Wild Godwit Chase

A rare godwit from Siberia has been hanging around with a group of marbled godwits on the Monterey Bay Coast in Santa Cruz County. And I was going to try and find it!

The bar-tailed godwit (Limosa lapponica) could easily be passed over when scanning a flock of foraging godwits. The differences can be subtle, especially if you don’t know what your looking for. The bar-tailed is slightly smaller legged and slightly smaller than the marbled (the difference in size is slight, marbled: 370 grams and the bar-tailed: 340 grams). The bar-tailed has a defined light supercillium (eyebrow) and it’s back is more darkly streaked than the commonly coastal marbled godwit.

This was either going to be a very easy find or a taxing struggle because the godwit flock could be anywhere on the long stretch of beach from Seacliff State Beach in Aptos to Sunset State Beach farther south in Watsonville. I anticipated a lot of leg work over sandy beaches to find the flock.

I first headed to the most northerly location where the flock had been seen: Seacliff State Beach. It is here that the hulk of the SS Palo Alto is rolled over on it’s port side like a huge, beached whale. I scanned the beach from the bluff. No godwit flocks. So I headed down the wooden stairs, used by locals as their personal gym, to the beach below. I headed south and there was a gull flock at the creek sans godwits. I returned to Highway 1 and drove three miles south. It looks like this godwit search was to become my own personal workout.

One of the best things about local birding is that it exposes you to new places, even in your own backyard. Such was the case as I exited Highway 1 at San Andreas Road and passed through La Salva Beach and headed further south. I turned right, heading towards the Pacific. My destination was the trail to Zills Beach. I reckoned that I was somewhere near or in Watsonville.

The trail to the beach that borders an agricultural field.

I headed down the trail, shouldering my scope and tripod. I reached the beach in about five minutes and looking to the south and the north, I did not see any shorebird flocks. Unfazed I decided to try my luck to the north, heading towards Manresa Beach. I set up my scope, to save some legwork, and scanned the water’s edge. I spotted some small peeps, in this case sandering. Beyond the sandering were some larger shorebirds which I hoped were godwits and if they were a flock of godwits, I hoped one of them had a white eyebrow and a darkly streaked back! I shouldered my scope and headed north down the beach to find out.

As I got closer I scoped the flock and indeed, confirmed that it was a flock of marbled godwits but I was too far away to identify a godwit that looked a bit different. As I came closer to the flock I came upon a family of five that was slowly heading up the beach. Lucky a pod of dolphins, frolicking in the inshore waters, was distracting them and they stopped to watch. They were heading towards the godwits too and I was hoping that they wouldn’t flush the flock before I had a chance to identify the bar-tailed. These shorebirds have wings and are at a distinct advantage, should the flock hightail it down the coast to Sunset Beach! That would be a lot of trudging in the sand. A good coastal workout I suppose.

With the family of five preoccupied with dolphins, I headed away from the waterline, in a flanking maneuver to take me closer to the flock without flushing them. I set up the scope and scanned the godwits, left to right, looking for the one that didn’t quite belong. After a short search, I spotted a godwit with a light supercillium and a darker streaked back, compared with the nearby marbled godwits. Bingo! Bar-tailed godwit!

The bar-tailed godwit on the right and a marbled godwit on the left.

I spend about 15 minutes with the bar-tailed, getting scope views and taking photos before a a woman with golden retriever, who was heading south down the waterline, flushed the godwit flock. I traced the flock’s flight down the shoreline toward Sunset Beach. It was inevitable that a dog walker would walk along and send the flock to another part of the beach. At least the golden was on a leash. And I had some good looks at the bar-tailed godwit before it lifting into the air.

Here was an interesting find on the strandline, a former mola mola or ocean sunfish.

As I headed back south along the beach, I felt good about my Godwit Chase, not yet knowing that two more county birds would be added to my list on the following day. But this is a story for another spread and another post. Stay tuned!

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