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Migration Marathons: 7 unbelievable bird journeys

Around one in five of all the world’s bird species migrate. And while every migration is an epic and often perilous feat of endurance, here’s a selection of species that we feel go the extra mile.

By Irene Lorenzo

Ain’t no mountain high enough

Species: Bar-headed Goose Anser indicus
Distance travelled: 3,000-5,000 km

No oxygen? No problem. These sturdy geese might not fly for the longest time, but not other birds consistently fly as high on their migrations. On their travels from their breeding areas in Mongolia, the Tibetan Plateau and northern China to their wintering sites in India, these birds cross over the Himalayas using less than ten per cent of the oxygen available at sea level, reaching altitudes of up to 7,000 m with no help from any tailwinds. While researchers have concluded they do save energy by hugging the mountain ground and flying at night time, scientists are still unsure of the genetics behind their extraordinary resistance. Despite the fact that their population trend appears to be decreasing, this goose has an extremely large range and is categorised by BirdLife as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List.

Fly, fly, as fast as you can

Species: Great Snipe Gallinago media 
Distance travelled: 6,800 km

Great Snipe © Wildlife World / Shutterstock

The Peregrine Falcon might win the sprint race, reaching up to 390 km/h (242 mph) when diving to catch prey, but it doesn’t win the marathon. The unlikely winner of the fastest long-haul flight would be the Great Snipe — surprising given how plump it can get before its winter migration. But what it lacks in aerodynamism, it makes up for in energy. Without relying on tailwinds that would help it go faster, this stocky bird has been recorded to reach speeds of up to 97 km/h (60 mph) over a distance of 6,800 km (4,225 mi). When it flies over land from Scandinavia to sub-Saharan Africa, it doesn’t even take any breaks and loses half its weight as a result. The species is unfortunately classed by BirdLife as Near Threatened, due to habitat loss as a result of increasingly intensive agriculture and wetland drainage in Russia and Ukraine

No rest for the weary

Bar-tailed Godwit Limosa lapponica 
Distance travelled: 11,000 km

Bar-tailed Godwit © Dennis Jacobsen / Shutterstock

Imagine going on a nine day flight with no time to sleep and nothing to eat or drink. This is the way of the Bar-tailed Godwit; from Alaska to New Zealand, it holds the record for the largest non-stop flight of any bird, flying for over 11,000 km (6,835 mi) without rest. Although the species has an extremely large range, some of its subpopulations are struggling. Godwits taking the East Asian-Australasian route are undergoing rapid declines due to severe habitat loss in the Yellow Sea and as a result the species is classified as Near Threatened. Luckily, BirdLife is working with governments to protect stopover sites and prevent further habitat degradation. Even if they don’t seem to have endurance problems, we should give them a chance to refuel!

Going the distance

Species: Red Knot Calidris canutus 
Distance travelled: 15,000 km

Rufa Red Knots gorging on horseshoe crab eggs at Delaware Bay, USA © Gregory Breese / USFWS

Even though the Red Knot only has a wingspan of 20 inches, some of them fly nearly 15,000 kilometers every year, from the southern coasts of Chile and Argentina all the way to the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. Sadly, human interference is making this journey much tougher for the bird. Coastal development and overharvesting of horseshoe crabs, whose eggs are a vital food source, led to the Atlantic subspecies of the Red Knot, the Rufa Red Knot, being listed as threatened under the American Endangered Species Act in 2014.

The march of the penguins

Species: Adélie Penguin Pygoscelis adeliae
Max distance recorded: 17,600 km

Adélie Penguins © vladsilver / Shutterstock

It’s not all about flying! Flightless birds such as penguins also migrate. This is the case of the Adélie Penguin, known to trek an average 13,000 km (8,077 mi) every year, following the sun from their breeding colony to their winter grounds in the Ross Sea region of Antarctica and back. During the winter, the sun doesn’t rise south of the Antarctic Circle — a challenge to these penguins, who need to have access to the sea to feed on krill. Their solution is to keep walking to the edge of the ice, which is continually expanding during the freezing months. In the spring, they stay at the edge while the ice recedes. Despite projections based on climate suggesting a future decline, their populations are increasing, particularly in East Antarctica, where most of them breed.

Round and round

Short-tailed Shearwater Ardenna tenuirostris
Distance travelled: 30,000 km

Short-tailed Shearwater © Chris Watson / Shutterstock

Also known as the Tasmanian Muttonbird, this globetrotter migrates every year from its breeding grounds in Tasmania and southern Australia to Kamchatka in the Russian Far East, to then continue on to the Aleutian Islands in Alaska, then circle around the Pacific Ocean and travel back along the western coast of North America. Their bodies are perfectly adapted for gliding above the water, allowing them to fly for extended periods of time while saving energy. Surprisingly, even after travelling such impressive distances, they return to the same burrow every year. Population declines have been reported in some areas but their total numbers are still estimated at over 20 million, making this the most abundant seabird species to be found in Australian waters.

To the moon and back

Species: Arctic Tern Sterna paradisaea
Average roundtrip distance: 90,000 km

Arctic Tern © Tony Brindley / Shutterstock

No bird migration list is ever complete without mentioning the record-breaking feats of the Arctic Tern. By far the longest migration known in the animal kingdom, this medium-sized bird travels 90,000 km (55,923 mi) from pole to pole every year — from Greenland in the North to the Weddell Sea in the South. Remarkably, Arctic Terns can live up to 30 years, which means if one adds up the distance they traverse in a lifetime, their total journey is equivalent to going to the moon and back more than three times. It’s no wonder this world traveller’s epic journey inspired BirdLife’s logo, exemplifying the global impact and reach of our projects.

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