Sunday, March 7, 2010

Nest Searching

By June 15th or so, the snow finally melted enough to allow godwits to begin nesting. Now, I don’t know what anyone knows of nest searching, but let me tell you, it is not easy. Nest searching for any species requires a lot of time and patience, but searching for godwit nests take this to a whole new level. While most shorebird species flush from their nest while you are still quite a distance away, godwits will not flush from their nest until you are on top of them. And, it is almost impossible to find a godwit on a nest without flushing it. They are extremely cryptic, and their nests are well hidden in the sedge. Sure, you would know that a godwit is nesting nearby, due to a territorial male, and sure, that male will watch you and yell at you, and sure, you can walk transects back and forth for hours, and still not find the nest, unless you walk within less than 5 meters of the nest (some won’t flush until you are ~1 meter away). That being said, finding godwit nests is an exhilarating experience, because you trudge through the sedge marsh for hours, and suddenly this bird explodes into flight at your feet, and begins yelling at you, and lo, there is a nest! The first nest I found, it scared the crap out of me, because I was not expecting that there would actually be a nest near me. I wish I could say that subsequent nests I found did not surprise me as much, but, no, every nest I found, every time that female exploded from the ground at my feet, it scared the crap out of me.

Two different Hudsonian Godwit nests. The top nest is the first nest we found during the summer of 2009

Okay, now for a test. Where, in this picture, is the godwit sitting on her nest? (see bottom of the post for the answer)

A male Hudsonian Godwit sitting on his nest. He was a bit easier to see from a distance than most.

While godwit nests may be hard to find, thankfully, the same can't be said for some other species. Although we weren't specifically looking for other nests, the miles of walking we did in prime nesting real estate certainly turned up some pretty neat nests of many other species. Collectively, we found nests of all of the shorebirds that nest in Churchill (except Stilt Sandpiper and Wilson’s Snipe), which include Whimbrels (by far the most common nest we found), Short-billed Dowitcher, Lesser Yellowlegs, Dunlin, Least Sandpiper, Red-necked Phalarope, and American Golden Plover (Semipalmated Plovers also nest in Churchill, but they nest on the rocky beach areas, not near the sedge, so we didn't find those while looking for godwits).

Whimbrel nest. These were easy to find, partly because they were typically in very exposed locations, on the tops of the more barren hummocks.

Short-billed Dowitcher nest. These nests were typically in very similar places to godwit nests, hidden very well in at the base of a sedge tussock

Least Sandpiper nest. These were tiny (see my foot for reference)! These were a lot of fun to find, and were not usually as hidden as a godwit or a dowitcher, and on drier land. There was usually some overhanging cover.

Lesser Yellowlegs nest. We didn't find one of these until we went into the Boreal. This was in open boggy habitat. We found a second one later this day that was fairly exposed in a burn area

American Golden Plover nest. These were probably my favorite eggs, because of the pattern and contrast in the eggs. There was also quite a bit of variation between nests

This male American Golden Plover gave up trying to distract us from his nest and just plopped down right on his eggs. Same nest as above.

Red-necked Phalarope nest. This nest was fairly exposed, but what was neat here, is that the sedge the nest was built on was clearly woven into a shallow cup, unlike the other species, which just made a cup by clearing away material and stamping a nest site

Dunlin nest. We only ever found one of these, and it was hard to find. It was nestled very tightly into the top of a thick sedge tussock.

Now, don't get the impression that the only birds that nest in Churchill are shorebirds. While they may be some of the stars of the place, there are a lot of other cool birds that nest in the area. In addition to all the shorebird nests we found, we also found Savannah Sparrow, White-crowned Sparrow, Common Redpoll, Canada Goose (lots), Northern Pintail, Long-tailed Duck, Common Eider, Pacific Loon, Willow Ptarmigan, and Arctic Tern nests.

Willow Ptarmigan nest. This nest was just started, and nests typically contain many more eggs than this. I never did see a nest with more eggs in it.

Arctic Tern nest. If anyone has been near a tern nest, you can imagine that this pair of terns was not happy with our presence.

Northern Pintail nest.

Long-tailed Duck nest. This nest was nested under a small spruce tree, and, compared to all the other waterfowl nests we saw, very well concealed.

Common Eider nest. These eggs were quite a bit bigger than I was expecting.

Parasitic Jaeger nest. I have a hard time calling this a "nest" since there is absolutely no attempt at even a depression in the ground. This egg was just plopped right atop a hummock. Jaegers have some incredible distraction displays, and frankly can be a bit frightening when you don't know they're there.

Common Redpoll nest. I liked this nest in particular because it was lined with Willow Ptarmigan feathers.

And now, for the answer to the quiz, here is a close view of the female godwit on her nest.

She was hiding behind the small twiggy bush in the lower right hand corner of the picture


  1. Such wonderful cryptic eggs and the godwit looks great. We just get our grey-coloured summer waders here in Australia.

  2. Amazing post, Nick. This is quite an impressive gallery of nests and eggs.

  3. And yes, it is quite impressive :)

  4. Thanks very much! It was quite awesome to find all of these nests.

  5. Fascinating. I can just imagine the shock when the bird "explodes" out of the nest!