Bar-tailed Godwit Observations – Learning in the Field

by Bryce W. Robinson

Female Bar-tailed Godwit

I really appreciate instances where I learn in the field, from first hand observations rather than reading in a book. It seems my bird related knowledge is skewed a bit to the latter, so that when I observe something for the first time in the field, I usually have an understanding of it from previous reading. I’d like to measure myself as a young ornithologist by what I recognize in the field, and later read in a book. I’d like to say, “hey, I saw that last week when I was watching that Arctic Warbler, just as so and so wrote here in this account”. To me, this skill means that I have the observation tools necessary for proper bird study, and I’m up to par with my contemporaries and those who have studied before me, or at least developing the skills needed to reach that point.

Male Bar-tailed Godwit

Well, I’m happy to report that one such instance occurred recently, as I was observing and photographing a pair of Bar-tailed Godwits – Limosa lapponica. I’ve had very little exposure to these birds, a fact of which I’m working to rectify at the moment. The two birds I found the other evening were recent arrivals, and very keen on replenishing the reserves they had just spent on the long flight from Australia, or thereabouts.

Bar-tailed Godwit - Male and Female

I sat with the birds for an hour, maybe more, and shot away with my camera. While doing so, I was struck by the dramatic size difference between the male and the female. The male, being an impressive cinnamon color, was much daintier than his female companion. The light bodied female was at least 1/3 larger than the male, by my estimation. Also, her bill was noticeably longer. So, my first observation learned from the experience was that this species exhibits “Reversed Sexual Dimorphism”, or that the female is larger than the male in size and attributes. Of course the birds are sexually dimorphic in alternate plumage, which makes identification easy during the breeding season, but my observation in size dimorphism was exciting nonetheless.

My second observation came later as the birds wandered closer and I was able to see their behaviors in greater detail. Both birds were feeding, sticking their bill fully into the soft sand and pulling out all sorts of wriggling worm-like animals, the classification of which is certainly unknown to me. When the worm critters were extracted, I noticed some flexing in the upper mandible of the bill. Later, as the birds became more full, they’d stop to preen and stretch. During one of these idle moments, I noticed some extreme flexing in the upper mandible. AHA! Rhynchokinesis! My first personal observation of this trait in birds.

Not the best photo, but look at that upper mandible flex!

Not the best photo, but look at that upper mandible flex!

Although these observations are not novel, nor are they difficult to observe, it was still an exciting moment in my field education. I noticed two traits belonging to Bar-tailed Godwit that were unknown to me beforehand. The fact that Rhynchokinesis exists in this long-billed species makes absolute sense, but observing the trait first hand was a moment that sums up exactly why I study birds. The satisfaction of recognizing these traits is rich, and causes one to push on and observe other species in greater detail. The more you look the more you see, and in the future I hope experiences like these become more frequent as I learn how to truly look at birds. I feel like my education is only beginning!

 

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