The Sketch

The Bar-tailed Godwit: A Marathoner Who Makes It Look Easy

You probably already know the amazing story of the Bar-tailed Godwit—who doesn’t?—but here's a little refresher, just in case: About eight years ago, a team of biologists surgically implanted a small satellite transmitter in a female godwit in New Zealand, designated her E7, and set her loose. Then they watched as the little dot onscreen bounced across the virtual globe. First E7 flew for seven days and nights without stopping to Yalu Jiang, an estuary in China. She stayed in that area for more than a month before taking off for her breeding grounds, in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, in southwestern Alaska. After a couple months there, she flew all the way back to New Zealand in a single go, arriving about eight days and 7,200 miles later. It was the longest known non-stop flight of any bird.

I had just moved to New Zealand at the time, and not to brag, but I also made the journey non-stop. Even so, when word of E7’s exploits reached the islands, I was duly impressed. So was everyone else. People around the world marveled not just at the length of the journey godwits make, but at the physiological transformation they undergo before they depart—how their gizzards and guts shrink almost to nothing to save weight; how they gorge themselves on clams and worms until more than half their mass is fat; how the yellowish fatty clumps are so substantial as to visibly strain against their skin. That is commitment.

People everywhere were in a tizzy, but in New Zealand—where the Limosa lapponica sometimes goes by its Maori name, the kuaka—there was also an unmistakable chord of national pride. That’s because Godwits and New Zealanders share a long history, and you could argue that the latter actually owe the former a major debt.

There's been speculation about the godwit’s migratory escapades in scientific literature since the mid-20th century, but the Maori, for whom the kuaka holds a deep cultural significance, have had their eyes on the bird for much longer. Around 950 A.D., the story goes, their Polynesian ancestors had settled on a large island they called Aotea, where, every spring, they watched flocks of the kuaka fly over their island and continue on. This led them to suspect there might be another landmass to the south, and so they decided to test their theory, 950 A.D. style: They got in their great canoes and paddled after the birds. Eventually, they saw in the distance an enormous cloud; beneath it was an island. Thus did they discover what they called Aotearoa, or “Land of the long, white cloud"—also known today as New Zealand.

Contributing to the discovery of a country almost certainly qualifies a species for hometown hero status, so you can understand why E7’s feat would cause quite a stir in New Zealand. When I learned about it, I decamped from Auckland to the Firth of Thames, a noted godwit hangout, to get a glimpse of the hotshots myself. E7 wasn’t there but I did find scads of anonymous godwits. They were beautiful the way shorebirds tend to be—delicate but strong, with gracefully upswept bills—and yet they were surprisingly unassuming for a bird the whole world was talking about. I felt like I was watching a bunch of coy celebrities, blithely unconcerned with the hullaballoo they caused. “Who, us?” they seemed to ask, as they stepped demurely about the mud.

They may have been onto something. As it turns out, the godwit isn’t quite as unique as I thought back then. In the years since E7’s flight, scientists have discovered that actually, Sharp-tailed Sandpipers may make a similarly long non-stop flight, Pacific Golden Plovers also migrate from Alaska to Australia without stopping, and, every year, a couple of Hudsonian Godwits get confused and think they are Bar-tailed Godwits, and so make the trans-Pacific flight. What seemed so incredible to humans—more than 7,000 miles in the air, without a single break!—is, it seems, old hat not just for the Bar-tailed Godwits, but for other shorebirds, too.

All of which makes me wonder whether the studied nonchalance of those godwits at the Firth of Thames was really studied at all. Maybe their false modesty was just plain modesty. Maybe they were genuinely perplexed as to what all the fuss was about. Maybe they understood better than all the rest of us that, really, they were no big deal. Nothing to see here, folks—just a bird doing what a bird's gotta do to get from point A to point B.