A bar-tailed godwit born in Alaska that undertakes one of the greatest non-stop migrations in the animal kingdom, often flying from Alaska straight to New Zealand in the fall. (Courtesy Photo / Zachary Pohlen.

A bar-tailed godwit born in Alaska that undertakes one of the greatest non-stop migrations in the animal kingdom, often flying from Alaska straight to New Zealand in the fall. (Courtesy Photo / Zachary Pohlen.

Alaska Science Forum: Blown back to Alaska, bird perseveres

Second time’s the charm.

By Ned Rozell

A bar-tailed godwit recently arrived in New Zealand on its second attempt to get there from Alaska, after a storm had blasted it back north.

Keith Woodley of the Pukorokoro Miranda Shorebird Centre on the North Island of New Zealand reported that a male godwit carrying a satellite transmitter first left the mudflats near the Kuskokwim River on Sept. 11, 2021.

As Woodley and others tracked it, the bird ran into strong headwinds about 1,200 miles into its journey. It then turned back to Alaska rather than continue toward its wintering spot in New Zealand.

Fifty-seven hours after it left sand shoals off the mouth the Kuskokwim River, the godwit landed there again. I wrote about this rich staging area near Cape Avinof in last week’s column.

Bar-tailed godwits at a favorite fall staging spot in Alaska just off the mouth of the Kuskokwim River. There, birds gorge on clams and worms within mudflats to fuel what is often a non-stop, week-plus flight to New Zealand.(Courtesy Photo / Dan Ruthrauff, USGS Alaska Science Center)

Bar-tailed godwits at a favorite fall staging spot in Alaska just off the mouth of the Kuskokwim River. There, birds gorge on clams and worms within mudflats to fuel what is often a non-stop, week-plus flight to New Zealand.(Courtesy Photo / Dan Ruthrauff, USGS Alaska Science Center)

The bird then spent 11 days on the Alaska feeding grounds around the crescent sand islands well known to people of the village of Kipnuk. There it again gorged on marine clams and worms with a zeal legendary among bird biologists.

“Although they atrophy their guts prior to migration, the abundance and quality of the clams at Cape Avinof is really phenomenal,” said Dan Ruthrauff, who studies bar-tailed godwits and other birds at the USGS Alaska Science Center in Anchorage. “A paper from 2003 noted that shorebirds have the highest energy assimilation rates reported for vertebrates … A great quote from this paper: ‘The migratory waders we studied include some of the biggest gluttons described in the animal kingdom so far.’”

Re-fattened, the male godwit took off and again flew in the direction of New Zealand, landing 1,000 miles short in the islands of New Caledonia, a French territory. It spent five weeks there before one more leaping into the air. The godwit then flew nonstop to the North Island of New Zealand’s Firth of Thames just east of Auckland, where it touched down Nov. 9, 2021.

“I received a report that the bird has been seen this morning,” Woodley said on Nov. 10.

That male bird is now milling about New Zealand mudflats with another migration superstar born on the Alaska tundra. Earlier this fall, a female bar-tailed carrying a transmitter flew from Alaska to New Zealand — a non-stop eight-and-one-half days on the wing. The bird flew at an average speed of 36 miles per hour, covering 7,580 miles without resting.

The male godwit pushed back to Alaska by winds is a rare bird that did not make the journey in a single flight.

“This bird turning back around to Alaska was a first (of the birds biologists have tracked),” Ruthrauff said. “Remarkably, however, there are relatively few records of godwits on the islands in the Pacific between Alaska and New Zealand. It certainly happens, but it’s likely that the majority of godwits make the migration in one go.”

Woodley said some of the 80,000 or so birds in the population probably don’t survive the incredible fall migration, but most seem to.

A map showing Cape Avinof in Alaska, where a male bar-tailed godwit returned to feed after failing to reach New Zealand on its first attempt; New Caledonia, where the bird flew on its second attempt; and New Zealand, where the bird finally reached its wintering grounds on Nov. 9, 2021.

