By Cameron D. Eckert
By the time I spotted two godwits at Judas Creek, Yukon on May 26, 1999, I had already scrutinized 102 Hudsonian Godwits Limosa haemastica at various Whitehorse area wetlands during the previous three weeks. By Yukon standards, these numbers were unprecedented. The first hint that this spring would be a good one for godwits was on May 2 when I tallied a flock of 52 Hudsonian Godwits at Tagish Narrows. This was the largest flock ever recorded in the Yukon. The largest flock reported by Campbell et. al. (1990) for British Columbia was 26 on 2 May 1984 at Fort St. John. Through the rest of May, Pam Sinclair and I observed Hudsonian Godwits in the Whitehorse area as follows: 10 on May 8 at M?Clintock Bay; 8 on May 8 at Tagish Narrows; 5 on May 8 at Nares Lake; 23 on May 13 at Lewes Marsh; 2 on May 18 at M?Clintock Bay; and 2 on May 20 at Judas Creek. [click for map] There was significant variation in plumage with birds appearing in breeding plumage, winter plumage, and many in transitional plumage. We checked the underwings, wing pattern and tails on almost every bird to confirm their identities. We usually see about 5 Hudsonian Godwits per spring in the Whitehorse area. Prior to this year, the highest numbers were recorded in 1998 with 70 tallied in May at various Whitehorse area locations which included a one day (May 9) count of 62 with the largest flock being 16 birds. This spring, southeast Alaskan observers also reported relatively good numbers of Hudsonian Godwits with Kodiak?s first record (3 on May 2) in 20 years (Richard MacIntosh pers. comm.), and a possible record high one day count (8-9 on May 5) for Juneau (Gus van Vliet pers. comm.).
The two godwits at Judas Creek on May 26 immediately caught my attention. They were obviously godwits, being clearly larger and longer-legged (dark legs) than a nearby Black-bellied Plover Pluvialis squatarola, with very long slightly upcurved bills (blackish with orange base). Both birds were mostly in winter plumage with a whitish throat, breast, belly and undertail, with one bird showing a distinct reddish patch at the base of the lower mandible and chin. The other bird differed in that it showed no red in the face and had faint fine streaking on the upper breast. Both birds had dark brown crowns, a whitish supercilium and a dark eye line. Back and scapular feathers had dark centres and buffy fringes and notches, while secondary wing coverts appeared worn with dark grey centres and whitish fringes.
Most intriguing about these birds was that they seemed shorter legged and lacked the hunched look of a Hudsonian Godwit. As well, the orange base of their bills was not as bright or extensive as that of a Hudsonian Godwit. The whitish breast and belly and patch of red on one bird?s chin excluded Marbled Godwit Limosa fedoa. What we could see of these birds suggested that they were Bar-tailed Godwits Limosa lapponica. However, the chance to view an underwing or tail became a significant waiting game. The birds foraged for about 30 minutes without so much as lifting a wing tip. They were able to probe the mud with very little stooping which further emphasized their short legs. Finally, one of the godwits began to bathe and eventually stretched its wings to display whitish underwings, and spread its tail which was white with dark brown barring. It was a Bar-tailed Godwit. It then took flight and joined its partner in the air thus confirming that both were Bar-tailed Godwits. In flight, the upper wings showed brownish secondaries, and slightly darker primaries with only a vague whitish wing stripe at the base of the outer secondaries and inner primaries. Most striking were the very dark primary coverts. In flight the tips of their toes just barely extended past their tails which was quite different from the flock of 23 Hudsonian Godwits we observed flying overhead at Lewes Marsh on May 13 (their feet extended fully beyond their tails). The Bar-tailed Godwits looked rather front-heavy in flight, reminiscent of a dowitcher Limnodromus. The rump appeared brownish and contrasted just slightly with the more whitish barred tail which confirmed that these birds belonged to the subspecies L. l. baueri (Hayman et. al. 1986; Paulson 1993) which breeds widely in western Alaska and Siberia (Paulson 1993). The two Bar-tailed Godwits called frequently, a mellow two-noted "du-whit" and occasionally a three-syllable descending "du-du-du".
The godwit with the reddish chin departed at dusk on May 26 and was not seen again. The other Bar-tailed Godwit was at Judas Creek on May 28 and we watched it doing high flights at dusk while calling constantly. It was still there on May 29 but was not seen when we returned to Judas Creek on June 5. These birds provided only the second documented Yukon record for Bar-tailed Godwit (Eckert et. al. 1998). The Yukon?s first was one at M?Clintock Bay on May 29 1993 (Birders Journal 5(5):256). It is notable that while the vast majority of Canadian Bar-tailed Godwit records are from fall (Jones and Holder 1996), both Yukon records occurred during spring migration. Most of all, the two Bar-tails at Judas Creek made for a very exciting finale to a remarkable season for godwits.
Campbell, R.W., Dawe, N.K., McTaggart-Cowan, I., Cooper, J.M., Kaiser, G.W., and C.E. McNall. 1990. The Birds of British Columbia, Volume 2, Nonpasserines: Diurnal birds of prey through woodpeckers. Royal British Columbia Museum, Victoria, B.C., Canada.
Eckert, C.D., Grunberg, H., Kubica, G., Kubica, L., and P.H. Sinclair. 1998. A Checklist of Yukon Birds. Yukon Bird Club, Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada.
Hayman, P., Marchant, J., and T. Prater. 1986. Shorebirds: An identification guide to the waders of the world. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, Massachusetts.
Jones, C., and M. Holder. 1996. Bar-tailed and Black-tailed Godwits in Canada. Birders Journal 5(4):184-193.
Paulson, D. 1993. Shorebirds of the Pacific Northwest. University of Washington Press. Seattle, Washington.
On August 15, 1999, two Bar-tailed Godwits were well-documented at Nisutlin River Delta, Yukon (C.Eckert & H.Grunberg). As well, two juvenile Hudsonian Godwits were also recorded there on the same day.
This article originally appeared in Birders Journal. Reference as:
Eckert, C.D. 1999. A Notable Movement of Godwits in the Yukon, Spring 1999. Birders Journal 8(3):149-150.
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Note: The Judas Creek outflow on the shores of Marsh Lake is located approximately 60 kilometres south of Whitehorse. Access to the best birding areas is a bit tricky and those wishing exact directions should contact the Yukon Bird Club: email@example.com
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