Hudsonian Godwit Limosa haemastica Scientific name definitions

Brad M. Walker, Nathan R. Senner, Chris S. Elphick, and Joanna Klima
Version: 1.0 — Published March 4, 2020
Text last updated October 21, 2011

Movements and Migration

Migration Overview

Long-distance migrant between boreal breeding grounds and wintering grounds in s. South America. On migration, individuals found within relatively narrow geographic zones -- although occurrence within this zone is sporadic, suggesting that godwits may not use traditional stopover sites, but instead make stops dependent on weather and on-the-ground conditions (Skagen et al. 2008; Senner 2010).

As in other Nearctic breeding shorebirds, migration follows an elliptical route in North America, with northbound route located west of the southbound route (Hagar 1966, Morrison 1984c). Within North America, northbound migration is more diffuse than southbound. In spring, most birds pass through the Great Plains, with major concentrations recorded occasionally at sites such as Cheyenne Bottoms, KS; eastern Rainwater Basin, NE; and Lake Thompson, SD (Skagen et al. 1999; Jorgensen pers. comm.). In fall, major staging areas are found in w. Alaska at Aropuk Lake, in the Quill Lakes and other saline likes of s. Saskatchewan, and at James Bay; these concentrations represent western and eastern breeding populations, respectively (Alexander and Gratto-Trevor 1997, Senner 2010, B. McCaffery pers. comm.).

Most Hudsonian Godwits from both eastern and western staging sites make a non-stop flight over the w. Atlantic to South America. Migration within South America is not well known, but preliminary data from individual tracking devices suggest southbound migrants travel through the interior and that northbound migration is more coastal (Senner et al. unpubl.). This suggests that most individuals travel through the continental interior during both the boreal and austral spring periods and along the coast during both fall periods. Tracking devices on migrating birds have also shown that additional staging sites for Alaskan birds occur in the interior of n. South America, particularly from se. Colombia south to nw. Brazil (Amazonas) (Senner et al. unpubl.).

Small numbers of nonbreeders remain in s. South America during the breeding season (Hudson 1920, Weller 1967c, Lara Resende 1988, Blanco et al. 1995) (Espinosa et al. 2006).

Timing and Routes of Migration

Northbound Migration

Little information about migration through South America. In Argentina, movement during early March reported from the Buenos Aires area (Wetmore 1927b); species seen at San Antonio Oeste in central Argentina only during northbound migration, perhaps suggesting different migration routes or use of different stopovers during northbound and southbound migrations (Blanco et al. 1995); numbers peak in Mar in s. Brazil, with most gone by end of Apr (Lara Resende 1988). Numbers peak in Los Lagos region of Chile in March and nearly all individuals are gone by May (Espinosa et al. 2006). Not seen in Paraguay during northbound migration (Hayes 1995). Uncommon from at least mid-Apr to May along Pacific coast of Guatemala and s. Mexico north to the Isthmus of Tehuantepec and along the Gulf of Mexico coast from s. Veracruz to Texas-Mexico border; rare elsewhere in Mexico (Howell and Webb 1995).

First arrives in North America in early April, with first individuals often found well inland of the mid-Texas coast (Senner unpubl.). Moves north, primarily west of the Mississippi River, between 90 and 100°W in the U.S., and across a wider range once it reaches s. Canada. Largest concentrations at Cheyenne Bottoms, KS; Lake Thompson, SD; Kingsbury Co., SD; e. Rainwater Basin, NE; and Jackson Co., TX (Skagen et al. 1998b) (Jorgensen 2008). Appears to be a bimodal migration, with an early peak in central North America occurring in mid-April and a second, larger peak during May, that likely has to do with the earlier arrival of s.-central Alaska breeders (NS).

Representative dates of occurrence during spring migration: n.-central Texas, late Mar–late May (Pulich 1988b); Kansas, early Apr–late May (Thompson and Ely 1989), with 50% of birds at Cheyenne Bottoms seen during last 2 wk of Apr (Helmers 1991); w. Minnesota, late Apr–early Jun (Janssen 1987); e. South Dakota, late Apr–late May (South Dakota Ornithologists' Union 1991).

