As an African, when I hear the term “Great Migration”, images of vast wildebeest herds come to mind.
Kicking up clouds of dust and sand as they make their way through the endless flats of the Serengeti, Tanzania.
The great migration is the movement of vast numbers of the Serengeti's wildebeest, accompanied by large numbers of zebra, and smaller numbers of Grant's gazelle, Thomson's gazelle, eland and impala.
These move in an annual pattern that is fairly predictable. They migrate throughout the year, constantly seeking fresh grazing and better-quality water.
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These are not the only animals that move to survive. Many species of fish migrate back upriver systems in order to spawn and turtles swim thousands of kilometres annually to the very same beaches to lay their eggs. The undisputable champions of migration, however, are birds.
Birds have not only become extremely good at migrating but are by far the most numerous vertebrates to undergo these insane feats of directional prowess and physical endurance. In order to escape cold, harsh northern winters, birds would fly further south, to warmer climates and vice versa.
These migrations can be witnessed on a small scale with a single, solitary bird in search of greener pastures or massive flocks of thousands of birds looking for adequate breeding grounds to raise the next generation of feathered jet-setters.
The pandemic has made air travel rather tedious for us wingless humans but a bird does not have to bother with these trivial matters.
Researchers in Finland recently fitted a GPS tracking device onto a European honey buzzard and were quite surprised to find just how far the bird flew over its seasonal migrations.
According to Biodiversity Explorer, the European honey buzzard, Wespedief in Afrikaans, is a medium- sized raptor which “lives and breeds in Europe, and winters in tropical Africa. Their European breeding range extends over Gibraltar, Italia, Bosphorus and Caucasus. Young birds of one year old have been observed remaining in Africa during summer.”
WildAware, a European conservation organisation shared details of this incredible journey on its Facebook page. “The female European honey buzzard was fitted with a satellite tracking system in Finland recently and was of particular interest to locals because it spent the most recent austral summer around the town of Reitz in the Free State in South Africa.”
According to researchers' findings, the bird departed Reitz and began heading north on 20 April 2021.
She flew north in a perfectly straight line until reaching the source of the river Nile in South Sudan, after which, she turned right and flew along the coast over Sudan and Egypt. Rather than flying over the ocean, she stuck to the land bridge from Africa to the Middle East, turning left to rejoin her original flight path to reach Finland on 02 June 2021.
This bird covered an average of 230km a day for 42 days, racking up a journey total of just under 10 000km. She is predicted to return to South Africa in October or November for the Southern summer.
The buzzard was observed to have taken more frequent rest stops when flying over Africa and longer flight times over Europe. This may be due to weather conditions along Africa requiring more energy to fly over than calmer, cooler European conditions.
Even through this, without a compass or any directional aids, it is fascinating that after that deviation she returned to the same longitudinal line she started on and continued until she reached her destination.
This is truly an incredible feat for a single bird but it is by no means the most well-travelled migratory bird. This honour goes to the humble Arctic tern. According to BirdLife International, “By far the longest migration known in the animal kingdom, this medium-sized bird travels 90 000 km 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.”