Breaking all records: the Bar-Tailed Godwit

I’ve never lived on any coast anywhere, and so shorebirds (let alone gulls, terns etc) are a mystery to me. We spent a day in The Gambia at Kartong Wetland and Tanji beach and fish market. This smallish beige bird didn’t seem impressive at first glance, except for that insouciant slightly up-curved bill.

It’s a Bar-tailed Godwit, Limosa lapponica. I watched a trio of them foraging the tidal zone. They dig that long 12cm (5 inch) bill deep into the wet sand, looking for tiny shellfish and worms:

If necessary their whole head goes underwater:

but if the next wave threatens deeper water, they run for the shore:

And if either an excessively large wave, or a human, approaches, they take off, finally allowing me to see that barred tail:

All fun to watch, but the mind-blowing bit is where they go to breed: Siberia. Here is a map of their migration routes ( from

These ones are the sub-species Limosa lapponica taymyrensis, in pale green. Every year they fly to the top of the world and back, a journey of some 16,000 km a year. They stop halfway at the Wadden Sea in the Netherlands for a month to refuel, before continuing further to Siberia (or Greenland). The map below has more detail for where these West African birds go in the summer, (from Versluijs et al 2011):


The population of this subspecies, though still large, is in worrying decline, having dropped from 746,000 to 495,000 over the past 30 years. The species as a whole is now considered Near Threatened by the IUCN

PS The sub-species of the Bar-tailed Godwit found in Alaska migrates even further, down to New Zealand, for a round trip journey of some 25,000 km p.a. Their non-stop southbound migration of 11,000km in the boreal fall “may represent the longest nonstop migratory flight of any bird, certainly that of any shorebird.”(Birds of the World). To do this, they build up huge fat reserves and reduce the size of their digestive apparatus.

PPS Another record-breaker that winters in West Africa is the curlew relative the Eurasian Whimbrel, Numenius phaeopus. This population mainly goes north to Iceland to breed. Some stop in Ireland en route, but many fly direct, over the Atlantic, up to 1000 Km a day! Birds of the World reports that “Four birds tracked in 2012 using geolocators flew non-stop from Iceland to their wintering areas in West Africa, covering distances of c. 3,900 to 5,500km in five days and, on occasion, achieving the fastest recorded speeds for terrestrial birds on long-distance flight over oceanic waters (up to 18–24m/s)”.

(The North American Whimbrel is now considered a different species, Numenius hudsonicus.)

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