Uncommon spring migrant in southern part of Prairie Provinces. Regular in small numbers during late Apr and early May in e. Alberta. In Manitoba, regular along Hudson Bay coast, irregular to the south (Salt and Salt 1976). In s. Yukon, small numbers in May, primarily in Southern Lakes area near Whitehorse; most records between 8 and 13 May and involve 1 or 2 birds, but larger numbers (maximum flock size of 52) reported occasionally (Eckert 1999a, Sinclair 2003). Elsewhere in North America, occurs only as a rare spring migrant.

First reaches s. Alaska breeding grounds during last week of Apr, nearly all birds on breeding territories at Susitna Flats by first few days of May (Isleib and Kessel 1973, Kessel and Gibson 1978). Historical records over a 37 yr period put this average at May 2. Arrival is delayed somewhat in years of heavy snow or shorefast ice (T. Tobish unpubl.); earliest arrivals in w. Alaska during first week of May on Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta and in Kanuti NWR (McCaffery and Harwood 2000); by mid-May on Seward Peninsula (Kessel 1989).

Historical first records show an average arrival date in Churchill, Manitoba of May 22 over a period of 24 yr (NS), with spring migration peaking in late May and very early June (Jehl and Smith 1970, Cooke et al. 1975b).

Southbound Migration

Prior to migration, gathers in low hundreds on tidal flats of n. Yukon Delta and southeastern shore of Kuskokwim Bay (Seppi 1995, McCaffery pers. comm.), and in Cook Inlet (Kessel and Gibson 1978, Gill and Tibbitts 1999). At Cook Inlet, AK, first males begin to stage in late June, with good numbers well into July; females later, beginning to arrive by the last week of June and arriving in numbers with the first juveniles during late July–early August (T. Tobish, Senner et al., unpubl.). Latest birds depart Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta and Seward Peninsula by late Aug (Kessel 1989, McCaffery and Harwood 2000); adults leave tidal flats of Cook Inlet by late July, juveniles by end of August (L. Tibbitts, T. Tobish, Senner et al., unpubl.). At Churchill and La Pérouse Bay, MB, adults begin to flock by mid-July, start departing by late July; most juveniles leave by end of August (latest 7 Sep; Jehl and Smith 1970, Cooke et al. 1975b).

Relatively few birds seen away from major staging sites during migration; e.g., very few seen in Yukon Territory during fall migration, all between late July and early September (Sinclair 2003). Key staging sites in Saskatchewan (peak numbers at Luck Lake, Quill Lakes, Porter Lake, Opuntia Lake, and Catherwood Lake Morrison et al. 1995b, Skagen et al. 1998b, W. Renard and G. Beyersbergen pers. comm.), representing western populations, and James Bay, primarily eastern birds. At Porter Lake and Quill Lakes, passage occurs early July–early September, with peak during first half of August (Salt and Salt 1976, Alexander and Gratto-Trevor 1997). After leaving Saskatchewan, birds take a direct route to the eastern coast of North America and set off for a direct flight to South America over the western Atlantic (Senner et al. unpubl.).

During second half of July, flocks gather on tidal flats along the western shores of Hudson and James bays (Hearne 1796, Hope and Shortt 1944, Hagar 1966, Peck 1972, Morrison and Harrington 1979, Morrison 1984c). Adults start gathering at the southern end of James Bay in July; main departure of adults during second half of August. Juveniles start gathering in early August; most leave mid-September to mid-October. Total population peaks mid-August.

Other staging sites include Gulf of St. Lawrence, where several hundred occur late July–late August (Maisonneuve et al. 1990), and Bay of Fundy, where tens are seen mid-July to September (Hicklin 1987). From James Bay, flies over Maritime Provinces of Canada and New England, south to the Mid-Atlantic, and then out over w. Atlantic; low numbers seen in these areas, and most individuals fly nonstop from James Bay to South America, a distance of at least 5,000 km (Morrison and Harrington 1979, Morrison 1984c, NS).

