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Bar-tailed Godwits regularly travel more than 7,000 miles non-stop (audubon.org)
464 points by mcenedella on Nov 15, 2021 | hide | past | favorite | 203 comments

I live in Christchurch, NZ, and so I see a variety of long distance travellers in the swamplands and estuaries, including bar-tailed godwits at the end of Southshore spit https://newsline.ccc.govt.nz/news/story/draft-godwits-arriva...

A huge amount of housing and infrastructure here wouldn’t be allowed now, because when it was built it would have disrupted rare birds (or perhaps that is why the birds are now rare).

It does make one feel more aware of how the world is connected when you realise that migratory birds need to survive stopovers in other countries like China.

The birds also need to survive in New Zealand, where just a few signs and some social convention prevents dogs from attacking nesting sites (edit: or people disturbing them), and it would be hard to lock down the area since many people would strongly assert their rights to go there.

I'm in Dunedin, but I didn't even know these birds came here! That's amazing. Do you know if DOC or whoever are planning anything to help?

People aren't allowed to go into the breeding areas on the Otago Peninsula for Albatrosses, surely something similar could be done for these?

I just wish our govt would assert more control in our EEZ from illegal fishing. It's very saddening when you read articles about how the adult birds get caught in the nests etc.

  Yet the most pernicious threats to albatrosses today are not to chicks but to adult birds. Along with other seabirds, they are locked in a competitive battle with humankind for the food resources of the sea—and the birds are losing. This is not just because of the efficiency of modern fishing practices but because fishing equipment—hooks, nets and trawl wires—inflicts a heavy toll of injury and death.[0]
[0] https://www.nzgeo.com/stories/in-harms-way/

The birds get a lot of articles, and the topic is well known to locals. I believe there is a trust that organises some conservation effort for them, but my Google-fu couldn’t find anything online about it.

There are hundreds that nest at the end of the spit. You can see how close to residential areas it is, a short walk: https://www.google.com/maps/place/Southshore,+Christchurch/@...

The reserve gets quite a lot of foot traffic, many locals walking the beach, and some visitors in summer (being at the end of a cul-de-sac helps reduce visitors). It would not surprise me if the end was cordoned off in the future, although I presume that would require a marine reserve status or something as I’m not sure under what circumstances the government can just fence off foreshore areas.

Aside: I recently found one dolphin vertebra, which would be legal to have if I notified the right people. “you are entitled to collect bones, teeth, ivory or ambergris that have already separated naturally from a dead marine mammal provided DOC is notified as soon as possible and are given details of the time, place and circumstances under which these items are found.”[1]. You can’t chop out a bone from a carcass: “if anyone removes any part from a dead marine mammal this also may be interpreted as taking that mammal ... liable to imprisonment for up to 6 months, or a fine of up to $250,000” + $10k per animal. The actual law[2] says: “by any person who finds or collects bones, teeth, ivory, or ambergris that have already separated naturally from a marine mammal if that person, as soon as practicable, notifies the Director-General or an officer of the find, and gives details of the time, place, and circumstances under which the find was made” so notify both?

Aside 2: I found an albatross wing on the beach a few months ago - much longer than my arm. I am pretty sure that it is highly endangered and illegal to even pick that up[3][4]. However a friend is taking it in to the museum where there is someone that can decide what to do with it. I have found dead penguins in Dunedin and Kaikoura, and a penguin wing at Brighton.

[1] https://oceanlaw.co.nz/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/MarineMamm...

[2] https://www.legislation.govt.nz/act/public/1978/0080/latest/...

[3] https://www.tepapa.govt.nz/sites/default/files/tuhinga.25.20...

[4] https://www.stuff.co.nz/environment/118796601/fisheries-hook...

>The birds get a lot of articles, and the topic is well known to locals.

I was once told NZ didn't get any bird flu because no Birds fly into NZ due to distance and only migrate outwards as they are the southwest part of map as the reason why they have the best poultry in the industry. Now it turns out that is a flat out lie.

