New York State Rarities - Black-tailed Godwit


Perhaps long overdue, New York's first Black-tailed  Godwit (Limosa limosa) was discovered on 5 April 2001 by Paul Gillen on the small tidal inlet of Seatuck Creek in Eastport, Suffolk County, Long Island, New York. This is a traditional location for finding Wilson's (Common)  Snipe (Gallinago gallinago delicata), Paul's target species that day. What a pleasant surprise!

The Eastport Pond, on the north side of Route 27A, drains under the roadway and emerges as Seatuck Creek on the south side of the road. At low tide the creek is mostly exposed mud and the godwit was  seen daily at this location during the appropriate tide. As the tide rose,  it generally flew southward over the railway embankment. but occasionally  roosted on the creek bank during the high tide period. During its stay the bird was seen and enjoyed by hundreds of birders coming from all over the northeast.

  Figure 1. Alternate-plumaged Black-tailed Godwit on Seatuck Creek, Eastport,  Long Island, New York on 7 April 2001. The reddish wash on the flanks extends weakly barely reaching the area above the legs. Only the distal quarter of the bill shows dark pigment, the remainder is bright orange consistent with breeding condition. Digital image captured through Kowa TSN-4. Copyright of Angus Wilson© 2001.

  Figure 2. Alternate-plumaged Black-tailed Godwit on Seatuck Creek,  Eastport, Long Island, New York on 7 April 2001. The legs are dark grayish. Digital image captured through  Kowa TSN-4. Copyright of Angus Wilson© 2001.

  Moving on? On 17 April, Mike Cooper saw the bird arrive on the creek  at 8 a.m. where it stayed for about 45 minutes before taking off and flying north. There is a brief report of the bird from 18 April but it was not seen subsequently, and is presumed to have moved on. Interestingly,  a Black-tailed Godwit in alternate plumage was sighted at on the north shore of Long Island Sound at Milford Point in western Connecticut on 19 April and presumably the same bird was relocated on 29 April at Harkness Memorial State Park in Waterford, well to the east
near New London Connecticut. The Hakrness was actually found a day or two earlier by a novice
birder that understandably identified it as a Hudsonian Godwit. Greg Hanisek was fortunate to see both the New York and Connecticut birds and believes they represent the same individual.

Click here for additional photos of the Eastport godwit by Mike Stubblefield and Steve Walter.

    Figure 3. Alternate-plumaged Black-tailed Godwit on Seatuck Creek, Eastport,  Long Island, New York on 7 April 2001. This view shows the white chin patch quite nicely. The fresh tertials are richly colored with narrow black bars radiating from the dark central shaft. Digital image captured through Kowa TSN-4. Copyright of Angus Wilson© 2001.

The question of subspecies?

Three are three recognized subspecies of Black-tailed Godwit: islandica , limosa and melanuroides .

(1) As its name suggests, Limosa l. islandica (sometimes  known   simply as "Icelandic Godwit") breeds in Iceland, the Faeroes, northern Scotland and the Norwegian Lofoten Islands. These birds winter mainly in Ireland,  Britain, western  France, Spain and Portugal. In 1989, the total population  was estimated at  65,000 birds and has possibly increased during that last  20 years.

(2) The nominate subspecies limosa breeds in mainland Europe and western Russia as far east as the Upper Yenisey River. These birds winter in the Mediterranean basin, Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle-East, Pakistan and western India. Considerably more numerous than islandica , the population is probably in excess of 200,000 individuals.  Almost   100,000 pairs breed in the Netherlands alone.

(3) Lastly, the asiatic subspecies melanuroides breeds in  scattered   locations across Siberia (east of Yenisey River), Mongolia and  NW China.  This population winters throughout southeast Asia as far south  as southern  Australia.

Figure 4. A group of roosting melanuroides Black-tailed Godwits at Mai Po in Hong Kong. Photographed on 11 April 2001. This subspecies is strongly reminiscent of islandica, although distinctly smaller and shorter-billed than either islandica or limosa. The fresh scapulars and tertials are less richly colored and have more extensive dark centers than the Long Island bird. Notice the alternate- and basic-plumaged Asiatic Dowitchers (Limnodromus semipalmatus) behind the front most godwit. Digital image captured through Kowa TSN-4.  Image copyright of Angus Wilson© 2001.

Click here for more images and discussion of melanuroides  Black-tailed Godwits based on photos taken at Mai Po in Hong Kong.

Separation of islandica from nominate limosa?

There is some debate over the subspecific identity of this bird. In general most observers favor islandica but the lack of information in the literature (particularly the North American literature) has left many undecided. Below I briefly review the key criteria, ranked in order of usefulness when considering lone individuals. Unfortunately I have yet to read the papers by Roselaar and Gerritsen (1991) and van Scheepen, P. and Oreel, G. J. (1995) published in Dutch Birding that directly addresses this fascinating ID issue. I feel bill or body size is particularly problematic on lone individuals and prefer to lend more weight to plumage details (patterning or colors).

    (1) Color: Islandica is rich rufous-chestnut in full alternate  plumage,  the red reaching well down on to the flanks and belly. Limosa generally  appears  more red-orange (cinnamon), the color rarely extending beyond the  lower breast. The final color may not be attained until on the breeding ground.  The richness red wash on the Long Island bird seems consistent with islandica.

