Godwits Grace Alameda’s Shore

Rick Lewis &nbsp&nbsp A Marbled Godwit strolls along the Alameda shoreline looking for food.

Godwits Grace Alameda’s Shore

As you walk along Alameda’s many shorelines and mudflats, one of the birds that you can see standing in or near shallow water is a pale brown bird with a long bill that curves upward. Named the Marbled Godwit because of its coloring, the one we see most is the largest of the four species of Godwits. The adult bird ranges from 16 to 20 inches in length including its bill (3.1 to 5.1 inches) its wingspan is 28 to 35 inches and it weighs between 8.5 to 18 ounces (a can of soup weighs 12 ounces). 

Marbled Godwit adults have long, blue-gray legs and a very long upward-curving bill which is pinkish at the top and dark at the tip. The long neck, breast and belly are pale brown with dark bars on the breast and flanks. The back is mottled and dark. In flight the wing linings appear cinnamon.

These birds face risks here from global warming, which is projected to cause sea levels to rise between 2.7 feet and 5.4 feet in San Francisco Bay, including in Alameda. The most severe problems will occur at coastlines where the marshes and mudflats are unable to move inward due to steep topography, sea walls or urban development such as shopping malls and housing developments.

Godwits forage by probing in mudflats, salt marshes and beaches with their long bill. They feed by day or night. They often wade and probe so deeply that their heads are under water. Their diet includes mollusks, crustaceans, marine worms, insects, and other invertebrates in shallow water and even aquatic plants.

They spend the winter in coastal areas but breed in the northern Great Plains in summer and travel to three distinct breeding areas, with their own unique routes between winter and summer locations. The vast majority of the Godwits breed in mid-continental North America, followed by Eastern Canada and the Alaskan Peninsula. The largest winter ranges are the Atlantic, Pacific, and Gulf Coasts of the U.S. and Mexico.

Most Godwits migrate in flocks. Those breeding in the Western US and Canada follow a migration route through the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge site near the Great Salt Lake, Utah, their favorite stopover site. Some of these Godwits may travel south as far as South America for the winter but most winter north of Panama, in Mexico and California. Species breeding in Eastern Canada migrate across the US and stop at sites along the Gulf of California and Mexico. The Godwits breeding in the Dakotas winter in Coastal Georgia. The birds we see here in winter might go to either eastern or western US or Canada to breed.

They nest in loose colonies. Males display over the breeding colony by flying over the area, calling loudly. Pairs on the ground may go through ritualized nest-scraping while making displays. Nest sites on the ground usually are in short grass fairly close to water. Females usually lay three to five eggs, greenish to olive buff, lightly spotted with brown. Both parents incubate the eggs, usually for 21 to 23 days. Downy young leave their nests soon after hatching. Both parents tend the young but the youngsters find all their own food. The age of first flight is roughly three weeks after hatching.

Most Marbled Godwits migrate for the summer but a few birds (probably one-year-olds) remain here on their winter range throughout their first summer. So, while you’re social distancing along Alameda beaches, mudflats and marshes, keep your eyes wide open. If you’re super lucky, you just might see one of these gorgeous shorebirds at this time of year. And think about whether the mudflats on which they feed can migrate inland as the sea level rises, or whether that area is occupied by our buildings. 


Patricia Gannon, a resident of Bay Farm Island, has served at the Secretary of the Golden Gate Audubon Society’s Alameda conservation committee, Friends of the Alameda Wildlife Refuge, and coordinates the group’s monthly work parties at the Refuge.