Record-breaking Arctic Tern migration revealed

Electronic tags fitted to one of the world’s smallest seabirds have revealed record-breaking migration distances.

A study carried out by scientists at Newcastle University for BBC’s Springwatch has mapped for the first time the incredible annual migration of Arctic Terns from the National Trust’s Farne Islands on the Northumberland coast.

The Farne Islands, Northumberland.

The Farne Islands has 23 nesting species of seabird, including thousands of puffins. (c) National Trust Images/John Millar

Weighing just 100g the Arctic Tern has the longest migration of any bird, travelling all the way to Antarctica for the winter and back to the Farnes, which are owned and managed by the National Trust, to breed in the Spring.

Last year 29 birds were fitted with geolocators by local researchers from Newcastle University watched by Springwatch presenter Nick Baker and National Trust rangers. The first of the Terns arrived back in the Farnes this spring.

One bird was found to have made a 96,000km round trip between Northumberland and its winter home in the Weddell Sea, Antarctica.

This is the longest flight ever recorded for a migratory bird. The previous record was held by an Arctic Tern from the Netherlands, which had made a 91,000km round trip to its wintering grounds and back.

The researchers, Dr Richard Bevan and Dr Chris Redfern of Newcastle University will speak about the ground-breaking study on Springwatch this evening (Tuesday 7th June)..

“It’s really quite humbling to see these tiny birds return when you consider the huge distances they’ve had to travel and how they’ve battled to survive,” says Dr Richard Bevan of Newcastle University’s School of Biology.

“So far we’ve managed to catch 16 of our tagged birds from last year and we’ve seen at least another four birds with our geolocators attached.

“We have been able to track our record breaking Arctic tern as it flew down the coast of West Africa, crossed into the Indian Ocean and eventually arrived in Antarctica.

“Further analysis of the data from these trackers will allow us to get a better understanding of how the Arctic Terns organise their migration and how global climate change may affect their routes.”

More than two thousand pairs of Arctic Terns breed on the Farne Islands. Sitting two miles off the coast of Northumberland, the islands are home to 87,000 pairs of seabird, including Puffin, Eider Duck and Shag. The National Trust has cared for the Farne Islands since 1925.

Lana Blakely, National Trust Ranger on the Farne Islands, said: “Thousands of visitors flock to the Farnes every year to enjoy the remarkable wildlife. What our visitors don’t always see is the scientific work that our rangers have been doing behind the scenes for over four decades to monitor wildlife on the islands.”

Springwatch presenter Iolo Williams said: “Arctic Terns are delicate birds that have been bewitching Springwatch viewers for many years. We are delighted to be a part of this innovative research by Newcastle University with the National Trust.”

Mapping the route

It will take some time to analyse all the data properly, but analysis of the data from the Arctic Tern covered by the Springwatch programme found that it had flown an estimated 96,000km (almost 60,000 miles) from its breeding grounds on the Farne Islands to its winter quarters in the Weddell Sea, Antarctica.

The Farne Island tern travelled down the west coast of Africa before crossing over to the South Indian Ocean and finally arriving in Antarctica – 4 months after setting off from Northumberland.

  • The bird started its migration in late July last year, reaching the tip of South Africa by late August
  • It then moved into the Indian Ocean where it spent nearly all of October
  • After this it moved to its second staging area on the coast of Antarctica in early November
  • It then slowly makes its way along the edge of the Antarctic continent until eventually ending up in the Weddell Sea  on 3rd February this year, stayed until the end of March
  • Finally, it moves up to the tip of South Africa (reaching Africa in early April), makes its way along the west coast of Africa before arrives in the Farne Islands’ area a month later

 

Over its lifetime the record-breaking tern could be flying as far as 3 million km between the Farne Islands and Antarctica, the equivalent of nearly four trips to the moon and back.

“For a bird that weighs less than an iPhone, that’s an amazing feat,” says Dr Bevan.

For press information contact Louella Houldcroft, Newcastle University Press Office, on louella.houldcroft@newcastle.ac.uk or 0191 208 5108/07989 850511

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