Bird takes on typhoon for an insane 700-mile sky-high ride of his life
In 2019, a bold male seabird threw caution to the wind, flying above Typhoon Faxai as the storm pummeled southeastern Japan. It was the start of an 11-hour, 1,146-km (712-mile) crazy journey, that took the bird 15,000 feet higher than normal, at three times its usual speed, on a ride that his species are quite good at avoiding. Happily, the bird survived and eventually returned to his feathered friends with quite the story to tell.
Thanks to GPS bio-loggers that had been attached to 14 adult streaked shearwater (Calonectris leucomelas) seabirds in August that year by Tohoku University biologist Kozue Shiomi to track nesting behaviors, scientists were lucky enough to have a record of this nuts nature-defying act, spotting a huge flight pattern anomaly that coincided with the storm.
While it didn’t affect the other birds, one male managed to get caught up in the atmospheric drama, though researchers can’t say if he had a daredevil streak or was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. But one thing is for certain: the 585-g (1.3-lb) bird didn't have much choice but to 'go with the flow.'
Throughout the 11-hour epic flight, the bird completed five full loops in circles ranging from 50-80 km (31-50 miles) in diameter, which tracked with the typhoon’s rotation and movement. While the shearwaters usually fly below 100 m (328 ft), this brazen bird found himself in entirely new territory, soaring at an altitude of 4,700 m (15,420 ft). For context, small aircraft fly between 600 and 3,000 m (2,000 and 10,000 feet).
All the while, the bird was zipping along at 90-170 km/h (56-106 mph). Given that these birds generally cruise at 10-60 km/h (6-37 mph), at his top speed, our aerial adventurer was probably flying on a wing and a prayer.
The bird took a less-than-scenic route over mainland Japan before being carried back out above the Pacific Ocean as the typhoon swung out to sea. At this point, with the storm’s power subsiding, the bird resumed normal transmission and no doubt had some explaining to do when he returned to his flock over the water near the nesting island.
The GPS timeline shows how the bird was, for a while, in the eye of the storm, but then ended up flying in larger loops outside of it. It also had a delayed departure time, which scientists note is unusual for the species.
“The early evening departure of the bird from the breeding area was also unusual for this species, which usually departs for foraging during several hours before sunrise,” the researchers noted. “This might indicate that the bird attempted to circumnavigate the harsh conditions in advance but failed.”
They note that it’s impossible to know how much of this journey was planned, but it's just as likely the bird could have opted out of the trip but chose to ‘ride’ the storm instead.
Regardless, looking at this wild ride highlights the increasing risks that seabird populations could face as climate change drives more extreme weather events.
Pelagic birds, like this streaked shearwater, spend most of their lives over the open ocean, flying to land only to breed. They have a wide range of inclement weather avoidance mechanisms and behaviors, varying from staying in the eye of a storm to ascending to high altitudes above the disturbance.
However, more frequent, larger hurricanes are making it an increasingly difficult task for many species of birds to combat.
Shiomi noted that more research into how pelagic birds are dealing with more extreme weather events is vital, in order to see if and how these species are responding to the rapid changes.
The research was published in the journal Ecology.
Source: Ecological Society of America