One Epic Scan

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Hudsonian Godwits on the coast of Chile. Photo by Rose Swift.

By Rose Swift

Isla Chiloé, Chile

It’s not everyday that everything goes right. Sometimes entire days go wrong. Last week we had a series of days, after relocating to be closer to the bay’s in the central part of the island, where we just couldn’t find any Hudsonian Godwits – a large shorebird that I study. Luckily for us the wheel of life/fortune spun up again, and here we are sitting at the top. Anyone know a way to keep it from turning again? 😉

I study the long-distance migratory shorebird the Hudsonian Godwit. They hold the record for the second-longest non-stop flight (over 10,000 km in seven days) of any migratory bird. They breed in the Arctic and sub-Arctic of North America, and spend the rest of the year in southern South America. For my research, I try to find birds that we’ve banded on the breeding grounds in Alaska on the opposite end of the hemisphere in Southern Chile. Quite literally, I’m looking for 50 birds out of 20,000 that use a series of bays spread out over 500km of coastline. The odds are always stacked against us.

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The Hudsonian Godwit migration pathway. Image by Rose Swift.

But today was an epic day – where everything went right. We woke up early and had breakfast before heading out for a full day of godwit surveys. We had decided to survey Pullao, arguably one of the biggest flocks of overwintering Hudsonian Godwits, on Isla Chiloé in southern Chile. We knew we were going to be in for a long busy day – Pullao wouldn’t; it, it just couldn’t let us down.

As the bay broke into view from the road, both Garrett, my research assistant, and I started scanning the tide line with our eyes. Godwits! Hooray – at least we won’t strike out on birds today. Garrett quickly assessed that there were thousands of godwits – spread out over the entire bay. Oh boy.

Boots on, scopes out, notebooks ready, jackets on. We got a reprieve from the hot weather with an overcast sprinkly day. And we were happy to have godwits to watch today!

We started scanning the flock closest to our car that was foraging on the tide line. Garrett started counting the flock while I slowly and systematically checked each leg for bands or flags. As we moved down the beach, the godwit numbers increased. Instead of being spread out in singles there were piles of them. I started slowing down but Garrett was still moving at the same pace. Then I heard him, “I got one!”. A new male – C01 –  who we banded in 2014 on the breeding grounds in Alaska!

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A banded Hudsonian Godwit. The colored leg bands and green leg flag are used to identify individual birds. The C01 name from above comes from the code on the green leg flag. This individual is known as E95. Photo by Rose Swift. 

At this point I started doing focal observations, gathering information about the individual’s foraging success, which I can link to their future reproductive success by the unique code on their plastic leg flag (see pic). But Garrett was continuing his count of the flock so he moved down the beach while I stayed put. After a successful observation period, I went back to work trying to look through the group of 1,500 birds close enough for me to see their legs for those unique leg flags. There! The bird I had been looking for! Male EA – banded in 2010, who we saw at this bay last year. Hooray! I continued working and getting observations. I relocated C01 for a second observation an hour or so later, so I was feeling pretty proud of myself and happy about our work when Garrett came walking back up to me two hours or so after we’d last talked.

“How’s it going?”, he asked me casually.
Good how did it go for you? What’s the flock size?
2,400 give or take. See any flags?
Yeah! I found EA! And I just got a second set of focal observations on C01. How about you?
Oh, I’ve found four flags today.
Wait, WHAT?!?

That’s right. While we were separated Garrett found three other individuals from our breeding population that were banded, beside the male he had found with me. To top it off, one of those birds was 1AK – the first godwit Garrett ever banded – named for the first in Alaska – who just happens to be C01’s mate! They were both using the same bay during the non-breeding season!

Feeling pretty happy with ourselves that we found five individuals from our Alaskan study population, we set out together to keep scanning the flock and looking more, so I could do second observations on them before they all started to flock up and roost. It was a couple of hours before high tide but mudflat was closing fast and the godwits weren’t foraging as much. While we continued working Garrett did it again. Another new individual!

We finished the day with six new birds for the year and a new record for us to try to break again soon. Last year, in our twelve days of surveys, Garrett and I found six individuals from the breeding population total, so finding six in one day feels borderline insane but certainly EPIC. That scan pushed our total up to 9 unique birds for the year so far, and we still have nearly two months more in Chile!

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Photo by Rose Swift. 

Rose Swift studies the interactions between seasons of a long-distance migratory shorebird, the Hudsonian Godwit, to better understand how to conserve the species across the year and hemisphere. Find out more about Rose’s research and read more stories from the field on her blog, where this story originally appeared, at rosejswift.weebly.com

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