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Always in Season/ Mike Jacobs: The marbled godwit favors wet prairies, short grass

Illustration by Mike Jacobs

After the succession of migrant songbirds cascading into backyards, I figured it was time to look beyond the shelterbelt for the bird of the week. I wasn’t surprised by what I found. The marbled godwit is far from common here, but it is dependable in its favorite spots. One of those is a hay meadow not far from the place that Suezette and I share west of Gilby, N.D.

Sure enough, as we drove past the meadow, a godwit arose. The bird gave us a fly-by, and the sun accented the rich browns and reds of its plumage. At rest, the godwit is a plainer bird, appearing more gray than brown and drabber than marbled. The name comes from the pattern of feathers across the back and flanks, which resemble the streaks in fine marble, or more prosaically, the chocolate swirls in a marble cake.

The godwit is one of a suite of grassland waders – a contradictory name, I know, but one that describes them to a T. These are long-legged birds that favor wet grasslands. They don’t wade, but rather stride across the prairie, as willets or avocets – birds much more connected to wetlands – stride along a shoreline.

The others of this suite are the upland sandpiper and the common snipe.

Snipe are regular in the rank grass behind our house, a perfect tangle in which snipe and other birds may hide. Their haunting sound, called winnowing, is a characteristic sound of spring, most often heard in the early morning and just before sunset, although I heard snipe noise most of Wednesday as I hurried to catch up with my gardening. The noise is produced by air rushing through the stiff outer feathers of their tails. It’s a kind of courtship ritual.


The upland sandpiper makes a distinctive noise, too, but in the sandpiper’s case, it is a vocalization very much resembling a wolf whistle. Upland sandpipers were common enough when I was a youngster moving cows around in an overgrazed pasture. The sandpiper’s whistle is one of the first bird noises that my father taught me. We looked them up; they were called upland plover then. These birds declined in numbers in the 60 years since I learned their call, but in the last several years, they seem to be recovering a bit. A pair of upland sandpipers successfully raised young in a soybean field not far from our place last summer.

That’s an adaptation that could aid the upland sandpiper, which is otherwise a grassland obligate, depending on overgrazed prairie such as the one our dairy herd provided. A sandy field isn’t that different than a cow pasture, at least as far as visibility is concerned, and that’s of prime concern to an upland sandpiper, a watchful bird that often sits on a fence pole surveying the situation – and quickly giving alarm when something unexpected happens by.

Godwits are more dependent on wet prairies than the plovers, and so are snipe, although their preferences are different. Godwits like short grass; in the days of the buffalo, they would have used grazed prairie lands; in our day, they like hayfields, mowed short. Such habitat is decreasing as lands formerly in grass are tiled for drainage, dry out and become cropland. Tiling could affect snipe habitat, too, but in the opposite way. They are birds of overgrown ditches, often used as the outflow for drain tile. That could make their existing habitat too wet.

The snipe is a cosmopolitan bird, though, breeding across the Northern Hemisphere. In North America, it nests across the northern states and much of Canada and winters in the southern part of the United States, in Central America and the West Indies and in northern South America. It also occurs in Eurasia.

The upland sandpiper is a long-distance migrant, breeding on the Great Plains of North America and wintering on the pampas of South America.

By contrast, the marbled godwit has a limited range, essentially the Northern Plains of North America. Most of the population winters along the North American coastlines, although some migrate to South America. In this it differs from three other birds in the godwit family. The bar-tailed godwit nests on the Eurasian tundra and winters in New Zealand. It is the champion of nonstop flight during migration. The black-tailed godwit is widespread in Eurasia, essentially replacing the marbled godwit in appropriate habitat there. The Hudsonian godwit is the American counterpart of the bar-tailed godwit. It breeds in the Arctic and winters in South America. It remains a bird of mystery since its “home ranges” – as opposed to migrations stopovers – are remote. Small numbers occur here in migration.

Of note

The big black birds roosting in trees along the Red River Greenway are turkey vultures. Their appearance is disconcerting, with the bare red heads and the hunched posture. But they are carrion eaters with weak claws and bills. Your pets are safe.

The black-billed cuckoo arrived right on time. This signature bird of summer shows up at our place right around June 10 every year. It’s usually the last of the migrants – and so summer has begun.


Jacobs is a retired publisher and editor of the Herald. Reach him at mjacobs@polarcomm.com.

Mike Jacobs
Mike Jacobs

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