Bar-tailed Godwit

Bar-tailed Godwits are also commonly known as Barwits and Kuaka in the native Maori language. These birds with their brown and gray plumages can be found in the intertidal mudflats of the coasts of New Zealand where they spend most of their time of the year foraging for food.

About Bar-tailed Godwits

Like any other sea bird, Bar-tailed Godwits travel long distances as a part of their migration cycle. But what makes it more interesting is these birds perform the longest non-stop flight of any non-seabird and unlike a seabird, there is no chance of midflight snacking.

Bar-tailed Godwits hold great cultural value for New Zealand. For Maori, they were the birds of mystery which was the cause of the Maori saying “Kua kite te kohanga kuaka?” which can be translated to “Who has seen the nest of the kuaka?” These birds were also believed to accompany the soul of the departed.

The taxonomical terms for Bar-tailed Godwits are, Limosa lapponica. The genus name Limosa originated from Latin and translates to “muddy”. The word Limosa comes from Limus which means, Mud. The naming refers to the preferred habitat of the bird which is the intertidal mudflats. The English term Godwit is possibly derived from the calls of this bird or from the Old English phrase, “Good Whit” which means, Good creature possibly because of its crustacean and mollusk eating qualities.

These birds have various regional names among which the Maori kuaka, Inuit Chiuchiuchiak, and the Russian maliy veretennik are the most popular ones. Aren’t these mysterious muddy birds particularly fascinating to know about? Let’s discuss some more about them!

● Bar-tailed Godwit Photos, Color Pattern, Song
● Bar-tailed Godwit size, Eating Behavior, habitat
● Bar-tailed Godwit Range and Migration, Nesting


Bar-tailed Godwit Color Pattern

During the nonbreeding seasons, the color pattern of both the sexes is pretty similar. Crowns and hind necks are pale browns in color with dark streaks. Scapulars and coverts are brown with dark centers and pale fringes giving them a fairly streaked appearance. Lower backs are rump and tails are barred with brown. Under parts seems paler with grey-brown wash and there is fine streaking on the neck and flanks. In-flight, these birds seem to have a uniform color and pattern while the wing stripes often look indistinct.

During the breeding season, most males undergo a complete transformation. The color becomes bright red-brown on the head, neck, breast, and belly with strongly contrasting upper parts of dark feathers with buff fringes and notches. Females are considerably less colorful, becoming strongly streaked and barred on the neck, breast, and flanks, sometimes with pale red-brown wash.

Description and Identification

Bar-tailed Godwits are some of the most common arctic migrant birds in New Zealand. They can be easily found in the saline mudflats foraging for food. These long-legged waders have very significant differences when it comes to the sexes. The female birds appear to be duller in color during the breeding season than the colorful and vibrant males. However, they both have a similar dull color pattern during the nonbreeding seasons. When it comes to size, the males are smaller than the females and also have a shorter bill. There may be some overlaps in sizes and bill lengths sometimes but the sexes are usually easily distinguishable. The juvenile birds of the species lack the colorfulness of the adults and resemble more to the nonbreeding appearance of the adults.

Other similar species in the family include Black-tailed Godwit and Hudsonian Godwit. Both of these species are smoother grey-brown on the back, have prominent white-and-black wing bars and a white rump contrasting with their black tail. The bill is slightly upturned in Hudsonian Godwit but is straight in Black-tailed Godwit. Whimbrels are slightly darker, with striped heads and down-curved bills.

Bar-tailed Godwit Song

Bar-tailed Godwits are not particularly songbirds. But they do have certain unique calls that serve different purposes. Mostly silent on the ground while foraging, these birds start giving out louder and frequent calls just before their migration seasons. Most commonly, Godwits give out a very clear “a-wik a-wik a-wik” call during flights. They may sometimes give a “ki-ki-ki” call while roosting in flocks during the high tides.

Bar-tailed Godwit Size

Bar-tailed Godwits are Sandpiper-sized birds. The males tend to be smaller in size than the females, which is a very easy way to tell both sexes apart. Bar-tailed Godwit males may measure about 38-39 centimeters in length while the females measure around a good 40-42 centimeters. The males and females weigh around 275-400 grams and 325-600 grams respectively. These birds have a wingspan of almost 70-80 centimeters.

Bar-tailed Godwit Behavior

Bar-tailed Godwits forage in the intertidal mudflats. These birds aggregate in loosely knitted formations or disperse individually while foraging. They may form flocks during high tides; however, these birds can be pretty wary and anti-social. Bar-tailed Godwits can be quite aggressive when it comes to attacking predators and invaders. These birds also show a very specific and violent kind of in-flight attack. However, Godwits are more calm while on the ground, foraging.

