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Black-tailed godwit

Limosa Limosa

Thousands of these elegant wading birds spend the winter on the Solent coast, making it an area of both international and national importance for this red listed species.

Look out for them along the New Forest coast and the muddy harbours of Portsmouth, Langstone and Chichester.

All about black-tailed godwit

Black-tailed godwits travel over 1000 miles from Iceland to get to our Solent shores every winter – an extraordinary journey for a bird weighing less than 300g.

In the winter their plumage is greyish-brown and far less vibrant than their summer season’s orange brown plumage. They have long beaks and legs, and black and white stripes on their wings which are visible in flight.

Female black-tailed godwits are bigger than their male counterparts, with a slightly longer beak perhaps to help them avoid competing for food with each other.

Their scientific name – limosa limosa – actually translates from Latin as ‘muddy muddy’.

Feeding and roosting habits

They are quite easy to spot as they are large waders that tend to stay in large flocks in winter. At low tide they like to feed in groups with other black-tailed godwits, you will see them stabbing their bills up and down in the wet mud like the needles on a sewing machine.

They use their long bills to search for worms and shellfish hidden deep down in the mud. The end of godwit’s bill is flexible to help them feel around for tasty worms. At high tide they roost together in big groups: they are particularly keen on saltmarsh and shingle islands as they feel safe and well away from any predators.

Godwits’ migration stories

We’re lucky to know quite a bit about the migratory behaviour of the black-tailed godwits who spend the winter on the Solent. This is thanks to an international network of observers who give up their time to track their movements. About 1.5% of the Icelandic black-tailed godwit population is colour-ringed and we know where more than half these birds have spent the winter.

Conservation status

Black-tailed godwits are red listed in the UK for conservation concern.

They are a qualifying feature for the Solent and Southampton Water and Portsmouth Harbour Special Protection Areas – that means, when the sites were designated, a nationally significant number of the species used the areas.

Find out more about the Special Protection Areas on the Solent.

Telling apart black-tailed and bar-tailed godwits

Black-tailed godwits have longer legs than bar-tailed godwits. They also have striking white wing stripes that can be seen in flight, a black tail and a long straight bill
Bar-tailed godwits have shorter legs than black-tailed godwits, with a slightly upturned bill and no white wing stripe

It’s not always easy to tell black-tailed godwits apart from bar-tailed godwits – it’s most straightforward when they’re in flight. Apart from their distinctive black tails, black-tailed godwits have longer legs with their feet extended past their tail feathers as they fly. Even more noticeably, they have white bars or stripes on their wings which show in flight. Up close you might notice that bar-tailed godwits have a slight upturn to their bills.

Did you know?

Black-tailed godwit pairs split up over the winter and, on average, spend the colder months about 1000km apart. At the end of the season they manage to reunite back in Iceland arriving within a few days of each other. What amazing synchronicity!

Learn about the Solent’s other wading birds.