An extraordinary feat

Rusty sets out to break a record of a Bar-tailed Godwit’s flight. Does he manage it?

June 09, 2023 09:21 am | Updated 09:21 am IST

In a tidal mudflat along coastal Alaska, two Bar-tailed Godwits were preparing for their long migratory journey.

“Did you know that a new world record was set last year?” asked Rusty, swallowing a big fat mollusc. He was referring to a male Godwit that flew non-stop from Alaska and touched down in Australia after 8100 miles, enroute to New Zealand. “He flapped his wings for 239 hours without rest.” Rust sounded excited.

“And you plan to break that record?” chuckled Beauty. “Do you know how ridiculous you sound?”

“You are the one who sounds ridiculous,” chided Rusty. “We’re Godwits. Yet, you question our ability to fly!”

“You’re not old enough for that challenge,” replied Beauty. “Join our juvenile group. We’ll have fun along the way.”

Stocking up

“I’m a year senior to you,” retorted Rusty. “I know Godwits regularly fly more than 7000 miles to New Zealand and what it takes to fly continuously for eight to 10 days without food, water or rest. And if he can do it, so will I. Now let me stock up on fuel.” He returned to probing the sticky mud for crustaceans with his long slender beak.

“How much more will you eat?” asked Beauty. “Your weight must have already doubled.”

“That’s the plan,” winked Rusty. “Haven’t you seen your parents stuff themselves as well? You should do so too. Fat gives us the energy we need for the long migration. Remember, we have to stop-overs to refuel. No back-up.”

“In that case, I better eat more,” said Beauty, probing the mud alongside for her favourite worms. “Promise me you won’t die on the way.”

“Don’t worry,” exclaimed Rusty. “I’ve done a migration before. This is only going to be on my own.”

“On your own!” Beauty choked in disbelief. “Do you have any idea of what you are getting into. I might be a bit inexperienced compared to you but my parents have warned me of the dangers. The weather conditions are extreme, really extreme!” Beauty flapped her wings to emphasise what she was saying. “And you have no experience of navigating that route alone. How will you ever reach New Zealand?”

“That’s our super power,” chuckled Rusty. “A Godwit’s inherent skill. Wait till you feel it. It’s amazing how our bodies do the work of a compass. We can feel the Earth’s magnetic field and it helps us orient ourselves.”

“Really,” exclaimed Beauty, astonished. “My parents showed me how to use celestial bodies like the Sun during the day and stars at night to guide myself along my route.”

“That works too,” replied Rusty. “Now let’s get back to stocking up on fuel before the long journey.


The next year, when Rusty and Beauty returned to Alaska, they met at the same mudflat. Beauty greeted Rusty by wrapping her wings around him. “Did you manage to do it?” she asked.

“I failed,” said Rusty, sounding disheartened.

Not a failure

“You didn’t fail,” scolded Beauty. “You flew 7000 miles all the way to New Zealand and now you’re back in one piece. That is in itself amazing. And I did it too.”

“But I couldn’t break the record,” said Rusty.

“So what?” chirped Beauty. “Did you see how the humans in the city of Nelson rang church bells to welcome us when we arrived at Motueka sandpit.”

“Yes,” said Rusty, suddenly feeling rather important. He had realised that Beauty was right. He might not have achieved what he’d set out to do. But still his feat was extraordinary. And worthy of celebration.

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