The courtship practices of Bar-tailed Godwits include ceremonial flight that includes a 4 stage process. It includes a starting Limping flight which has the most display and calling practices making it visually and vocally rich. It then includes a noisy and conspicuous pursuit flight, in which males follow their mate very closely. This flight occurs in the pre-laying period and often attracts unmated males. The courtship on the ground involves raising tails and finally, in the erect courtship display, the birds mostly point their bills upwards.

During the breeding season, Bar-tailed Godwits defend their breeding sites and nests quite aggressively. The aggressive displays are similar to the courtship displays, except the tails aren’t raised. It has been observed that the aggression towards other birds in the flocks only lasts until the brood has been raised. After that, during the nonbreeding seasons, Bar-tailed Godwits become rather cryptic and unresponsive.

Bar-tailed Godwit Diet

Bar-tailed Godwits spend most of their time foraging in the salty mud waters. These birds have a diet that mainly consists of aquatic animals and worms. Godwits may eat mollusks as in snails, clams, scallops, crustaceans, bristle worms, and even aquatic insects. The birds may forage while dispersed individually or form loose groups. Sometimes the foraging flocks may even consist of over 30 individuals. These birds wade carefully through shallows and exposed mud with their long and slim legs while probing rapidly with their bills. They may shallow the smaller prey whereas break opens the bigger crustaceans and make smaller chunks out of them before eating those small pieces easily.

Bar-tailed Godwit Habitat

Bar-tailed Godwits are primarily Tundra dwelling birds but are more known for their migratory phases. Thus their main habitats include Tundra, Shores, and Mudflats. In Alaska, these birds nest on rolling hills of tundra and on slopes with hummocky ground cover and low stunted shrubs. This is the habitat that they share with Whimbrels. During the nesting, the adults may feed on coastal lagoons some distance from nesting sites. These birds migrate to the shores and coastal mudflats for wintering and spend their time foraging and eating silently without responding too much to the competitors.

Range and Migration

Even though Bar-tailed Godwits are Tundra birds, they are more known for their migratory practices. During the summers, these birds are widespread in Europe and Asia however Godwits also cross the Bering Strait to nest in western Alaska. Big, noisy, and cinnamon-colored, they are conspicuous on their tundra nesting grounds. Bar-tailed Godwits from Alaska spend their winter in the Old World. A few may show up on either coast of North America in migration. Such strays, in dull winter plumage, often associate with flocks of other Godwits.

The residents of Alaska and Siberia migrate to Southeast Asia, Australia, and New Zealand for wintering. The ones that fly from Alaska take a great non-stop flight of 6000 miles. This epic migration only takes place within a span of only 6-8 days of continuous flying which definitely means they don’t even stop in the way for food. So before leaving for migration, these birds eat a lot and put on a lot of weight to keep them going.

Bar-tailed Godwit Lifecycle

The juvenile Bar-tailed Godwit resembles the nonbreeding adults. During breeding season these birds go through a plumage transformation and males become colorful and vibrant. The first breeding age of these birds is around two years. After elaborate courtship practices, these birds make their nest and lay olive green or pale brown eggs of the clutch size of usually 4 eggs. Both the male and the female birds incubate the eggs. These eggs hatch after 3 weeks of continuous incubation and the hatchlings are helpless upon birth. The nestling period is almost 28-30 days however shortly after hatching the young are led to the nearby marshy areas and encouraged to find their own food. The pairs raise one brood per year.


These birds spend their nesting season, which is usually during the summer, in their Tundra homes in Alaska and Siberia. Their nests are hammock-like, raised above the ground sufficiently, usually surrounded by grass. The nest is typically a small depression made of grass. The insides are lined with finer bits of grass, moss, and lichen to make it softer and more comfortable for the eggs and the newborn hatchlings. Both the partners in the pairs make the nests together and the site is selected by the male through a lot of terrestrial displays including circling the sky above the nest site.

Anatomy of a Bar-tailed Godwit

Bar-tailed Godwits are big and heavy birds. These have thin long legs that help them forage through the wetlands and exposed mud easily and hang on the inner backside while taking a flight. These birds also have a long bill, slightly tapering bi-colored (pink at the base and black towards the tip), that helps them probe rapidly and consistently probe through mud and forage food. It also helps them in catching their prey easily. They have a fairly small head and a neck with very big wings that help them travel long distances.

Final Thoughts

Bar-tailed Godwits used to be abundant in number in the world. But the population started declining rapidly in the 1930s around the Kola Peninsula, Siberia. Fewer birds have been recorded in the East African estuaries since the year 1979. Such rapid decline of the population brought this species of birds to the category of Nearly Threatened. The cause of such rapid declines probably has been the loss of intertidal mudflats in the yellow sea. The construction of sea walls and reclamation of mudflats have decreased the availability of food sources, causing these birds to decline so drastically.


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Bird HousesForBar-tailed Godwits

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