A rare marbled godwit sparked excitement in the birding community this fall when the bird was discovered in Vermont, far from its normal range. That excitement became concern, when the godwit was found dead a little over a week after it was first spotted. New lab results show the bird died from natural causes, according to the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department.
Marbled godwits are about the size of a crow, with stilt-like legs and a long bill used for finding food at the edges of rivers and ponds. They breed in the Great Plains and northern Ontario and migrate to the Gulf and Atlantic Coast for the winter. Although their population is stable in their normal range, godwits do not usually migrate through Vermont. In the past 10 years, there has only been one other marbled godwit reported in Vermont according to the community science website eBird.
This marbled godwit was first spotted in North Hero on September 19, 2023. Birders quickly shared the news and many traveled from around the state to see it.
“The godwit in North Hero was a rare and exciting find, the kind of ‘vagrant’—or bird outside of its usual range—that gives local birders a chance to see a new species close to home,” said Jill Kilborn, bird biologist with the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department. “That said, it isn’t entirely unusual to see vagrant birds like this godwit in Vermont. Migrating birds can be pushed off course by storms, like the dovekie found in the Northeast Kingdom this past December.”
A little over a week after the godwit was first discovered, birders became worried when it vanished from the stretch of lakeshore habitat it had been frequenting. Some birders worried the godwit could have been harmed by the large numbers of people who had come to see it. Three days later, a local landowner found the godwit dead and reported it to the department.
Because godwits are rare in Vermont and because this one showed no clear cause of death, Kilborn sent the godwit to the University of New Hampshire Diagnostics Lab for a full disease panel and necropsy. Knowing the attention this godwit had received, Kilborn hoped the results could address some questions and concerns raised by birders.
Although some tests were inconclusive, lab results showed that the godwit had no injuries and a high parasite load. The bird was extremely malnourished and had contracted bacterial and blood infections.
“Oftentimes birds found outside of their normal range are very stressed, and if they can’t find the proper food or cover this can combine with other stressors like poor nutrition and sickness,” said Kilborn. “All evidence suggests this is what happened to the godwit.”
Although this godwit died from natural stressors, Kilborn hopes to amplify the message already shared by birders who were concerned that viewing pressure could add to the challenges the bird faced.
“If a bird is changing their behavior because you are watching them, then you are too close,” said Kilborn. “This is especially important for nesting birds or rare birds like this godwit, that may draw a large number of excited viewers.”