12 July 2014

The godwits were species I had never seen before I went to Holland in 1984. Since then I have seen them in eastern Scotland. Most of my time in Scotland, before moving here to live in 1997, was on the west coast in summer where the species is less common.
I shall never forget my first sight of them in gorgeous breeding plumage on the polders of the Ijsselmeer, formerly the Zuider Zee. There they go by the onomatopoeic name of ‘grutto‘. Like many of the waders their normal colouration is a camouflage of fawn and brown but in springtime they assume a glorious red. They stand tall and proud with their long bills slightly up-turned.
BartailWebNow I sometimes see them at Montrose Basin, and on rare occasions when I get further north at Nigg; but they are not common. Their name, as befits an east coast visitor, is Anglo-saxon: ‘god’ means good, and ‘wit’ is a corruption of ‘witha’ - an animal that can be eaten. So the godwits have always been renowned for their table quality.
There are two species: the black-tailed and the bar-tailed and on a good day I can spot the difference. Actually it is not all that difficult because each has a slightly different choice of habitat quite apart from the different tail pattern. Bar-tails like the sea whereas black-tails prefer inland grassy meadowland. The tail patterns are distinct: as their names suggest one is barred, almost like a raptor, while the other is a uniform black. The trouble about that is that when seen feeding their tails are hidden by their pinions. Often one has to wait for ages watching a feeding flock before movement reveals the diagnostic tail.
black-tailWebI was taught by a guide, a welsh ex-schoolteacher, that the clue lay in the length of the femur; the black-tail has a longer thigh bone (‘just long enough to write black on‘,  my guide said) while the bar-tail’s shorter femur has only room for the three letters of ‘bar‘. How does that help you might ask? I remember the guide drawing this with a stick in the sand and concluding “So you see, boys and girls, the black always has his bottom in the air.” That lesson has always stayed with me: the feeding black-tail’s hinner end points heavenward!
The two species have always been favourites of mine. Apart from the black’s aerial backside there are other differences too. Though both have long slightly up-curved bills the larger black-tail has a longer bill reaching nearly 5 inches to the bar-tail’s 3-4 inches; but the latter’s bill is more up-turned, sometimes the bill of the black-tailed may be quite straight. The similar Gaelic names of the two species, cearra-ghob or awkward beak also refers to the bill size and the Scots name of ‘prine‘, an old word meaning a curced awl or bodkin, used for the bar-tail.
Both birds are commoner in winter as migrants from northern Eurasia, particularly Scandinavia. They were probably more commonplace in the early Holocene but nineteenth century persecution by shooting for food reduced their numbers drastically. In Holland, especially in the new polders, Texel and the other Wadden Islands they are often seen. In the breeding season they often fly over one’s head screaming ’grutto, grutto, grutto' and are a magnificent sight.   
                                                                                                           Pictured are Bartail (top) Blacktail (below)

Robin Hull


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