The Bar-tailed Godwit (Limosa lapponica) holds the world record for the longest distance travelled without stopping for any animal. Godwits fly directly across the Pacific Ocean from the Arctic Tundra to Australasia – a record breaking leap of 12,000 km from Alaska to New Zealand in 9 just days!

Bar-tailed Godwits are a large wader common in Australia. They have a long neck and long upturned bill with a pink base and dark tip. The females are larger in size than males and have longer bills.

Their upper body plumage is a mottled brown with a dark back. Their underbelly is a lighter buff colour, which becomes chestnut red during the breeding season, as does their head and neck. 

A Bar-tailed Godwit standing in shallow water and stretching its leg and wing
Non-breeding plumage - October to March
Bar-tailed Godwit
Breeding plumage - April to September

The two Godwit species that regularly migrate to Australia for the non-breeding season are the Bar-tailed Godwit and Black-tailed Godwit. Similar to the Black-tailed Godwit, the Bar-tailed Godwit can be distinguished by their white underwing and dark barred tail, as well as having a shorter bill. They are also generally larger in size, have a shorter neck and legs, and their bill is more upturned and pointed.

Bar-tailed Godwit
Bar-tailed Godwit
Black-tailed Godwit
Black-tailed Godwit

There are in fact three subspecies of the Bar-tailed Godwit. Only two of the three subspecies (L. l. Menzbieri and L. l. baueri) migrate to Australia. These breed in north-eastern China and Alaska. The third subspecies, L. l. Lapponica (see video below), breeds in Scandinavia and migrates to Europe and Africa.

 

Meet The Shorebirds distribution map - Bar-tailed godwit

Coastal locations such as mudflats, beaches, estuaries, inlets and harbours are the habitats of choice for the Bar-tailed Godwit. Salt marshes and sewage ponds are also areas where they are often sighted in large flocks, commonly with other waders.

To feed, Bar-tailed Godwits plunge their long bills deep into mud to find worms, crustaceans, insects and molluscs. They are also known to eat a variety of plants and at times even fish and tadpoles! They typically feed in shallow water  during the day when the tide is low, but have been recorded to feed at moonlight.

Bar-tailed Godwit
Rhynkokinesis - super bendy bill powers!

A cool fact about Godwits is that their upcurved bills are soft and flexible at the tip. Their ability to bend their bill while feeding is called rhynkokinesis and helps them locate and capture their prey. It also makes them look extremely cute when they yawn!

Bar-tailed Godwits nest on high ground in dry sites with grass and moss. Vegetation and lichens are sometimes used to line the nest. A breeding pair will lay two to five eggs and both sexes will incubate the eggs and care for the young until they fledge.

Incubation male bar-tailed godwit
Incubating male Bar-tailed Godwit
Bar-tailed godwit chicks in nest
Bar-tailed Godwit chicks in the nest

Conservation Status

IUCN Red List

Near Threatened

Australian EPBC Act

Critically Endangered (subspecies menzbieri)
Vulnerable (subspecies baueri)

Similar Species

Image credits:
Stephanie Stylli
Author
Stephanie has volunteered as an Ambassador Program Project Officer for Wing Threads through Remember the Wild, Australia’s first nature connection charity, since 2018. She holds a Bachelor of Science majoring in Zoology from The University of Melbourne.

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