailed Godwits are less vocal, but they may make occasional short calls when feeding or interacting with other birds.

These calls are usually short, high-pitched whistles or chattering sounds. In conclusion, Bar-tailed Godwits are primarily carnivorous birds that feed on a variety of prey species in different parts of their range.

They have a high metabolic rate, which allows them to carry out their long-distance migration over the Pacific Ocean each year. These birds are generally silent, but they may make vocalizations during the breeding and non-breeding seasons.

Understanding the feeding habits and vocalizations of Bar-tailed Godwits is crucial to their conservation and management, as it provides insights into their behavior, needs, and potential threats. Behavior:


Bar-tailed Godwits are primarily terrestrial birds, spending most of their time on the ground. They have long, slender legs that are adapted for walking and running on uneven terrain.

The birds have a distinctive gait that involves taking long strides with their legs, and they can cover large distances quickly. During migration, Bar-tailed Godwits are also adapted for flight, with long, pointed wings that facilitate sustained flight over long distances.

The birds have been known to fly at high altitudes during migration, where they can take advantage of favorable tailwinds.

Self Maintenance

Bar-tailed Godwits, like other birds, spend a considerable amount of time on self-maintenance activities such as preening, bathing, and sunning. Preening is an essential activity that involves the birds cleaning, smoothing and oiling their feathers to maintain their insulative and waterproof qualities.

Bathing is also important for hygiene and plumage maintenance, as it helps to wash away dirt and parasites from the feathers. Sunning or “anting” is another self-maintenance behavior that involves the birds exposing their feathers to direct sunlight to help eliminate parasites.

Agonistic Behavior

Bar-tailed Godwits are not highly territorial birds, but they may display aggressive behavior towards other birds during the breeding season. This behavior is often seen in males, who will defend their space against competing males through aggressive displays, vocalizations, and physical confrontations.

Sexual Behavior

During the breeding season, male Bar-tailed Godwits will establish and defend a territory, which they will use to attract and mate with a female. Once a mate has been established, the birds will engage in courtship behaviors, which can involve displays of affection, vocalizations, and territorial defense.

Breeding pairs will often mate for several years, with males returning to the same territory each year. Breeding:

Bar-tailed Godwits are monogamous birds that breed annually during the summer months.

Breeding pairs establish territories in open, tundra or coastal heath environments near freshwater sources such as rivers or ponds. The birds build a simple scrape nest on the ground, which is lined with vegetation and feathers.

Females lay a clutch of 3-4 eggs, which are incubated by both parents for around 23-25 days. The male will take over incubation duties during the day, while the female takes over at night.

Once the eggs hatch, both parents will take turns feeding and protecting the chicks until they are able to fly. Demography and Populations:

Bar-tailed Godwit populations have been relatively stable over the past few decades, with approximately 1.5 million individuals in total across all subspecies.

The bird’s circumpolar distribution has helped to ensure that there are no significant threats to the overall species, although some subspecies are experiencing population declines due to habitat loss and other environmental pressures. Conservation efforts are currently focused on protecting the bird’s breeding and non-breeding habitats, which are at risk from coastal development, pollution, and climate change.

The birds are also protected under various international conservation agreements, including the Convention on Migratory Species and the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands. In conclusion, Bar-tailed Godwits are fascinating birds with unique behavior patterns and adaptations that enable them to carry out long-distance migration and survive in a range of different environments.

Understanding their behavior, breeding habits, and population demography is crucial to their conservation and management, providing critical insights into their needs and potential threats. By studying and protecting these birds, we can help to ensure that they continue to thrive in the wild for generations to come.

In conclusion, the Bar-tailed Godwit is a remarkable bird species that is highly adapted to its environment. Whether it’s their long-distance migration abilities, diverse feeding habits, or complex behaviors during the breeding season, the Bar-tailed Godwit is an essential species that plays a crucial role in the ecosystem.

By studying and understanding these birds, we can better appreciate their significance and take steps to protect and conserve them for future generations. It’s vital that we continue to pay attention to the bird’s behavior, demographics, and population trends, not only to ensure their survival but also for the conservation of our planet’s broader biodiversity.

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