Typically rare inland in e. Canada and e. United States, with most sightings involving single birds, occasionally flocks of up to 10. Regular, however, near w. Lake Erie in Ohio, where most flocks number ≤10 birds; occasionally flocks >100 seen (Peterjohn 1989b). Regular in small numbers at select sites along Atlantic Coast, such as Monomoy I. on Cape Cod, MA, where up to 200 have been found in August; higher counts associated with severe northeasterly storms (Veit and Petersen 1993). Also uncommon to fairly common transient in Delaware marshes along the coast of Delaware Bay (Hess et al. 2000b). Selected dates: Montreal, late July–early November (Holohan 1983); Magdalen Is., late July to mid-August (McNeil and Burton 1973); Nova Scotia, early August–late October (Tufts, Tufts 1961); New Brunswick, mid-July to late October (Squires 1976); Massachusetts, early July to mid-October (Veit and Petersen 1993); Ohio, late August–late October (Peterjohn 1989b); New Jersey, most mid-August to mid-September, occasionally to late October (Sibley 1997, Walsh et al. 1999b); Delaware, early July–late November with most early August–late October (Hess et al. 2000b).

Elsewhere in North America, species is infrequent to rare (Morrison 1984c); even in Ontario, considered unusual away from Hudson and James Bay coasts (James et al. 1976). Extremely rare in most interior states through which birds pass in spring; fall passage in Kansas occurs early August–late September (Thompson and Ely 1989).

Many records from mid-s. Atlantic Coast of U.S. and Barbados associated with strong easterly winds (Richardson 1976, Walsh et al. 1999b). Records from West Indies, where uncommon in Barbados, and very rare elsewhere, range early September–early November (Raffaele et al. 1998). Very rare migrant in w. United States and nonbreeding areas of Canada (Roberson 1980, Paulson 1993). Not found in Mexico during fall (Howell and Webb 1995). Tracking data and the frequency of New Zealand records (see Distribution: outside the Americas, above) suggests that some birds join flocks of Bar-tailed Godwits prior to migration and are capable of >11,000 km non-stop flights (e.g., see McCaffery and Harwood 2000).

Most birds presumed to arrive in South America south of the Orinoco River delta (Hagar 1966), although staging sites in n. South America not known (Harrington et al. 1993). Most reports from Caribbean and South America north of 35°S are of small numbers; e.g., individuals or small flocks reported in Trinidad mid-Sep to late Oct (ffrench 1973) and Venezuela late Jul–mid Dec (Swallow 1994). In Amazonia, thought to be extremely rare (Stotz et al. 1992), but observations made during the 1990s suggest the species is quite common at least at some locations, with >100 birds seen in a day at Marchantaria I. near Manaus, Brazil, where adults are present at least from early Sep to mid-Oct and immatures from mid-Sep to mid-Nov (S. V. Wilson, B. Whitney pers. comm.). Tracking data on migrating birds have shown individuals from Alaska staging in n. South America from se. Colombia to nw. Brazil (Amazonas). A majority of birds migrating from Churchill flew directly to wintering sites further south in Argentina (Senner et al. unpubl.).

Elsewhere inland, reported from Paraguay as uncommon during southbound migration, September–December (Hayes et al. 1990, Hayes and Fox 1991); accidental in s. Peru, Bolivia, and n. Ecuador, small numbers found on upland plateaus of Patagonia steppe (Pearson 1975a, Remsen and Traylor 1989, Fjeldså and Krabbe 1990). The few birds seen in n. South America during southbound migration and the period of several weeks between peak departure from Canada and arrival in s. South America suggest that additional staging sites remain to be found, perhaps inland in Amazonia.

More numerous farther south in Argentina and Chile, close to major wintering grounds (Hagar 1966, Morrison 1984c, Harrington et al. 1993). In s. Brazil, numbers peak in Nov, dropping during Dec, after which numbers stable throughout winter (Lara Resende 1988). Some birds that initially land in s. Brazil and Uruguay continue south to Tierra del Fuego, where they will remain until early May. Historically, flocks of up to 1,000 reached Argentina as early as July (Wetmore 1927b); in coastal Buenos Aires Province, present from late Aug–late Apr but with fewer birds midwinter (Myers and Myers 1979, Morrison 1984c, Ieno 2000).