According to Wikipedia a godwit weighs ~0.5kg and it flew 7000 miles. If my calculations are right we are looking at 1.5kwh of energy and 0.2 wh per mile?

Even if we assume that the bird is almost all fat and fat can store ~3500kcal per pound, the maximum stored energy is 4kwh. That gives us 0.8wh per mile. So we can safely say that the bird spent [1.5-4kwh] to do this trip.

Teslas that are very efficient are in the order of 200 wh per mile.

What the heck we have a lot of work to do.

I don't think comparing a car to a bird is a good comparison. Compare the bird to a glider. The world record appears to be 3000km without a power source (except for the launch, obviously). Surely as a bird or a plane you can take advantage of lifts, i.e. warmer air rising up, then just glide.

Wow that sounds insane. How much luck do you need to achieve that though ? Can I consistently fly from point a to point b using air streams?

It needs a lot of planning. You can’t consistently do these trips.

Some birds also eat flying insects as a source (if not primary source sometimes) of food. I don't know if this is true of the godwit or not. For example the swift eats airborne insects and has been recorded to stay up in the air for 10 months [0]

[0] https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2016/10/27/499635084...

Even more incredible since the article points out that "Unlike albatross or other long-flying seabirds, godwits are active flyers, not gliders—their wings are moving the whole time." I wonder if they can use the active-flying equivalent of regenerative braking in favorable wind conditions to actually generate energy while flapping their wings. Not sure if any animals can generate energy while walking downhill.

The body's only energy store is ATP, which you can't generate from nothing

This isn't quite true. When muscles stretch, they store energy like a spring does. But for very long, of course, but if the cycle is repeated many times that's still many times more efficient than not storing it. Don't know if that applies here though.

Same for humans and running, storing energy in the achilles tendon if running barefoot or in shoes without damping.

The Law of Conservation of Energy heartily disagrees

I suppose they could swoop down for a quick bite or two, right? Some of these birds have a really good vision and can spot fish easily from quite a distance and if they are flying over the ocean, there isn’t any shortage of fish there.

The record for really small "trains" is 0,52 Wh/km (0,8 Wh/mile) https://www.delsboelectric.se/resultat

Godwits aren't carrying a bunch of fat mammals around.

Try normalizing by mass.

Mass isn't great either, due to scaling laws. Physics simply behaves differently at different scales.

An ant can lift a hundred times its body weight, but if you scale it up to human size it collapses under its own weight and immediately dies.

You can drop an injection moulded plastic toy car a hundred times its height into the ground and it won't even dent. If you make a car frame out of the same materials and with the same techniques it will likely fall apart before it's off the conveyor belt.

If you make a scale model of a planetary, you'll struggle getting it to start spinning around its center of mass through gravitational forces.

This is true, but irrelevant here. The bird is moving much less mass, so it takes less energy per mile traveled. I was trying to point out that if you normalize the energy consumption of a Tesla by the mass it is moving, you get a much more favorable (and sensible) comparison.

a good explainer video for scaling of mass: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f7KSfjv4Oq0

A kilo of tesla cannnot travel a single mile. Half kilo of this bird can travel 7000 miles non stop.

It makes no sense to normalize by weight because it does not scale by weight.

I immediately smelled bullshit in the headline because surely they don't mean non-stop in the literal sense. An animal has to eat! But no, I was wrong, these birds fly 8+ days in a row without sleep or food (or a complete mental breakdown, presumably). Though I do find it odd the article doesn't discuss the food and sleep issue more.

The bird isn't flapping for 8+ days straight, burning calories. They're soaring with their wings locked, more akin to a glider.

With lower energy use, lower food consumption is needed. No animal can actively move their muscles 8+ days straight without refueling.*

*[Citation needed], because nature loves to prove me wrong

"Unlike albatross or other long-flying seabirds, godwits are active flyers, not gliders—their wings are moving the whole time."

The article seems to indicate that they are, in fact, flapping their wings the whole time.

how in the world do their bodies store so much energy?

