"There goes a garbled halfwit!"
Astonished, I looked over at my friend standing a few yards away pointing toward the sky. I followed an imaginary line beyond his index finger and saw one of the oddest-looking birds flying away from us - a marbled godwit. Of shorebirds, the plump fellow was large indeed. And as I later learned, only two other shorebirds are bigger: the long-billed curlew and the oystercatcher.
In the early 1800s marbled godwits were very abundant and widely distributed. John J. Audubon wrote on May 31, 1832, of an outing in the Florida Keys where he saw thousands of the birds 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," Audubon wrote. "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, Dr. 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 inches to 20 inches long from the tip of their beaks to the tip of their tails. 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 Dr. 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 those summers amongst I spent wetlands on the 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 tell.
But amongst my favorites were the marbled godwits, those "garbled halfwits," their loud disconcerting cries and curious circular flights above my head, the melancholy wolf-whistles of upland sandpipers vocalized atop fence posts, and the effervescent "pill-will-willet" calls of willets.
I'm thankful of course, so many birds, so many species all around us even today, but those accounts from early naturalists that were drawn to those undisturbed and yet degraded places are difficult to comprehend. And, 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 questionable, 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, the ongoing restoration project, Glacial Ridge National Wildlife Refuge east of Crookston, also harbors marbled godwits in addition to many other species of shorebirds. And who knows? Perhaps clouds of marbled godwits will darken the sky once again in such habitats as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at email@example.com.