Crossing the ultimate ecological barrier: Evidence for an 11000 km long non-stop flight from Alaska to New Zealand and eastern Australia by Bar-tailed Godwits Limosa lapponica

Robert E. Gill, Theunis Piersma, Gary Hufford, Rene Servranckx, Adrian Riegen

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Abstract

Populations of the Bar-tailed Godwit Limosa lapponica embark on some of the longest migrations known among birds. The baueri race breeds in western Alaska and spends the non-breeding season a hemisphere away in New Zealand and eastern Australia; the menzbieri race breeds in Siberia and migrates to western and northern Australia. Although the Siberian birds are known to follow the coast of Asia during both migrations, the southern pathway followed by the Alaska breeders has remained unknown. Two questions have particular ecological importance: (1) do Alaska godwits migrate directly across the Pacific, a distance of 11000 km; and (2) are they capable of doing this in a single flight without stopping to rest or refuel? We explored six lines of evidence to answer these questions. The distribution of resightings of marked birds of the baueri and menzbieri races was significantly different between northward and southward flights, with virtually no marked baueri resighted along the Asian mainland during southward migration. The timing of southward migration of the two races further indicates the absence of a coastal Asia route by baueri, with peak passage of godwits in general occurring there a month prior to the departure of most birds from Alaska. The use of a direct route across the Pacific is also supported by significantly more records of godwits reported from within a direct migration corridor than elsewhere in Oceania, and during the September to November period than at other times of the year. The annual but rare occurrence of Hudsonian Godwits Limosa haemastica in New Zealand and the absence of records of this species along the Asian mainland also support a direct flight, and are best explained by Hudsonian Godwits accompanying Bar-tailed Godwits from known communal staging areas in Alaska. Flight simulation models, extreme fat loads, and the apparent evolution of a wind-selected migration from Alaska further support a direct, non-stop flight.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationWaterbirds around the world
Subtitle of host publicationA global overview of the conservation, management and research of the world's waterbird flyways
EditorsG.C. Boere, C.A. Galbraith, D.A. Stroud
Place of PublicationEdinburgh, UK
PublisherThe Stationary Office
Pages524-534
Number of pages11
Publication statusPublished - 2006

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