A long bill is one of the unique features of the bar-tailed godwits, which typically weigh just over a pound. Photo by Milo Burcham.

Birds have been in the news lately. 

First there was a white-fronted goose that landed in the middle of Dodger Stadium during the National League Playoffs.

More recently it was a shorebird that flew nonstop from the Seward Peninsula near Nome to Tasmania in 11 days.

A bar-tailed godwit, unobtrusively tagged as B6, flew an unbelievable 8,425 miles in 11 days, as it headed south—and I mean really south—in its journey to warmer weather. Trivia question:  Where is Tasmania?

Say “shorebirds” here in Cordova, and most of us think of the annual festival in May in their honor, with massive waves of multiple species banking in unison or racing madly about nearby mudflats chirping and feeding away on their journey north.

Hardly noticed are small groups of the same birds or their progeny that trickle south in the late summer and fall.


When was the last time you saw rows of bird lovers lined up at Hartney Bay with their massive telephoto lenses clicking away this time of year?

Yet would they have been in for a shock if little four-month-old godwit B6, all 600 grams of him (a little heavier than a pound), showed up in their view finder, with a tiny solar panel and trailing wire antenna mounted on its back.

The journey, tracked for the first time using a real time transmitter, is believed to be a world record. It began with biologists spending weeks trying to find and tag camouflaged chicks east of Nome.

B6 was one of three that was fitted with transmitters that weighed 5 grams and were attached by surgical tubing. 

The leg band on the now famous juvenile bar-tailed godwit B6 can be seen in this photo taken near Nome on July 15. Photo by Dan Ruthrauff, U.S. Geological Survey.

The other two transmitters, which are still sending signals from the Seward Peninsula, may have been too loose and fallen off. 

Biologist Dan Ruthrauff of the U.S. Geological Survey marveled at B6’s flight. “They don’t land on the water.  They don’t glide. This is flapping flight for a week and a half.”
Even more amazing is the fact these 4-month-old birds are on their own. Bar-tailed godwit chicks migrate without their adult counterparts and are known to take advantage of weather systems along the way. 

The tiny solar panel, satellite transmitter and trailing antenna can be seen on the back of bar-tailed godwits B4, a sibling of B6. The transmitter was attached loosely to allow for growth, and evidently was shed. Photo by Dan Ruthrauff, U.S. Geological Survey.

Remember all those big storms that pummeled western Alaska in October?

Set up with a strong tail wind, B6 departed Alaska on October 12. He arrived in Tasmania on October 23, and his flight path veered nearly 1,600 miles off its species’ typical migration route from Alaska to New Zealand, likely because of strong easterly winds.

A map shows the flight path of bar-tailed godwit B6, and also answers the trivia question “Where is Tasmania?” Map courtesy of Max Planck Institute of Ornithology.

After learning of the godwits’ arrival in Australia, Ruthrauff was so excited about B6’s success he poured a scotch for a toast and sent the picture to all his colleagues. 

The only thing that would have made it better would have been if B6 had landed on his shoulder and stuck his long bill in to join him.

I know, he’s only a juvenile, but after all, he’s a “bar” godwit, and he’s certainly earned one “on the house.” 

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Dick Shellhorn is a lifelong Cordovan. He has been writing sports stories for the Cordova Times for over 50 years. In his Cordova Chronicles features, he writes about the history and characters of this Alaska town. Alaska Press Club awarded Shellhorn first place for Best Humor column in 2016 and 2020, and third place in 2017 and 2019. He also received second place for Best Editorial Commentary in 2019. Shellhorn has written two books about Alaska adventures: Time and Tide and Balls and Stripes. Reach him at dshorn44@gmail.com.