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Godwits Shine in Spring

Sat 29th Apr, 2023

On the Humber Estuary this week I got really lucky. The tide was right, there was no disturbance and the waders were in just the right place for great views.

Early morning, just as the sun rose the tide was rising with only 30m or so of mud left before the wash covered the foreshore. A group of 32 Bar-tailed Godwits flew in and landed close enough for me to grab my camera. Six summer plumage males stood out from the crowd like delicious shining orange cakes on a trolley full of Victoria sponge!

Thousands of these fabulous waders spend the winter on the estuary but this is the best time of year to find summer plumage birds just before they migrate back to their breeding grounds in the high Arctic. As well as on the Humber, there have recently been smaller numbers of Bar-tailed Godwits migrating through inland sites such as the Lower Derwent Valley National Nature Reserve.

The males are distinctive in so many ways but they also have shorter bills than the females so it was great to compare the longer billed females close to the males. One female in particular was not only longer billed but also appeared longer legged with a larger body than other pale birds nearby, maybe they were males in non-breeding plumage. But some of these size features were tricky to judge as they mingled amongst the tide and mud.

One Godwit which was definitely larger was a lone Black-tailed Godwit amongst the Bar-tailed. The straighter bill with a broader base, larger body, longer legs, especially the tibia, and less contrasting plumage on the upperparts were all easy to see at close range.

What I really needed now were some photos of summer plumage male Black-tailed Godwits which would feel like a real treat on the same day. Luckily this section of the Humber is great for Black-tailed Godwits and sure enough as the tide dropped, a big flock of 600 appeared. In a close flock of 50 or so I could see around ten males in summer plumage.

Black-tailed have the same structural differences between the sexes as Bar-tailed with longer billed and larger females, they really looked statuesque next to the smaller males. But where the females rise above the males in size, the males make up for it in colour. In some lights the rufous-orange-brown looked almost identical in colour to the Bar-tailed, but in other lights the Bar-tailed often looked a shade darker.

The tiger stripes on the paler belly and flanks looked so cool on male Black-tailed Godwits. The colours reach further down the belly on Bar-tailed but they lack those tiger stripe markings.

After quickly taking enough photos, I sat back in the car to watch these wonderful birds. Both species stuck closely together whilst feeding and in flight. They both communicated to each other using their contact calls but the constantly chattering  Black-tailed were definitely more vocal than the Bar-tailed. Eventually the big Black-tailed flock moved further out across the ever-expanding mud leaving me with very good memories of my doubly delicious godwit day!

Richard Baines

Yorkshire Coast Nature