Bar-tailed Godwit

Limosa lapponica Order: Charadriiformes Family: Scolopacidae (Sandpipers and Allies)
Limosa lapponica Order: Charadriiformes Family: Scolopacidae (Sandpipers and Allies)

The animal with the distinction of having the longest non-stop migration of any bird in the known universe, and the longest migration without feeding of any animal (including whales), is the Bar-tailed Godwit. This bird breeds on tundra from Alaska through Scandinavia, and winters in temperate and tropical regions of the Old World, Australia, and New Zealand. The population nesting in Alaska is the one with the exceptional migration, normally flying from the Yukon to Australia and New Zealand.

The bird holding the record in the Guinness World Records before October 2022 was a satellite-tagged adult male who, in 2020, flew from Alaska to New Zealand, without stopping for food or rest, 12,200 kilometers (7,580 miles) away. That same bird broke its own record with a 13,000-kilometer (8,100-mile) flight on its next migration in 2021.

In 2022, a transmitter-bearing first-year bird (sex unknown) left the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta on October 13, and 11 days later made it to Ansons Bay in Tasmania, some 13,560 kilometers (8,435 miles) away, all without stopping or feeding.

Transmitters and retrieving satellite data are very expensive, so few individuals have been tracked like this. We don’t know if the record-breakers were flying in a flock with others or if their trips were exceptional for the species. Adults leave the breeding areas before young, so this year’s record breaker almost certainly accomplished the feat without any adult guidance. Whether it was lost, alone or in a group of equally clueless young godwits, or whether this is actually normal, isn’t known yet.

The Guinness Book of World Records account reads:

Bar-tailed Godwit: The longest non-stop migration by a bird. The longest recorded migration by a bird, without stopping for food or rest, is around 13,560 km (8,425 miles) by a satellite-tagged, juvenile bar-tailed godwit (Limosa lapponica baueri) that flew directly across the Pacific Ocean from Alaska, USA, to Tasmania, Australia. The five-month-old bird left Alaska on 13 October 2022, arriving in Ansons Bay, north-east Tasmania, 11 days and one hour later. The bird is known only as “234684”, the number of a 5G satellite tag attached to its back.

Bar-tailed godwits feed for two months in Alaska (where the species has its summer breeding grounds) before the flight to New Zealand; in this time, males may double in size. They are able to shrink the size of their internal organs to make way for energy-rich fat, which will help sustain them during their epic flights. Airborne during both day and night, they may burn through more than half of their body weight. They can also boost the size of their chest muscles and heart while flying, to aid the distribution of energy and oxygen.

My photos were taken from a distance right outside Nome in 2022. It would be cool to learn that one of the birds in the little flock I saw continued up to the Yukon and hatched out this year’s record breaker, but impossible to know.

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