A number of individuals from breeding populations in Susitna Flats, AK and Churchill, MB were equipped with data loggers to track migration to and from South America. Birds from Susitna Flats wintered on the coasts of Chile, on and around Chiloé Island (Sep 10-Apr 12). Some of these birds spent brief periods in the Buenos Aires province of Argentina before arriving in Chile (Aug 31-Oct 15). Individuals from the Churchill breeding population concentrated in either Uruguay and ne. Argentina (Oct 3-May 6) or Tierra del Fuego (Oct 22-May 3). One bird split its time between both locations. All dates represent earliest arrivals and latest departures.

Historically, at least, small numbers occurred in central Argentina from April to September (Hudson 1920); today the species occurs throughout this period in n. Argentina. These birds are presumably non-breeders, perhaps sub-adults, that make a short northward migration and over-summer within South America.

Migratory Behavior

Most often seen as single birds or small flocks during spring migration; occasionally groups of ≥50 (e.g., Lowery 1974, Janssen 1987, Pulich 1988b). Arrives on breeding ground at Churchill in flocks of several to several dozen individuals. Flocks usually break up within a few hours or days (Hagar 1966, Jehl and Smith 1970), but when spring is late, Hudsonian Godwits congregate in flocks of up to 400 on ponds in the townsite or on icy marshes along the Churchill River and on large tundra pools west of La Pérouse Bay (Cooke et al. 1975b, J. R. Jehl, Jr., pers. comm.). During first day or 2 after arrival, individuals spend long periods sleeping and display infrequently (Hagar 1966). Earliest flocks arriving on breeding grounds consist largely of males (Jehl and Smith 1970; T. Tobish unpubl.). Uneven sex ratios reported in S. Dakota in May (Coues 1880a) may also indicate that males migrate earlier in spring.

During fall, premigratory foraging flocks numbering up to the low hundreds start to gather on coastal mudflats near breeding areas (Jehl and Smith 1970, Kessel and Gibson 1978, Seppi 1995); migrating flocks range in size up to several hundred in major staging areas such as James Bay (Hope and Shortt 1944, Hagar 1966, Morrison and Harrington 1979). Farther south, much smaller flocks are typical and gatherings of >100 birds are rare between Canadian staging sites and areas north of 35°S. Flocks traveling along west coast of James Bay in fall flew in “broad flat V's and crescent-shaped lines with very little wavering or changing of formation” (Hope and Shortt 1944: 575). On departure from s. James Bay, birds fly in southeasterly direction; migratory flights begin late afternoon and presumably continue into the night (Hagar 1966).

At stopover sites, often shares feeding habitat with a variety of other shorebird species.

Control and Physiology of Migration

Little information. At the Magdalen Is., Quebec, fat content of individuals increased from about one-third to one-half of total dry weight during August, yielding a mean flight range estimate of 3,380 km (range 1,400–4,600 km, n = 4; McNeil and Cadieux 1972a). At Quill Lakes during fall staging period, masses of birds collected before and after 11 Aug were significantly different (302 g ± 58 SD [n = 11] and 366 g ± 38 SD [n = 10], respectively); rate of fat deposition estimated at 2.4–2.8 g/d (Alexander 1994, Alexander and Gratto-Trevor 1997). Lean mass was 250 g ± 8 SD (range 241–265, n = 8) for adult females and 216 g ± 12 SD (range 194–237, n = 13) for adult males. Fat mass for same birds was 113 g ± 41 SD (range 50–152) and 79 g ± 39 SD (range 10–122) for females and males, respectively. Proportion of fat averaged 30% in females, 25% in males, and ranged up to 38%. No evidence for increase in protein mass, which averaged 51 g ± 3 SD (range 48–55) in females and 43 g ± 3 SD (range 37–49) in males (Alexander 1994). Flight range estimates ranged from 4,900 to 6,700 km (Alexander 1994, Alexander and Gratto-Trevor 1997), indicating that at least some individuals can manage a nonstop flight to South America.

Recommended Citation

Walker, B. M., N. R. Senner, C. S. Elphick, and J. Klima (2020). Hudsonian Godwit (Limosa haemastica), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (A. F. Poole, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.hudgod.01