This Wonder Bird Flies Thousands of Miles, Non-Stop, as Part of an Epic Migration

Image of a mother godwit

A godwit mother perches atop a spruce tree, observing researchers exploring a nest. Melissa Groo

Bog walking is a treacherous business. The bog, or muskeg, near Beluga, Alaska, is a floating mass of vegetation, grassy hummocks and stunted black spruce trees that stretch for miles in every direction, with the snow-flecked mountains of the Alaska Range shining in the distance. Few trails exist. Walking here is like sloshing across a very wet sponge, as each step sinks into a few inches of water. It feels as if the ground might give way. Sometimes it does. A wrong step can sink the uninitiated into thigh-deep water that requires a hand up. Clouds of mosquitoes search for any bit of exposed flesh. Rangy moose emerge from groves of dwarf trees to threaten trespassers.

This, however, is where one of the world’s premier ultra-endurance athletes lives.

Long-distance migration is the most extreme and life-threatening thing that any animal does. And migratory shorebirds make the most miraculous journeys of all, given the distances they cover and their tiny size. There are some 70 species of shorebirds in the world that make the journey from the top of the globe to the bottom and back every year.

The Hudsonian godwit is one of them. Named after the Canadian bay where the species was first identified, and the bird’s distinctive two-syllable cry (“god-wiiit!”), Hudsonian godwits lay their eggs each spring in this Alaskan bog. (All godwits breed in the Northern Hemisphere.) In June or July, they leave their self-sufficient hatchlings and head south. First, they fly for three days to the wetlands of Saskatchewan and feed for one month. Then they continue down through the Americas to the northern Amazon—a 4,000-mile trip. They feed again and a week later head to Argentina, feeding another time before continuing over the Andes to Chiloé Island, on the fecund Gulf of Ancud, where they arrive in September or October and winter for a little over six months.

The longest leg of their journey, some 6,000 miles, is on the return from Chile. They fly night and day at speeds between 29 and 50 miles per hour, not stopping to eat, drink or rest. They pause for a couple of weeks to refuel in wetlands in the central United States—usually Nebraska, South Dakota, Kansas or Oklahoma—and then continue back to the Alaskan bog. Their goal is an endless summer.

In person, the Hudsonian godwit is prepossessing, sleek and reddish brown and gold in its Alaskan spring breeding colors, with slender stiltlike legs and a very long, upturned bill specially designed for feeding in mud. If you are a researcher trying to capture and study baby Hudsonian godwits, you’ll look for a well-camouflaged, soup-cup-size nest on the ground. Once you find it, you’ll get close enough to the mother bird to scare her into flight. 01-05-22

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