Blane Klemek: The marbled godwit is common in the west, rare in the east
John J. Audubon wrote on May 31, 1832, of an outing in the Florida Keys where he saw thousands of marbled godwits on a mud bar south of Cape Sable. “Four or five guns were fired at once, and the slaughter was such that I was quite satisfied with the number obtained, both for specimens and for food. For this reason we refrained from firing at them again, although the temptation was at times great . . .”
Much reduced in number and distribution today, the marbled godwit is somewhat common in the west, but rare in the east. Yet at one time marbled godwits, a member of the sandpiper family, were nearly numberless. During my summers conducting wildlife research projects on the Great Plains of North Dakota, I was privileged to observe godwits on a near daily basis throughout its native habitat.
That stated, reading historical species’ accounts of what was once commonplace are, nevertheless, disheartening stories to read. I frequently find myself wondering what the North American continent must have looked like a mere 200 years ago —before the wave of explorers and pioneers began to visit and settle here.
In another passage, Thomas Roberts wrote about his 1878 travels through Grant and Traverse Counties in western Minnesota: “. . . the great marbled godwit was so abundant, so constant and insistent in its attentions to the traveler on the prairie, and so noisy that it became at times an actual nuisance. They were continually hovering about the team, perfectly fearless and nearly deafening us with their loud, harsh cries — “go-wit, go-wit.”
Roberts wrote that for many days at a time, in various places, the birds left such a vivid impression on him and his party that the experience “can never be effaced.” About 40 years later he reminisced about those glorious days afield. He wrote, “Happenings of this sort have long since become a thing of the past in Minnesota.” At the time he doubted that Minnesota had more than an occasional pair of godwits nesting in remote parts of the state.
Thankfully, Dr. Roberts wasn’t entirely right, because marbled godwits can still be found in Minnesota, though they are much more abundant further west in Dakotas. As already eluded to, my first encounter with godwits occurred in the Prairie Pothole Region of North Dakota. I saw many there, but I’ve also observed the birds in Polk County, near Crookston, as well as Marshall and Kittson counties.
Habitat loss because of wetland drainage, grassland conversion to farmland, and development has all contributed to the godwits’ population decline. Partly due to their gregarious nature, natural curiosity, and palatable flesh, the bird was also an easy and consistent target for sport and market hunters.
Marbled godwits are around 16 to 20 inches long from the tip of their beak to the tip of their tail. Their bills are incredibly long, slightly upturned, and rather delicate looking. Long-billed curlews are similar looking, but have even longer, down-turned sickle-shaped bills.
As the godwit affected John Audubon and Roberts, so too has the bird impressed me. And while more than 100 years has passed from the time Roberts wrote about his godwit observations, it troubles me less when I think it could have been worse. My travels over the prairie wetlands and grasslands saw godwit aplenty, yet it’s hard to fathom when I read of others’ accounts about the noise of so many “until we were fain to stop our ears to shut out the din.”
During the summers that I conducted wildlife research on prairie wetlands of the Great Plains, I observed many different species of shorebirds that I was both thrilled and blessed to see. Willets, upland sandpipers, phalaropes, yellowlegs, snipe, plovers, dowitchers, avocets . . . and such a bewildering number of sandpipers that they fast became only “sandpipers” to me, save for the spotted, which I could usually identify quickly, but the majority too difficult to name.
But amongst my favorites were the marbled godwits with their loud disconcerting cries and curious circular flights above my head, as well as the melancholy wolf-whistles of upland sandpipers vocalized atop fenceposts, and the effervescent “pill-will-willet” calls of willets.
And though I’m truly thankful for the abundance of some of these species of birds in the present day, the written accounts of early naturalists that were attracted to those wild and undisturbed places are difficult to imagine, let alone comprehend. Moreover, as Bradford Torrey on a 1913 outing once recalled — “Thousands there must have been; and when they rose at my approach, they made something like a cloud.”
Whether implausible numbers of marbled godwits will ever return to Minnesota is unlikely, probably impossible, but there are places in the state to observe and appreciate them. Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge and Important Bird Area (IBA) sites such as Hamden Slough National Wildlife Refuge and Felton Prairie Complex IBA, are all located in northwestern Minnesota.
As well, Glacial Ridge National Wildlife Refuge east of Crookston also harbors marbled godwits. Indeed, godwits and many other fascinating species of shorebirds are flourishing in these and other prairie wetland habitats as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
BLANE KLEMEK is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at bklemek@ yahoo.com.