Great flights by great snipes: long and fast non-stop migration over benign habitats

Raymond H. G. Klaassen, Thomas Alerstam, Peter Carlsson, James W. Fox, Åke Lindström

Abstract

Migratory land birds perform extreme endurance flights when crossing ecological barriers, such as deserts, oceans and ice-caps. When travelling over benign areas, birds are expected to migrate by shorter flight steps, since carrying the heavy fuel loads needed for long non-stop flights comes at considerable cost. Here, we show that great snipes Gallinago media made long and fast non-stop flights (4300–6800 km in 48–96 h), not only over deserts and seas but also over wide areas of suitable habitats, which represents a previously unknown migration strategy among land birds. Furthermore, the great snipes achieved very high ground speeds (15–27 m s−1), which was not an effect of strong tailwind support, and we know of no other animal that travels this rapidly over such a long distance. Our results demonstrate that some migratory birds are prepared to accept extreme costs of strenuous exercise and large fuel loads, even when stopover sites are available along the route and there is little tailwind assistance. A strategy of storing a lot of energy before departure, even if migration is over benign habitats, may be advantageous owing to differential conditions of fuel deposition, predation or infection risk along the migration route.

  • Received March 26, 2011.
  • Accepted May 3, 2011.
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