adult male Hudsonian Godwit atop Black Spruce
ALASKA –HUDSONIAN GODWITS ON THEIR BREEDING HABITAT
15 – 27 May 2021
godwit giving flight calls
My main purpose for traveling to Alaska was to spend time with Dr. Nathan Senner of the University of South Carolina and his team as they studied nesting Hudsonian Godwits in the field. Dr. Senner generously allowed me to shadow him and his team over a week as they located active godwit nests in two large bogs in Beluga, Alaska, about 50 miles due west of Anchorage, accessible by a bush plane flight of about 20 minutes.
the North Bog, where I spent most of my time when at Beluga
I was able to drive to the two bogs using a car on loan from the Beluga Fish Camp, where I was staying. The Senner team was based in cabins situated between the two bogs, and drove to them in two ATVs.
Dr. Senner on the way into the bog
Dr. Senner was conducting an abbreviated field tour because of the constraints of 2021 being a covid pandemic year. He was accompanied in the field by a small team—a collaborating scientist, Maria Stager, and a new graduate student, Lauren Puleo. The team’s mandate was to find, trap, measure, and mark as many of the breeding godwits as possible in a field season of less than a month. They also sampled insect abundance to better understand foraging opportunities for the hatchling godwits that grew up in the bog.
preparing to net a nesting godwit
Senner had been working on godwits in the Beluga area for more than a decade, and many of the birds in the two bogs were well-known to him. Two years earlier, I had photographed an adult Hudsonian Godwit in a boggy fen in Churchill, Manitoba, that Senner had color-marked seven years before. Godwits apparently can live quite a while, and thus any study that wants to get a grip on their life history would have to invest a considerable number of years in the effort.
processing a netted godwit: Stager, Senner, Puleo at work
Here is the godwit life story in brief. The adults arrive in southcentral Alaska in late April/early May. Male-female pairs of godwits construct a grassy nest on a small hummock above the waterline. The birds mate and the female lays four speckled green eggs in the nest. The female sits on the nest during the daytime and the male occupies the nest for the night (though there is not much true night up here in May and June).
the godwit nest with its four eggs
The eggs hatch after 27 days and the precocial young are out and about exploring the world and feeding themselves, carefully watched by the parents, from day-one of hatching. By early July the parents start their journey southward, heading off to the saline lakes of Saskatchewan, where they feed and build fat reserves for their long flight to South America. The travel south and east to New England, from which they launch out over the Atlantic, flying as much as 6 days nonstop before touching down in northern South America (some birds stop in New England, others fly nonstop from Saskatchewan to South America). The first-year birds do more or less the same thing, on their own, and how they manage the long journey remains a mystery. Most of the wintering birds (adults and young) end up in the Chiloe Archipelago of southern Chile, where they spend as many as seven months of their year. In March/April, the godwits move northward on a different track, crossing the eastern Pacific and then Central America and then the Gulf of Mexico to the US. After a rest and feeding in the Great Plains (where I have encountered them in 2019 and 2020), they travel up to Canada and then westward and northward back to Alaska.
godwit being processed before release to go back to its nesting duties
One objective of my godwit studies has been to visit three of the breeding zones of the species. I visited Churchill, Manitoba, in 2019. Now Beluga, AK, in 2021. I hope to visit the Mackenzie Delta of the Northwest Territories of Canada in June-July 2022. My travels to the Mackenzie Delta have been prevented, of late, by the covid pandemic and Canadian travel restrictions.
Godwit about to be measured
The two large Beluga bogs, north and south, both hosted nesting godwits. Finding the godwits was not terribly difficult, but finding nests is. To do so, the team would systematically walk sectors hoping to flush a bird off an active nest. The sitting bird rarely flushed until the walker was within 5 feet of the nest. It was theoretically possible to spot a bird on the nest before flushing it, but that was especially difficult to accomplish.
godwit about to be weighed
The bogs supported other nesting waterbirds: Arctic Terns, Mew Gulls, Bonaparte’s Gulls, Red-necked Phalaropes, Least Sandpipers, Wilson’s Snipes, Short-billed Dowitchers, Sandhill Cranes, Pintails, White-fronted Geese, and more. But it was remarkable how difficult it was for a mortal like me to come upon the hidden nests of many of these birds. The nests of the terns and gulls were easy to find, but the others were well hidden.
Marie Stager checking the brood patch of this nesting Short-billed Dowitcher, another bog nester
To a field naturalist, the bog environment is seductive. It is open, with stunning vistas of nearby Sleeping Lady as well as the snowy mountains of the Alaska Range. It is a mix of open water, wet grasslands, quaking boglands, and stands of Black Spruce. This time of year, cow Moose hide in the Black Spruce thickets and drop their calves. Inadvertently flushing a cow Moose from a thicket is an experience that gets one’s attention quickly, as this seven-foot-tall beast bursts out of the spruces. Is the great beast coming for you or avoiding you? Sometimes that is not immediately clear.
Alaska Range frames the bog
I carried bear spray on my hip whenever I was out and about in Alaska. This is protection for Moose and bear. David Sonneborn reported to me that he had successfully deflected the charge of a cow Moose, though I cannot imagine the experience being anything besides hair-raising.
godwit pair dropping into a Black Spruce
The more commonplace threat in the bog is biting insects. The mosquitoes are the major problem. Luckily for us, they do not appear in swarms until the 1st of June. In my last few days in Beluga, I found more and more mosquitoes in the woods, but I escaped back home before they became unpleasant.
checking the status of the eggs
Once the Senner team located a nest, they marked its location by placing a small dead branch in the grass. Even with the branch in place, and the adult on the eggs, it was very difficult to locate the nest again.
male godwit eyes the photographer
The team captured both sitting adults using a mist-net that was gently laid down over the nest and sitting bird. Most birds were already marked birds known to Senner. Each trapped bird was “processed”—weighed, measured, and its tiny geolocator replaced (the old one for downloading, the new one for recording its movements over the next year).
Arctic Tern on its nest in the North Bog
The recovered geolocator allowed Senner to map a year’s worth of movements by the bird. The advantages of using geolocators as opposed to satellite transmitters are several: light weight, low expense, and low impact on the bird. The two disadvantages are that the results are not quite as precise and one is forced to recapture the bird to recover the data.
North Bog in the misty morning
The godwit’s day is pretty well set. The male would feed all day out on the mudflats of Cook Inlet. He then would return around 6pm to the bog and swap places with the female. The female would forage and loaf through the evening and night and return the next morning around 6 am.
I did manage to see godwits on virtually every visit I made to the bogs. Birds typically made a racket on their return to the bog, and they would often perch atop Black Spruces and eye us suspiciously. Sometimes they would circle the bog high overhead vocalizing. They rarely gave us much indication as to where their nests might be...
Tromping the bogs was great fun and also great exercise. I loved hearing the godwits and I was not terribly annoyed by the dive-bombing Bonaparte’s Gulls and Arctic Terns. Neither ever struck me, but they came very close indeed.
female godwit on her nest, nearly invisible!
The Senner team put in long, long days in the bogs. Their efforts paid off—locating more than a dozen nests and marking more than twenty adults. I, myself, could not keep up there pace, but it was a great privilege being able to spend time out there with them as they did their work. I salute what they are doing!
nesting Bonaparte's Gull