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Great snipe migration

Many landbirds perform extreme endurance flights when crossing ecological barriers such as deserts and oceans, but when they travel over areas where they can feed, they usually break up the migration in shorter legs. It was only recently that it was found that the Great Snipe make extraordinary non-stop flights that could last for up to three days.

A team of Swedish and British researchers fitted a number of Great Snipes with geolocation light loggers, of which three were recovered after a year. These loggers revealed amazing new insights. One bird flew 6170 km in three days from Europe to Africa. Another managed 6800 km in three-and-a-half days, while a third flew 4620 km in just 48 hours. They also achieved very high ground speeds (15–27 m s-1), despite weak tailwind support, and we know of no other animal that travels this rapidly over such a long distance.

However, as the geographical precision of geolocators is not very exact (± 200 km), lots of details still remain to be uncovered. For example, where and in what habitat are the birds staying just before they take off on their extreme flights? What exact flight route do they take? Do they sometimes stop in any of south Sahara’s many oases? These and similar questions we hope to be able to answer in this project.

Pilot study and future research

A person i holding a bird and showing one of its wings. There is a small black box on the birds back.

For more detailed information, we have to use other equipment; either GPS loggers (± 10 m) or satellite transmitters (± 1 km), mounted as backpacks on the birds. As we don’t have much experience of how this potentially could impact the birds, we carried out a small pilot study in Jämtland 2013. Three individuals were fitted with radio transmitters (imitating the design of a gps logger or a satellite transmitter backpack) and tracked daily for a week.

A landscape with mountains in the background and grass in the foreground.

We then observed both behaviour and flight to conclude that all three birds seemed to act normal, despite their extra load. Next year, we will hopefully be able to fit a few birds with satellite transmitters, to see if they can make the entire migration. If this turns out well, we will start to use gps-loggers, which potentially can reveal many details of the migration. As a bonus, we might get additional information about for example new breeding sites.

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