Godwits Go Missing on Chiloé

By Nate Senner
Godwit footprints in sand
Godwit footprints on Chiloé Island. Photo courtesy Nathan Senner.

Cornell graduate student Nate Senner has been writing from Chiloé Island, Chile, where he’s studying Hudsonian Godwits on their wintering grounds. He wrote yesterday with a puzzling situation. –Hugh Powell

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Where have all the godwits gone?

A funny thing began to happen five days ago—the godwits began to disappear.

We first noticed that something was changing on January 15. Up till then, the number of godwits around seemed normal, if a bit unusually distributed around the island. For instance, Putemun, a large bay that in previous years held 2,000-3,000 godwits, had 800 this year. But Ten-Ten, which normally hosts around 200 godwits, had more than 2,000 this year. Totaling across all sites, all of the birds we expected seemed accounted for, so we were not particularly worried.

But last Friday our team went to Pullao, where we had been seeing around 4,000 godwits. On that day there were only 2,500 godwits. Then, as we waited for high tide so we could watch the birds go to their roosting sites (where they are easiest to catch), they started to leave the site entirely.

This had never happened before and so we all sat there wondering if it was something we had done. The next day, just to make sure it wasn’t our fault, we timed our return to Pullao right at the peak of high tide, when all of the birds should already have been roosting. But there were only 700 birds around.

As the tide began to fall again we moved to a nearby site, Putemun, thinking maybe the missing birds had gone there. Not only were Pullao’s birds not there, but fewer than a quarter of Putemun’s own birds remained. Where had all of the godwits gone?

In an attempt to get to the bottom of this mystery, I spent the next two days visiting as many sites near Pullao and Putemun as I could. The rest of the team has been catching the other species that we are interested in, Whimbrels, while I have been out sleuthing.

They’ve been lucky, but I haven’t. Two days ago I found about 500 godwits total at three sites—not nearly enough to match the several thousand missing birds. Yesterday I went to Aucar, Dalcahue, and then Pullao again, turning up a measly 75 godwits…. Where have all of the godwits gone?

Now the search is on and today the entire crew will spread out and visit every nook and cranny in the central part of Isla Chiloé to see if we can find our birds. We certainly don’t think that they are dead, but beyond that we have not ruled out any possibilities: Have they moved to a different part of Chiloé? Are they roosting on a secluded beach and returning to feed at their normal sites when we are not there?  Or have they left the island entirely? I don’t know, but I hope that we find out soon or else we are going to be out of luck on this expedition!

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