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Bird Takes on Typhoon For The Sky-High Ride of His Life

Updated: May 21

In 2019, a bold (or just plain unlucky) male seabird threw caution to the wind, as Typhoon Faxai hit Japan. It was the start of an insane 11 hour rollercoaster journey that took this bird to heights and speeds it would never have experienced before.

Streaked shearwater seabird
Credit: lin-sun-fong/iNaturalist/(CC By SA 4.0)

This particular streaked shearwater found himself flying 15,000 feet higher than normal, at three times its usual speed, on a ride that his species is normally - for obvious reasons - rather good at avoiding. Fortunately, this crazy story has a happy ending as the plucky bird survived and eventually returned to his friends with a remarkable story to tell.

How do we know this? Well, GPS bio-loggers that had been attached to 14 adult streaked shearwater seabirds earlier that fateful year by Tohoku University biologist Kozue Shiomi to track nesting behaviours. This meant that scientists had a precise record of this nuts nature-defying act, that leapt out of the data as a wild flight pattern anomaly that coincided with the storm.

While the other tagged birds escaped unscathed, 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 death-defying bird didn't have much choice but to 'go with the flow.'

Throughout the 11 hour epic flight, the bird completed numerous loops in circles ranging from 50-80 km (31-50 miles) in diameter, which tracked with the typhoon’s rotation and movement, and meant the bird traveled about 1,000 miles whilst, actually, not getting very far.

While 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) - that's approaching half the height that commercial airlines fly at.

Not just that, the bird was hurtling along in the typhoon a 90-170 km/h (56-106 mph). Given that shearwaters normally cruise along at rather more sedate speeds of 10-60 km/h (6-37 mph), this intrepid 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 scientists noted 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.

These facts and figures were published in the journal Ecology last month.

Photo: CC By SA 4.0

Bar-tailed godwit walking on a beach


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