Flying 7,000 miles non-stop

Flying 7,000 miles non-stop

“They looked like flying softballs,” said Gill.
At the time, scientists knew that bar-tailed godwits spend their winters in places like New Zealand and Australia. To get there, most researchers assumed, the birds took a series of flights down through Asia, stopping along the way to rest and eat. After all, they were land birds, not sea birds that could dive for food in the ocean. But in Alaska, Gill observed, the bar-tailed godwits were feasting on clams and worms as if they were not going to be able to eat for a very long time.“I wondered, why is that bird putting on that much fat?” he said.

A hard test
Gill wondered if the bar-tailed godwit actually stayed in the air for a much longer time than scientists believed. It was a difficult idea to test, because he could not actually follow the birds in flight. For 30 years he managed as best he could, building a network of bird-watchers who looked for migrating godwits over the Pacific Ocean. Finally, in 2006, technology caught up with Gill’s ideas. He and his colleagues were able to implant satellite transmitters in bar-tailed godwits and track their flight.

The transmitters sent their location to  Gill’s computer, and he sometimes stayed up until 2 in the morning to see the latest signal appear on the Google Earth program running on his laptop. Just as he had suspected, the bar-tailed godwits headed out over the open ocean and flew south through the Pacific. They did not stop at islands along the way. Instead, they travelled up to 7,100 miles in nine days — the longest nonstop flight ever recorded. “I was speechless,” Gill said.

Since then, scientists have tracked a number of other migrating birds, and they are beginning now to publish their results. Those results make clear that the bar-tailed godwit is not alone. Other species of birds can fly several thousand miles non-stop on their migrations, and scientists anticipate that as they gather more data in the years to come, more birds will join these elite ranks. “I think it’s going to be a number of examples,” said Anders Hedenström of Lund University in Sweden.

Spectacular endurance
As more birds prove to be ultramarathoners, biologists are turning their attention to how they manage such spectacular feats of endurance. Consider what might be the ultimate test of human endurance in sports, the Tour de France: Every day, bicyclists pedal up and down mountains for hours. In the process, they raise their metabolism to about five times their resting rate.

The bar-tailed godwit, by contrast, elevates its metabolic rate between 8 and 10 times. And instead of ending each day with a big dinner and a good night’s rest, the birds fly through the night, slowly starving themselves as they travel 40 miles an hour.“I’m in awe of the fact that birds like godwits can fly like this,” said Theunis Piersma, a biologist at the University of Groningen.
The New York Times

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