By Ned Rozell
A bird the size of your fist has made humans all over the world marvel at the things we can’t do.
Like fly. For 11 days straight, from Alaska to Tasmania, your toes not touching earth or water. That’s an average of 765 miles each day, enough to tire a long-haul truck driver burning diesel on the interstates rather than body fat gained from tiny clams.
The bird that became a star is a bar-tailed godwit born this summer on the camouflage tundra not far from Nome.
On July 15, 2022, biologists captured and loosely fitted a three-week old chick with a tiny transmitter. They knew the godwit would inflate to three times its size by the time it was ready to leap off the Alaska mud.
Bar-tailed godwits are creatures not thought about by most people. They fly over vast, lonely oceans to nest invisibly within bumps of tundra vegetation.
Months later, after poking their pencil bills into mud to gorge on clams and other small things, they disappear from Alaska during storms that drive us to our tents. The next year, they reappear as a surprise, skittering to a landing on soft tundra in April after traveling from New Zealand to Asia and past Japan, the Kamchatka Peninsula and the sweep of the Aleutian Islands. The birds have done this for thousands of years.
Two biologists cupped this wonder of a bird gently in their hands last July before its first migration into the unknown.
Jesse Conklin and Dan Ruthrauff had a plan to do something different this year in researching a bird whose migration was already the stuff of legend; in fall of 2007, scientists saw that one had flown directly — in eight days — from Alaska to New Zealand. The young bird that just landed in Tasmania went much farther in one go.
To find out exactly what that bird did, Conklin and Ruthrauff in summer 2022 upped the difficulty of already tedious rubber-boot fieldwork. They wanted to find godwits born this year, rather than adult birds that are larger, easier to fit with a transmitter and more likely to survive the monitoring period.
“We had conducted breeding studies before on the Yukon (River) Delta and it was pretty demoralizing,” said Ruthrauff, who works for the USGS Alaska Science Center in Anchorage. “We expended a huge field effort to find very few nests, all of which were depredated before they hatched.
“But, when godwit nests hatch, the adults very aggressively defend their broods and are quite easy to catch using recorded playbacks of chick calls. We thought that if we just put ourselves in a situation to find just-hatching nests that we might have some luck.”
The men captured three juvenile bar-tailed godwits — balls of fluff not able to fly at such a young age — and fitted each with a backpack transmitter powered by a solar panel the size of a postage stamp.
The transmitters fell off two growing birds in the days following, but the device stayed with one bird. That bird’s transmitter blipped a signal to a satellite every few hours during its fall migration, revealing the nonstop flight from Alaska to Tasmania.
“Based on its size, we estimate that we tagged it at about 3 weeks old, when we deemed that it was big enough to carry the transmitter,” said Conklin, an independent researcher. “So, (the bird) hatched some time in late June, and made the record-breaking flight at about 4 months of age. Pretty good, eh?”
As both researchers refreshed their computers to get the latest on their young bar-tailed godwit, they were surprised by where it went, as most godwits fly direct from Alaska to New Zealand.
“We were on pins and needles for 12 days, watching as the winds pushed (the bird) to and fro . . . and eventually to Tasmania, about as far as a godwit from Alaska can possibly go,” Ruthrauff said.
Conklin was flying from his home in California to New Zealand in a commercial jetliner at the same time his bird was heading southward over the deep blue sea, its organs shrinking as it flapped along without refueling.
Conklin is now in New Zealand to study juvenile godwits. He wants to find out more about how young birds develop their adult skills. And, he hopes he will soon meet the hardy bird he and Ruthrauff held in July — if that godwit flies from Tasmania to New Zealand.
“It was a surprise that our first tracked juvenile went to Tasmania, for sure,” Conklin said. “About 65%-70% of the Alaska-breeding population spends the non-breeding season in New Zealand, and the rest is generally found on the east coast of mainland Australia.”
Ruthrauff has a reverence for these birds that cover so much of the globe silently amid all the changes, such as the human development of crucial oceanfront feeding grounds on the Yellow Sea off Korea and northern China.
“I try to remain boringly objective and detached but, honestly, holding shorebirds is pretty amazing, a real privilege,” Ruthrauff said. “So much wildness contained in one svelte, disinterested little package!”
Since the late 1970s, the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute has provided this column free in cooperation with the UAF research community. Ned Rozell firstname.lastname@example.org is a science writer for the Geophysical Institute.