Bar-tailed Godwit in New York

On the morning of Friday 28 May 2004, Ken & Sue Fuestel found a Bar-tailed Godwit (Limosa lapponica) on the flat at Mecox Bay, Suffolk County, New York. This brackish bay is on the south fork of Long Island. News spread quickly and reached me at work by late morning (thanks Andy!). In the afternoon I braved the holiday weekend traffic and drove out from New York City reaching Mecox almost four hours later! The godwit was still in place, feeding actively in the thigh deep water, probing for worms or small shellfish which it capture with the tip of its bill and then toss back into its mouth.

The godwit remained overnight, delighting the crowd that gathered the next morning (29 May) but disappeared later in the afternoon or early evening.

Figure 1. Overall the godwit appeared pale brown (lighter than these photos suggest) making it very easy to pick out from the darker-plumaged Eastern Willets and Greater Yellowlegs that were striding around in the water along side it. Another obvious feature was the broad whitish supercilium that was offset nicely by the dark loral stripe. The tail was barred rather than black, confirming that this was not a basic-plumaged Black-tailed Godwit nor a Hudsonian Godwit. The primaries were dark brown with a very fine pale edging at the tips and contrasted with the paler brown terials, scapulars and coverts. Mecox Bay Suffolk County, New York. 28 May 2004 Photo Copyright © Angus Wilson.

Figure 2. The strongly bicolored bill looked bright pink changing to black around the halfway point. The depth and length of the bill suggests a female. In breeding condition adults, the bill normally darkens considerably limiting the pink or orange color to the base. Mecox Bay Suffolk County, New York. 28 May 2004 Photo Copyright © Angus Wilson.

Figure 3.
A view of the bird's right side. With the caveat that the bird was quite distant, I could not detect any retained juvenile coverts (should have obvious pale notching) from either side, suggesting this is not a first-summer bird. Mecox Bay Suffolk County, New York. 28 May 2004 Photo Copyright © Angus Wilson.

Figure 4.
This is a close as I got to photographing the white uppertail coverts and lower back that distinguishes lapponica from baurie. The bird raised its wings a couple of time (alas unphotographed) revealing white axillaries with a scattering of small brown flecks. Underwing color is very useful for godwit identification, in this case instantly ruling out Hudsonian Godwit (would have sooty axillaries and underwing coverts) and Marbled Godwit (would have cinnamon axillaries and underwing coverts). Mecox Bay Suffolk County, New York. 28 May 2004 Photo Copyright © Angus Wilson.

Figure 5.
The long bill curved upwards slightly, most noticeable towards the flexible tip. Mecox Bay Suffolk County, New York. 28 May 2004 Photo Copyright © Angus Wilson.

In summary, this bird appears to be a Bar-tailed Godwit of the nominate subspecies (lapponica), which breeds in Arctic Scandinavia and western Russia. Most winter on the Atlantic and North Sea coasts of Western Europe (principally Britain and the Netherlands) and south along the North African coast to Mauritania (Banc d'Arguin ~200,000 each winter). There are only 300 or so documented sightings of Bar-tailed Godwit in Iceland suggesting that vagrancy to North America may instead occur by southbound birds overshooting the North African coast and crossing the Atlantic at its narrowest point. This individual would therefore have potentially wintered in South America or the Caribbean before making its way northwards in spring. Ruff follow a similar migration route to their wintering grounds in west Africa and it is interesting to note that this spring has also been a good one for Ruff/Reeves along the Atlantic coast, including multiple birds on Eastern Long Island. Perhaps we are seeing the delay results of a significant displacement of shorebirds bound for wintering sites in northwest Africa last fall?

The strongly 'winter-like' plumage is unexpected for the end of May. The absence of retained juvenile coverts argues against a first-summer bird, although admittedly juvenile coverts could be very worn by this time of year and the distinctive notched pattern hard to spot at a distance. According to the literature, some adult females develop very little color in alternate plumage, however, I would expect the bill to be darker if the bird were indeed in breeding condition.

Although Bar-tailed Godwits are annual (or close to) along the Atlantic coast of North America, the Mecox bird breaks a long drought for New York State. According to Manny Levine's entry in Bull's Birds of New York State (1998) there are five prior records in the State:

15 Nov 1946 Moriches Inlet, Suffolk Co., (specimen AMNH 308880).
10 May 1971 Moriches Inlet, Suffolk Co.
17 Aug 1976 Moriches Inlet, Suffolk Co.
23 Aug 1977 Oak Beach March, Suffolk Co.
05 Jun 1985 Bay Park, East Rochaway, Nassau Co.

On Sunday 9 May 2004 a Bar-Tailed Godwit was found on North Monomoy Island in Massachusetts but this was apparantly of the Pacific
race baueri - possibly the same individual seen on Martha's Vineyard two years ago in May 2002. Remarkably, a second Bar-tailed Godwit was discovered at Monomoy Is. on 12-15 May 2004. The second bird has less color than the first and when it took flight revealed the white wedge of the nominate subspecies! So two different birds, one of each subspecies. Blair Nikula, the finder of both Monomoy birds, has posted photos of the nominate individual on his web site. Clearly this is different from the Mecox bird. It seems darker overall, with a darker bill (more typical of breeding condition birds).

Congratulations to Ken and Sue Feustel for finding and identifying the bird and to Andy Guthrie, John Fritz, Hugh McGuinness, Tony Lauro and Tom Burke for quickly spreading the word.

More godwit images on OceanWanderers:

Bar-tailed Godwit
Black-tailed Godwit (islandica)
Black-tailed Godwit (melanuroides)

Hudsonian Godwit
Marbled Godwit

Copyright Angus Wilson© 2004 All rights reserved.
Photos of New York State Rarities

Back to the Photo Gallery Index

Back to the Index Page