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01/15/2014

Rare avian species turns out to be a very seasoned traveler

Phalarope

The diminutive and endangered red-necked phalarope each year flies from Scotland to Peru and back – one of this planet's great aerial migrations.

 

If you are like just about everybody else in this town, you probably spend a lot of time complaining about your commute.

Well, don’t.

You have nothing to complain about.

Consider instead the annual migration pattern of the red-necked phalarope, a small and seriously endangered bird that spends the European summer in the northernmost reaches of Great Britain.

According to a recent report in the Daily Mail, the phalarope has been reduced to about 15 nesting sites, all of them located in the Shetland Islands off the northern coast of Scotland or in the Western Isles.

In the past, ornithologists have reckoned that the species favoured a fairly modest seasonal migration, a trip that took them from their summer home in the Shetlands to a location overlooking the Arabian Sea.

That, it now turns out, was wrong.

Researchers associated with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds recently implanted a miniature tracking device in one of the birds, and it told a completely different story.

Weighing less than “a bag of crisps” (British for potato chips), the plucky little beast actually spends roughly half the year, not in the Middle East, but in Peru and Ecuador – a round trip of nearly 26,000 km.

The phalarope’s standard itinerary extends west over Iceland and Greenland, then southward along the eastern shores of North America, followed by a bee-line across the Caribbean, and behold: South America.

The accompanying map provides a useful visual depiction of the route, except that whoever drew the orange line on this map has the phalarope winding up in southern Chile, a long way south of Peru. For a better approximation of the bird’s Andean destination, back up about halfway to Panama, and you’ll be looking at more or less the right spot.

Map

According to Mike Smith of the RSPB, the annual return journey of the red-necked phalarope is “one of the world’s great migrations.”

It is not, however, the greatest. According to the Daily Mail, the most arduous and ambitious of winged migrations is that of the Arctic tern, which each year journeys back and forth between the north and south poles – a distance of about 70,000 km.

As for the long-term prospects of the red-necked phalarope, they are not promising.

In 2011, a U.K. broadcaster called Eden TV produced a list of the 10 most endangered animal species in Great Britain. The phalarope led the list. According to the network’s report, the species had been reduced to just 36 breeding pairs, all of them based for part of the year in Scotland and, as has now been established, for the rest of the year in South America.

Oakland Ross is a foreign affairs reporter for the Toronto Star.

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