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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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The Godwit Trifecta

It’s not every day that you see three species of godwit on the west coast in one day. But Monday October 21, 2019 was the day and I was going to try for them after work.

I had seen all three godwits before but not all at the the same place. Marbled godwit is a common bird this time of year on the coast or bay. Hudsonian was rare on the coast. The last time I’d seen one was in Alviso in September of 2003. And I had just seen a bar-tailed godwit in the spring. It’s a common bird, if your in Europe, which I was, but rare in Coastal California. I had picked one up as a lifer in the Ebro Delta in Spain.

My first stop was Pescadero State Beach, where the previous week, all three godwits were present. Now only the Hudsonian and marbled remained. It was just a mater of finding it.

Along the long narrow beach that stretched out to the north I could see nothing but gulls, lots and lots of gulls. What I needed to find was a group of godwits. I couldn’t see any from here so a little leg work was called for. So I took a sandy step off to the north.

After I passed the large gull roost I found what I was looking for, a small group of shorebirds. I could make out a few whimbrels, long-billed curlews, and yes, some marbled godwits. It took all of my effort not to raise my bins to my eyes but I resisted the urge. I needed to get closer and head a little to the west to get the low sun at my back to help me find that one godwit that looked a little different.

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One of these birds does not look like the others.

Most of the godwits were roosting, balanced on one leg with bills tucked under their back feather. Once I put bins on the group I immediately saw a smaller, over all gray and not rufous godwit with a dark cap and a defined bold supercilium or eyebrow. I was looking at a Hudsonian godwit for the first time in almost 20 years!

Hudsonia sketch

A field sketch of the resting Hudsonian in a Stillman & Birn Delta Series softcover sketchbook.

I guess I would just have to be satisfied with a two Godwit Day when Dickcissel texted me that the bar-tailed godwit had just been refound 10 miles to the north at Tunitas Creek Beach! So I rushed back, as fast as I could with a scope and in sand, to the parking lot.

Off I headed on Highway One and pulled off on Tunitas Creek Road (one of the most haunted roads in the United States) and parked. Then it was down the hill, along the path, up the steep hill, through bramble, along the hedge cave, past the creek and concrete wall to the expanding views of Tunitas Creek Beach.

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Tunitas Creek and the beach, looking southwest.

I scanned the long and narrow beach from the north and to the south. Nothing but gulls. Déjà vu.

What I needed to find was a group of godwits. I couldn’t see any from here so a little leg work was called for. So I took a sandy step off to the north.

All gulls and no godwits.

I was stopped by some friendly locals with their pooch and they asked what I was looking for. I expanded and they asked if I’d seen the heron by the creek. I told them that I had and that birding is an affliction and I had to find the godwit before I lost light. And off I went to the south. Not sure they understood, it is an affliction after all.

About halfway down the beach I saw the silhouetted forms of shorebirds. I had to head southwest of their position to get the sun at my back to identify them. A group of godwits. I scanned the flock. All marbleds.

I looked to the south and moved on. In a sandy depression in the beach, I saw the silhouetted forms of shorebirds. I had to head southwest of their position to get the sun at my back to identify them. A group of godwits. I scanned the flock. I found marbled godwits and one bird that looked like no other. A bird foraging with the flock but was a little apart from the rest. Bar-tailed godwit!

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Bar-tailed godwit at Tunitus Creek Beach,

Now after attaining the Godwit Trifecta I could head back north towards home, reveling in a very satisfying Monday afterwork Birding adventure.

I would sleep well tonight!