Not such a short hop: the tiny bird that soared into the record books

British scientists' lightweight tags reveal the incredible journey of the world's smallest globetrotting high-flyer

A A A

At first glance, the ruddy turnstone looks barely strong enough to live up to its name let alone to migrate from one end of the world to the other.

It is little bigger than a song thrush and weighs in at somewhat less than a 250g stick of butter but the wading bird has a hard-won reputation as one of nature's greatest migrating animals.

Now a technological breakthrough by scientists at the British Antarctic Survey has at last allowed researchers to track the routes taken by the birds and to see exactly how far and fast they fly. Tiny light-sensitive tracking devices have shown ruddy turnstones can travel more than 16,700 miles (27,000 kilometres) as they migrate from Australia to the Arctic and back again.

It took four birds fitted with the devices just over six days, with several breaks for feeding, to fly the 4,700 miles from Flinders in South East Australia to Taiwan. One of them later managed a 3,850 mile leg in just four days and a further 3,100 mile leg in another four.

Analysis of the data provided by the tracking devices revealed that during the flight from Flinders to Taiwan and later from the Gilbert Islands to Australia the birds flew at an average speed of 31-34mph (50-55km/h). "A higher speed of 65 km/h was achieved during the flight from Alaska to Kiribati, indicating possible assistance by tail winds," added Ken Gosbell, of the Australasian Wader Studies Group (AWSG) which led the research.

Tracker devices have been used to monitor many species of animals but most have been far too heavy and cumbersome to load on to birds as small as the ruddy turnstone, Arenaria interpres. With the development of miniaturised light-sensitive geotracking devices, however, a whole new vista of avian research has been opened up.

"Unfortunately, the size of the satellite transmitters, and the batteries required to power them, precluded their use on smaller shorebirds like ruddy turnstones," said Dr Clive Minton from the AWSG. "However, a different technology using a 1 gram light-sensor geolocator has enabled researchers to track the 27,000 kilometre round trip of ruddy turnstones from Australia to their Arctic breeding grounds and back via China on their way north and via Kiribati [the Gilbert Islands] on their return trip across the Pacific.

"This now opens up the possibility of tracking the migration routes of shorebirds as yet virtually unknown."

The geotrackers created by scientists at BAS are extremely lightweight – the ones used on the turnstones are about 1 gram – which makes it possible to fit them to small birds without crippling them with extra weight.

Previously, light-sensitive trackers have been used on larger birds such as geese, albatross, penguins, and skuas, but further miniaturisation has enabled even small birds to be monitored. One device recently released by BAS weighs just 0.8g and another under development is just 0.6g.

They work by recording how long daylight lasts each day which, when analysed back in the lab, allows researchers to pinpoint which part of the world the birds were in on each day of the year.

Data provided by the trackers offers researchers the chance to gather much more detailed information on the birds' migration routes, including stop-offs for feeding, and their physical capabilities. Discoveries made by such studies help scientists build up a complete picture of the needs of birds and other animals which can be used to help conserve them.

For the study of ruddy turnstones from south east Australia, six were fitted at Flinders and another two were fitted at Carpenter Rocks. A year after being fitted scientists were able to retrive four devices, all at Flinders. The fate of the four other birds is unknown.

Tracker devices can be fitted on birds either by fixing them to a leg or by sticking them to the back. All the ruddy turnstone had them attached to legs because tests showed that after spending the Australasian summer fattening up to their maximum weight of about 190g they were "as round as tennis balls" and the backpack style wouldn't stay on.

Earlier this year, the results of a similar study on Arctic Terns fitted with miniaturised light-sensitive trackers revealed the long-distance birds took an 'S' shaped route on the northwards journey as they traveled 44,000 miles between the poles each year

Scientists have been so impressed by the lightweight tracking devices that they are fitting them on many more birds this year to learn more about migration routes. At least 60 ruddy turnstones, 30 greater sand plovers, Charadrius leschenaultii, and four sharp-tailed sandpipers, Calidris acuminata, are expected to be fitted with the geotrackers by the end of this month.

Flights of fancy: Record-breaking birds

Bartailed Godwit A female made the longest recorded non-stop flight of 7,145 miles from Alaska to New Zealand.

Peregrine Falcon With diving speeds in excess of 150mph as it swoops down on prey, it is the fastest bird in the world.

Sooty Shearwater Recorded the longest migration with an annual journey of 46,000 miles, and travelled up to 680 miles a day.

Arctic Tern Tracking devices recently showed a bird making an annual migration flight of 41,000 miles.

Greyheaded Albatross The fastest flight around the Southern Ocean was attributed to a male which flew 13,670 miles in 46 days.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv'The Last Kingdom' is based on historical events
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
filmSir Ian McKellen will play retired detective in new film
Life and Style
tech
News
Justin Bieber performing in Paris earlier this year
people
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman and Lauren O'Neil in Jamie Lloyd's Richard III
theatreReview: The monarch's malign magnetism and diabolic effrontery aren’t felt
Arts and Entertainment
'Molecular Man +1+1+1' by Jonathan Borofsky at Yorkshire Sculpture park
tv
News
Glamour magazine hosts a yoga class with Yogalosophy author Mandy Ingber on June 10, 2013 in New York City.
newsFather Padraig O'Baoill said the exercise was 'unsavoury' in a weekly parish newsletter
Extras
indybest
News
people'She is unstoppable', says Jean Paul Gaultier at Paris show
Sport
Alexis Sanchez and apparently his barber Carlos Moles in Barcelona today
football
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Accounts Assistant, Hammersmith

£25000 per annum: Charter Selection: Exciting sports company with a strong bra...

Financial Accountant-IFRS-Gloucester-£300/day

£250 - £295 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Financial Accountant - IFRS - Glouc...

Technical Support Engineer - Central London - £30,000

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Support Engineer - Central London...

SharePoint/C# Developer - Aberdeen - Circa £40K + benefits

£30000 - £40000 per annum + excellent benefits: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited:...

Day In a Page

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice
Hollywood targets Asian audiences as US films enjoy record-breaking run at Chinese box office

Hollywood targets Asian audiences

The world's second biggest movie market is fast becoming the Hollywood studios' most crucial
Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app - and my mum keeps trying to hook me up!'

Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app'

Five years on from its launch and Grindr is the world's most popular dating app for gay men. Its founder Joel Simkhai answers his critics, describes his isolation as a child
Autocorrect has its uses but it can go rogue with embarrassing results - so is it time to ditch it?

Is it time to ditch autocorrect?

Matthew J X Malady persuaded friends to message manually instead, but failed to factor in fat fingers and drunk texting
10 best girls' summer dresses

Frock chick: 10 best girls' summer dresses

Get them ready for the holidays with these cool and pretty options 
Westminster’s dark secret: Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together

Westminster’s dark secret

Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Dulce et decorum est - a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Dulce et decorum est: a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality
Google tells popular music website to censor album cover art in 'sexually explicit content' ban

Naked censorship?

The strange case of Google, the music website and the nudity take-down requests
Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

As England take on India at Trent Bridge, here is our pick of the high-performing bats to help you up your run-count this summer 
Brazil vs Germany World Cup 2014 comment: David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

Captain appears to give up as shocking 7-1 World Cup semi-final defeat threatens ramifications in Brazil