(2) Barring on underparts: The belly is relatively unmarked in nominate but heavily barred in most islandica. The Long Island bird shows extensive barring on the flanks extending as far back as the base of the primaries. Again this seems consistent with islandica.

(3) Bill length: In general, Islandica tends to be slightly shorter-billed than limosa. There is, however, some variation in limosa. According  to BWP, birds in western Europe tend to be shorter billed than those   from central Russia. For males, islandica average 79.6 mm (range 76-84) while  western European limosa average 91.1 mm (range 83-97). For females, islandica  average 89.5 mm (range not given) while western European limosa average 106  mm (range 97-115). Clearly there is some overlap between subspecies which causes problems when sex is uncertain. Measurements of photographs comparing bill length to other features such as eye to bill base might be informative? I am not sure whether tarsus length (which also varies racially) would help.

    (4) Patterning of scapulars: Peter Hayman's plate (p385) in Beaman  and  Madge (1998) implies that the scapulars on islandica are more richly  colored  than in limosa. His plate in 'Shorebirds' is not helpful in this respect.

(5) Supercilium: The Long Island bird showed a very prominent whitish supercilium. Peter Hayman's plate (p385) in Beaman and Madge (1998) indicates a more prominent supercilium on male limosa. This is not borne out in other illustrations, and I have no idea whether this feature is meaningful.
Figure 4. Alternate-plumaged Black-tailed Godwit on Seatuck Creek,  Eastport, Long Island, New York on 7 April 2001. As the bird preens it reveals it striking black tail band and brilliant white rump. Digital image captured through  Kowa TSN-4. Copyright of Angus Wilson© 2001.

Male or female?
According to Prater et al. (1977), adults of known race in alternate plumage can be sexed by underpart color and bill length. Males tend to be more red,  shorter-billed and have more extensive barring on the underparts. Thus sex-related differences could potentially hamper subspecific identification.

Figure 5. Rear-view of the Long Island Black-tailed Godwit showing the relatively unmarked vent region. In alternate-plumaged Bar-tailed Godwit (Limosa lapponica), the orangey-chestnut color of the underparts extends through the vent region. Notice the circular white chin patch. Photographed on Seatuck Creek, Eastport,  Long Island, New York on 7 April 2001. Digital image captured through Kowa  TSN-4. Copyright of Angus Wilson© 2001.

Useful Links

Frans van der Vee has put together a nice web site on the identification of Icelandic Black-tailed Godwit in the Netherlands.

Dirk Moerbeek provides a comparisons of limosa with probable islandica taken in the Netherlands (5 April 2000, De Petten in Noord-Holland). Unfortunately the frames (and Java) on this site does run well on Macs and you have to poke around in the unlabeled folders to find the images.

Steve Walters page also includes two amazingly detailed shots of alternate-plumaged Black-tailed Goswits (one limosa and one islandica?) taken in England by Dick Newell.

Status in eastern North (and South) America

There are a handful of previous records from the eastern seaboard of  North America. I list some of these below and would love to hear details for any that I have missed. I am particularly interesting in the subspecific identity of previous North American records (if known).

         There are additional records from Pennsylvania, Delaware, Ontario and Quebec. Can anyone supply more details? The strong bias towards the Maritime Provinces of Canada in spring  suggests   that many birds reach North America as overshoots from Iceland. It is possible however that southbound nominate limosa, heading for wintering locations in West Africa, overshoot  and cross the central Atlantic reaching the Caribbean or South America. Those that survive the winter would be expected to migrate northwards into the United States. A similar mechanism has been proposed for Curlew Sandpipers on the eastern seaboard (reviewed in Wilson, 2001).

A Final Thought!

Hundreds of birders enjoyed the Eastport Black-tailed Godwit - a first record for New York State - and all observers are strongly encouraged to submit a description to the New York State Avian Records Committee (NYSARC). Not only will can you bask the glory of being listed as a co-observer in the official record (the NYSARC annual report) but more importantly you will contribute to the detailed documentation of this delightful bird


  "Become a part of the permanent record!"

Literature Cited

Beaman, M. and Madge, S. (1998) The Handbook for Bird Identification: for Europe and the Western Palearctic. Princeton University Press.

Prater, A. J., Marchant, J. H. and Vuorinen, J. (1977) Guide to the identification and ageing of Holarctic waders. BTO Guide 17. Tring.

Roselaar, C. S. and Gerritsen, G. J. (1991) Recognition of Icelandic Black-tailed Godwit and its occurrence in the Netherlands. Dutch Birding 13, 128-135.

van Scheepen, P. and Oreel, G. J. (1995): Herkenning en voorkomen van IJslandse Grutto in Nederland. Dutch Birding 17(2): 54-64.

Veit, R.R. and Petersen, W.R. (1993) Birds of Massachusetts. MOS

Wilson, A. C. (2001) Status and Origins of Curlew Sandpipers in New York State. The Kingbird 51(1): 460-477

Images and page layout copyright of Angus Wilson© 2001.
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