Bird #365 — Hudsonian Godwit

limosa (muddy) haemastica (blood color)

Thursday, October 15, 1998 — 1:20 pm

Du Page County, Illinois — Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory

I wasn’t planning on going to Fermilab today. I got the OK to work at home today and tomorrow. I wrote lessons for four hours last night and went birding this morning at Waukegan Beach. The wind was off the lake and there were no birds around except for gulls (including an adult Great Black-backed Gull). When I got home at 11:30, Sal told me Jim Matheson had called from work to say there was a Hudsonian Godwit at Fermilab. I called Jim and he told me that Tim Rathjen had told him. So I called Tim and got the details. Peter Kasper had reported the bird on IBET (Illinois Birders Exchanging Thoughts), the internet hot line.

I worked on my lessons for half an hour and debated going out again.  Obvioiusly, I decided to go. I got to Fermilab shortly after 1:00. I parked by the red barn and walked around the east side of Lake Law. About one-third of the way up the lake there is a bar of softball size rocks that sticks out into the water. I saw a flock of ten small sandpipers fly low over the water and land on this bar. I set up my scope and there was the Godwit. (The little sandpipers were Pectorals.  Four Killdeers and a Greater Yellowlegs were also in the immediate area.) It was standing in shallow water, looking around and preening some. It towered over the Killdeers and Pectorals and looked a bit larger and certainly stockier than the Yellowlegs. The bill was the first thing I noticed. It was immense, sticking out about eight inches (I’d estimate) with a definite upward curve. When I first saw it, I was about 75 yards away. It had its back to me. I saw it fluff up its wings and got a good look at the white rump and black tail. I moved about 15 yards closer and looked again. It had walked up onto the bar and was just standing there.

I took out my field guide to check the marks. When I looked up, the bird was gone. It simply disappeared. I walked closer and scanned the bar again. This didn’t take long. The bar was about 15 feet long and six feet wide. I spotted the Godwit. It was doing an impersonation of a rock. It had squatted down on its belly and tucked its bill into its back feathers. It was facing the shore and its gray breast (with a tinge of pink) was almost exactly the color of the rocks. The only thing that stuck out was a white stripe above the eye that was larger in front of the eye. It looked like it was watching me. Its right eye (which was on the left side of its body because its head was all the way turned around) kept blinking shut. The eyelid was white. I looked at it for several minutes and took notes on its marks. It had a narrow dark eye stripe and a darker cap. The back feathers looked worn.  They were gray and blended together. The greater and medium coverts on the sides were a darker gray with buff edges, giving them a scaled look.

I walked around to where I could see the bird from the other side, but the look was the same. I couldn’t see the bill. I went back to my original position. All of a sudden, the Pectoral Sandpipers, which had wandered down the shore in my direction, flushed in a group, calling loudly. They circled over the bar, then landed next to the Godwit. As they went over, the Godwit looked around. The bill was pink/orange for the inner two thirds and black at the tip. The bird didn’t look like it was going anywhere for a while, so I walked on to see what was on the flats where I saw the Long-billed Dowitchers last Friday (they were still there). After I had gone about 75 yards beyond the Godwit, I looked back. It had gotten up and was standing in the water on the far side of the bar, rather hunched down and not doing anything. It made me suspect that its rock impersonation was a defense, since it only assumed the position as I approached and then quit it as soon as I left.

I wandered around the area for an hour and a half, then went back to the bar. The Godwit was gone. I scoped the lake and saw it at the south end. It was standing on a narrow bar of rocks that extends most of the way across the lake close to the southern end.  I was too far away to see anything, so I walked back up that way. When I got there, I couldn’t find it.  I suspect it was doing its rock trick again.

I headed back for my car. When I got to a point close to where I had originally seen it, I set up my scope and scanned the entire shore. I was looking back toward the south when I saw a bird take off. I followed it in my scope and soon confirmed that it was the Godwit. It had long, dark, pointed wings that beat with full strokes. It headed over the water toward the northwest corner of the lake. As it banked in to land on a narrow strip of mud along the shore, I again saw the white rump and black tail. I also saw a hint of a narrow white wing stripe.

I worked my way around to the shore by the pine grove. The bird was in belly-deep water off the shore. It probed with its bill, often dipping its entire head into the water. It moved rapidly, constantly walking, turning and probing. I could see its actions well, but it was backlit so I couldn’t see colors. I watched it for about ten minutes. Five other birders were there by this time, looking at the bird. One of them walked around the shore and, when I had turned to identify some small birds in the pines behind me, must have flushed the Godwit. I spotted it again directly across the bay from me, wading right next to a Great Egret.

A Ross’s Goose had also been reported at Fermilab this morning in the buffalo pen. I drove up there to look for it, but only saw approximately 600 Canada Geese and one blue-phase Snow Goose. I left for home. With my trips to Waukean and Fermilab, I put in 200 miles today, but it got me a lifer and two other year birds (Great Black-backed Gull, Fox Sparrow) and put me over 200 birds for the year for the sixth time in the 20 years I’ve been birding. This year is special, however, because I’ve seen 200+ birds just in Wisconsin and Illinois.

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