A map showing Cape Avinof in Alaska, where a male bar-tailed godwit returned to feed after failing to reach New Zealand on its first attempt; New Caledonia, where the bird flew on its second attempt; and New Zealand, where the bird finally reached its wintering grounds on Nov. 9, 2021.

“Adult bar-tailed godwits are remarkably site-faithful, and many birds that have gone astray have eventually managed to arrive at their original destination weeks, or sometimes months, later,” he said.

• Since the late 1970s, the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute has provided this column free in cooperation with the UAF research community. This year is the institute’s 75th anniversary. Ned Rozell, ned.rozell@alaska.edu, is a science writer for the Geophysical Institute.

More in News

FILE - Tara Sweeney, a Republican seeking the sole U.S. House seat in Alaska, speaks during a forum for candidates, May 12, 2022, in Anchorage, Alaska. Sweeney's campaign manager said, Wednesday, June 22, 2022, that the campaign did not plan to sue over a finding released by Alaska elections officials stating that she cannot advance to the special election for U.S. House following the withdrawal of another candidate. (AP Photo / Mark Thiessen, File)
Alaska Supreme Court ruling keeps Sweeney off House ballot

In a brief written order, the high court said it affirmed the decision of a Superior Court judge.

President Joe Biden signs into law S. 2938, the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act gun safety bill, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, Saturday, June 25, 2022. First lady Jill Biden looks on at right. (AP Photo / Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
President signs landmark gun measure, says ‘lives will be saved’

The House gave final approval Friday, following Senate passage Thursday.

Three people were arrested over several days in a series of events stemming from a June 16 shoplifting incident, with a significant amount of methamphetamine seized. (Michael Penn / Juneau Empire)
Shoplifting investigation leads to arrests on drug charges

Significant amounts of drugs and loose cash, as well as stolen goods, were found.

Ben Gaglioti, an ecologist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, stands next to a mountain hemlock tree damaged in winter on the outer coast of Glacier Bay National Park in Southeast Alaska. (Courtesy Photos / Ned Rozell)
Alaska Science Forum: Bonsai trees tell of winters long past

By Ned Rozell A GREEN PLATEAU NORTH OF LITUYA BAY — “These… Continue reading

This photo shows a return envelope from the recent special primary election for Alaska's lone seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. On Friday, a judge sided with the state elections office on a decision to omit fifth-place finisher Tara Sweeney from ballots in the special general election. Al Gross, who finished third in the special primary, dropped out of the race, creating confusing circumstances ahead of Alaska's first ranked choice vote. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire)
Judge rules Sweeney wont advance to special election

Decision has Sweeney off the ballot for special election.

It's a police car until you look closely and see the details don't quite match. (Juneau Empire File / Michael Penn)
Police calls for Saturday, June 25, 2022

This report contains public information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

A Princess Cruise Line ship is docked in Juneau on Aug. 25, 2021. (Michael Lockett / Juneau Empire File)
Ships in Port for the week of June 19

Here’s what to expect this week.

Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire 
Peter Froehlich, a retired Juneau district judge who is now a volunteer tour guide, explains the history of the history of the Kimball Theatre Pipe Organ in the State Office Building to a group of visitors Thursday. The organ has been idle since 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and now needs repairs before regular Friday lunchtime concerts and other performances on the 94-year-old instrument can resume.
Historic organ is in need of tuneup

How much it will cost and who will do it remain up in the air.

Candidate for Alaska’s lone seat in the U.S. House of Representatives Tara Sweeney, a Republican, was in Juneau on Monday, May 16, 2022, and sat down with the Empire for an interview. A lawsuit filed Thursday challenges a decision to omit Sweeney from ballots in the upcoming Aug. 16 special election. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire File)
Lawsuit says Sweeney should advance in House race

The lawsuit says the Division of Elections misinterpreted state law.

Most Read