Blane Klemek: Marbled halfwits, er, godwits are a curious, funny bird – Detroit Lakes Tribune

I spent some time in the far northwestern part of the state over the Juneteen holiday weekend back road, traveling business, and enjoying various myself in various management areas of the region.

Birdlife across the open landscape of the Aspen Parkland ecoregion is much different than that found in the pine and deciduous forests. I was delighted, for example, to hear the songs of western meadowlarks, bobolinks, savannah, and clay-colored sparrows once again, along with various shorebirds I haven’t observed in a long time.

One species of bird that I was especially joyful to hear and see again was the marbled godwit. Although much reduced in number and distribution today, the marbled godwit is somewhat common in the west, but rare in the east. At one time marbled godwits, a member of the sandpiper family, were nearly numberless.

A marbled godwit in flight. They are persistent while incubating their eggs, and some have even allowed people to pick them up without flying away! 

Contributed by Alex Galt/US Fish and Wildlife Service Midwest Region

Reading historical species’ accounts of what was once commonplace are disheartening stories to read. I frequently find myself wondering what the North American continent must have looked like, two, three, or four hundred years ago; long before the wave of explorers and settlers from across the sea first set foot here.

Indeed, as I traveled throughout Kittson, Marshall, Pennington, Red Lake, and Polk counties on my recent outing, I thought about it many times: “What did this area look like before roads crisscrossed the landscape, farm fields replaced native grasslands, and ditches drained the wetlands? It must’ve been a sight to behold.

Habitat loss because of wetland drainage, grassland conversion to farmland, and development have all contributed to the godwits’ troubles. And, partly due to their gregarious nature, natural curiosity, and palatable flesh, the bird was also an easy and consistent target for market hunters, too.

My first encounter with the species was in 1997, my first summer wildlife research work in the Prairie Pothole Region of North Dakota surrounding the small town of Woodworth and nearby Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge. A local wildlife biologist that I became good friends with, Rick Bohn, an enthusiastic and knowledgeable naturalist, birder, and photographer, too, had an interesting name for the bird. Every time Rick saw one, he would shout, “There’s a marbled halfwit!” And I’d laugh every time.

Marbled godwits are around 16 inches to 20 inches long from beak-tip to tail-tip. 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. Another way to think about godwits if you’ve never observed one, is to imagine an overgrown relative, the American woodcock, but with longer legs, a longer neck, and a longer bill.

During those magical summers of 1997-1999 amongst countless wetlands on the prairie, I stood witness to species of shorebirds I was both thrilled and blessed to see. Willets, upland sandpipers, phalaropes, yellowlegs, Wilson’s snipe, plovers, dowitchers, avocets, and such a bewildering number of sandpipers species that they quickly became only sandpipers to me, save for the spotted, which I could usually identify easily, but the majority were too difficult to tell.

But among my favorite shorebirds were the marbled godwits; Their loud, disconcerting cries and curious circular flights above my head, were always a spectacle worth watching. Other shorebirds, too, were ever present — the melancholy wolf-whistles of upland sandpipers and the effervescent pill-will-willet calls of willets.

I laughed at the crazy, whirly-gig swimming style of foraging phalaropes and I always took a pause to delight in the winnowing of courting snipe far above and almost beyond the extent of vision.

And yet, across the prairie-wetland landscapes of northwest Minnesota and parts of North Dakota where multiple species of shorebirds exist, I can scarcely take my eyes off marbled godwits. Curious creatures, animated and vociferous, and less bashful than most wetland-associated birds, are birds to appreciate and include on your checklist, as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

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