Sunday, 30 July 2017

Black-tailed Godwits

Black-tailed Godwits Limosa limosa melanuroides (the Eastern Siberian Black-tailed Godwit sub species) are an infrequent visitor to the Gippsland Lakes. There are few sighting records for the Gippsland Lakes however this may be due to failure to record or due to confusion with the similar Bar-tailed Godwit for which there are many more records. The Bar-tails outnumber the Black-tails (estimated Australian populations are 185,000 and 70,000 respectively (1)) plus the Black-tails tend to stay in northern Australia with only small numbers migrating to SE Australia.

So we East Gippsland birders always find sighting Black-tailed Godwits on the Gippsland Lakes a special birding occasion.

Recently four Black-tails were found on the sand islands in Jones Bay south of Bairnsdale. On a return visit to photograph them we found five birds. There is possibly another group as a bird in partial breeding plumage seen with the four first-found birds was not among the five birds found on the second visit to Jones Bay.

Please click on photos to enlarge.

Three of the five Black-tailed Godwits photographed in Jones Bay on 27/07/17. All five were in non-breeding plumage.  

Note the size difference of the birds in the above photo – the females are larger than the males.

The original four Black-tailed Godwits found in Jones Bay on 24/07/17 – the bird with some breeding plumage is on the left.

A closer view of the bird with some breeding plumage.

Black-tails are moderately confiding birds so once we located them we were able to approach reasonably close to the group as they actively fed in shallow water by probing the soft sandy bed of Jones Bay.

The location where we photographed the Black-tails was open with no cover – the birds, not visible in this photo, were feeding just beyond the green patch and flood washed dead tree visible behind the camera tripod. The birds were at the limit of distance for good photos.

The following photo shows the black tail which is not very evident unless the bird is in flight or when the wings are raised, such as when preening.

The black tail shows well on this bird as it ruffles its feathers.

The five birds drifted apart at times as they foraged, probing the sand vigorously with their long straight bill and at times they came back together to form a tight group. As the light angle from the winter sun was borderline for our relative positions, the birds had to be tracked through the camera viewfinder and photos taken when the light was just right and when there was an interesting pose or action to capture. While the situation required patience, at least the birds were active and stayed in the same small area for a little over 30 minutes before they flushed and flew off.

The birds were hard to photograph as they kept on the move while feeding and the best sun angle to illuminate the birds was very small with only the odd bird now and again presenting well to the light as the bird at centre of this photo shows.

The birds appeared to be capturing small molluscs in the soft sand and they foraged exclusively by wading in shallow water which at times was deep enough to be a little above their bellies.

Probing with head immersed.

At times in deeper water they upended as they probed the sand.
Water depth is above the belly here.
One bird probes while another searches.
A foraging bird stops briefly to scratch.
One of the Black–tails is dwarfed by a sleeping Black Swan.
Both these birds have just withdrawn their bills from the water and swallowed a small mollusc (too quick to capture).

At one point, they gathered together and began to preen.

A group preening session – one bird stops briefly to check all is safe.

Following the preening session, two of the birds commenced to nap.
Sleeping pair.

The napping birds did not keep their eyes closed for long. 

The sleeping pair often lifted their heads to check all was safe. 

On reviewing the photos on the computer screen, I noted one bird appeared to have a slightly up-curved bill and I wondered if this was a Hudsonian Godwit?

The bird in profile on the right was a little larger and looked to have a slightly up-curved bill and a bulge in the supercilium above the lore?

The most certain way to identify the vagrant Hudsonian, the American counterpart of the Black-tailed Godwit, would be to see the black underwing coverts and axillaries which are visible in flight or during wing stretches which on this occasion I was not able to see.
A few Red-kneed Dotterels from a group of about five birds joined the Black-tails in the water.

Some Red-kneed Dotterels joined the Black-tails.
This fluffed up Red-knee sat tight while a Black-tail foraged around it.

The Black-tails continued to forage.

And then suddenly something spooked them and they were off at speed across the lake, ending our very enjoyable session observing and photographing this occasional visitor to the Gippsland Lakes. (2)


(1)  Australian population estimates taken from “Shorebirds of Australia, Geering, Agnew and Harding”, published by CSIRO 2007.

(2)  My last sighting of Black-tailed Godwits on the Gippsland Lakes, and my first, was on the 25/02/16 at Jones Bay – there were 4 birds along with 2 Bar-tailed Godwits.

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