Posted by: Ross Gardner | August 13, 2012

A Feat of Resilience and Perseverance

Bird migration, I think we can all agree, is a pretty remarkable thing.  The distances travelled can certainly raise an eyebrow.  A Willow Warbler, for instance, breeding in the UK will fly 4000km to sub-saharan West Africa, while at the extreme, those birds that breed in Siberia might cover a whopping 12000km on their way to Southern Africa.  The Arctic Tern boasts one the longest regular migrations.   These seabirds make a near enough pole to pole trip between breeding grounds in the high Arctic to wintering quarters on the fringes of the Antarctic pack ice.  If they were to fly in a straight line this would mean a journey of 15000km, but birds have been known to cover 20000km on their way to and from.  They see more sunlight than any other bird.

A southbound Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe) on its way through Essex. Ross Gardner 2011

But the prompt for this post comes not from the tough little warbler or the far-travelled tern, but from no less than the Northern Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe).  This is a bird I know well enough.  In the UK they will often be the first of our spring migrants to appear.  In my south-eastern corner of the country I will see them as incoming and outgoing migrants, flying to and from their breeding habitat predominantly in the open country of the west and north.  I did not realise however, until a very recent conversation on the subject of bird migration, that Wheatears accomplish a truly incredible feat of resilience and perseverance.

They undertake huge journeys themselves, from Africa to the Arctic, but it is not only this that makes their efforts so remarkable.  It is the fact that, unlike the terns that will stop off en route, the Wheatear must make a lengthy and continuous ocean crossing from A to B.  On their way north, birds departing from the Azores, off the coast of Portugal, to Canada must make a non-stop flight of some 3500km.  That’s non-stop, without stopping to sleep or eat – an astonishing effort from a bird measuring no more the 15cm long and weighing no more than 25g.

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