While many people go on long journeys regularly, this little island allows only modest trips, at least by road, and people mostly only experience really long journeys on rare or ‘once in a lifetime’ holiday.
Many animals however, travel for thousands of miles to their winter migration escape of choice and repeat the journey to return, many months later.
Wildebeest are one of the best known of the long-distance travellers.
They feed on the great Serengeti plains after the rains in November. Calves are born usually in February after which they spread west until in April they start the massive annual push north, seeking fresh pastures and drinking water.
Moving north across a wide area, river crossings slow them and huge numbers build up. Many become food for the crocs but the huge herd moves on. The Mara river in the northern Serengeti is a big challenge, well filmed, usually in September. Not long after crossing this, the Wildebeest start to recross it as they start the reverse migration bringing them back to the southern Serengeti for November, once more.
Whales are also notable migrators, and certainly the largest.
They migrate up to 9,400 miles from cold Polar waters to warmer Tropical seas and back again (a total of up to 18,800 miles!).
The reason for this was considered to be that warm waters were good for breeding and avoiding predators such as Killer Whales (actually more related to Dolphins), while cold waters held more food.
Recent studies suggest that Whales migrate to molt. It was known that microbes build up in the skin and that Whales, like us, shed cells continuously. The new tracking study is convinced that migration is to allow whales to molt in warmer waters, since in cold waters, they divert blood from the skin surface which causes a slowdown in cell regeneration.
In any case, these massive creatures are serious travellers and can be found in most seas of the world.
(See previous post – https://cliffsview.wordpress.com/2012/11/12/monsters-of-the-deep/)
Swallows are probably the most widely known migration experts. We await their arrival every summer and watch the wires and aerials bend with their numbers as they get itchy to return to warmer countries in Autumn.
Swallows (and a few types of Martin) start to arrive in Ireland from Africa in April and most have started breeding by June. They tend to nest close to people in open sheds, lean-to structures etc. The main requirements though, are water, mud and an insect supply!
They often have 2 or even 3 broods during the summer and then by September, are beginning to itch for a return to warmer climates. Some late leavers wait until October. Amazingly young migrate and seem to have some built in sense and markers as well as a magnetic compass to guide them.
Many birds fatten up before migrating but Swallows feed on the wing – catching insects in mid-air – and so don’t have to burden themselves with the extra weight.
They travel around 200 miles per day, resting at night in large flocks at their favourite stopover sites. Swallows from different locations migrate by different routes and to different destinations. Most of those leaving Ireland fly all the way down over south-western Europe, Morocco, the Sahara desert and Namibia to South Africa!
Swallows can travel 6000 miles on migration and the same distance on return. Not bad for such tiny, fragile looking birds.
Whooper Swans arrive in the fields surrounding my home in Wicklow, every winter. They feed on the grass during the day and retire to a nearby lake at night for some safety. (see previous post – https://cliffsview.wordpress.com/2013/01/26/winter-woolies-and-whoopers/ )
Their yellow beaks distinguish them from the otherwise similar, Mute Swans, common to lakes around the world. At around 10 Kgs and a wingspan of over 2m, they are big birds and when they fly it is hard not to think of Jumbo Jets and wonder how! 🙂
Most Irish Whoopers arrive from Iceland, flying up to 900 miles (1400 Kms), considered to be the longest sea crossing by a Swan species.
A very small number now stay in Ireland for the summer and breeding pairs have been recorded in Northern Ireland. They pair for life.
Lots of animal & bird species migrate. In Ireland we think of Ducks, Geese, Starlings, Redwing and even Sparrows. But let’s finish with our most travelled visitor, the Tern.
We have 5 different Tern species in Ireland (though there are many more world-wide). They are all seen only in summer.
The Common Tern actually is the most common. But the Arctic Tern is the record holder for migration. It has a completely red beak, unlike the beak of the Commom Tern which has a black tip.
The Arctic Tern flies from its breeding grounds in the Arctic, to the Antarctic, spending the southern summer there before returning. The shortest journey possible for these locations is 12,000 miles (19,000 Kms). So the return journey is at least 24,000 miles for a bird of only 14 inches (36cms) in length!
It is reckoned that the Arctic Tern sees more daylight per year than any other species.
So next time you are asked to collect your son or granddaughter or father or whoever at the station, please remember the remarkable Arctic Tern or any other of our fabulous travelling heroes.