I came here wondering the same thing.

A random google search turned up this: https://www.birdwatchingdaily.com/news/science/five-bird-spe...

> Researchers have learned that digestive tracts of long-distance migrants work overtime prior to migration. Food intake is increased, and the food is metabolized and stored as fat, which serves as the birds’ flight fuel. Bar-tailed Godwits store fat until it makes up about one half their weight. Then the digestive system shuts down so metabolic energy can be maximized for muscle use.


Yeah, that part I'm not clear on. Some birds do rely mostly on airborne insects for food. Another article I linked in this thread had a note that swifts primarily eat airborne insects and can stay aloft for 10 months at a time.

People might be interesting in some research from NASA about how Birds fly compared to planes and why they are more efficient.

Albion H. Bowers was the Chief Scientist at NASA's Neil A. Armstrong Flight Research Center published some fantastic research:

On Wings of the Minimum Induced Drag: Spanload Implications for Aircraft and Birds


but here are some videos that get the message across:


NASA's Albion H. Bowers - "Why Birds Don't Have Vertical Tails" - AMA EXPO 2014 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RoT2upDbdUg)


"Prandtl Wing Minimum Drag Update" - Al Bowers (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bCwtcDNB15E)


Fly with Birds: Meeting with Albion H. Bowers (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q6oVXPkTnss)

We could massively improve our efficiency by adopting this. Its a shame that we are flying as much as we do and using so much unnecessary fuel.

Lovely. My 2yo child really enjoys correctly identifying the Bar-tailed godwit (along with all the other birds) in this wonderfully illustrated book: https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/what-its-like-to-be-a-bird-978...

So, this title made me smile and think of him :)

Thanks for the recommendation. I think my little one will love this!

I'm constantly astonished by birds. They seem to be the ultimate evolutionary optimisers, which makes sense given their requirements. They seem to be incredibly efficeient with energy, weight and space.

It's not just physical feats like this, but the way some of the the corvids pack incredible brains in a volume and mass significantly less than other non-flying animals with roughly similar levels of intellegence (although I appreciate that cross-species intelligence comparisons are always difficult).

And these are the evolutionary traits that won. It's incredible to me to imagine all the configurations of different traits nature threw at this problem and all the sentience that was lost in the process.

It's things like this that remind you that birds evolved from dinosaurs (in fact, recently birds have been described as just a kind of dinosaur, the only kind to survive the asteroid impact).

When the climate turns against you, efficiency is the one trait that helps you survive with limited resources.

The big heavy dinos didn't have that. Nor did the Neanderthals.

The problem with efficiency is that when you have more than enough resources, you get obese very quickly. Like chickens and modern humans. :)

I've heard the term "non-avian dinosaur" a lot these days.

All animals that survived to this day are the ultimate evolutionary optimisers that is why they still exists.

Evolution isn’t “one and done”, so really most animals that survived today are the current ultimate version of themselves. Some animals are in the middle of evolutionary leaps, and some individuals might have “bad” versions of certain genes are a result.


> males weigh 190–400 g (6.7–14.1 oz), while females weigh 260–630 g (9.2–22.2 oz);

quite efficient, sentient automaton. on the other hand the tracker we built keeps going offline because it needs constant recharging :-)

And the bird has to carry the tracker around. Put a tracker on me for 9000 miles and you’ll get some complaints.

The surprising part is that we have a battery that lasts that long for tracking “in real time” and doesn’t weigh the bird down. How’s that possible?

The article mentions that is solar-powered, but even then how much power could it generate?

The Icarus trackers weigh 5 grams. https://www.icarus.mpg.de/28874/sensor-animals-tracking See the 'technolgy' sub headings in the menu for more info.

The tracking device is solar powered so presumably can get away with a very small battery. They mention in the article that it goes offline at times while the bird is resting because it can be covered by feathers which prevent it from getting enough sunlight.

That said, as if it wasn't impressive enough that Godwits can fly over 8000 miles non-stop, it's even more amazing that they can do it while burdened with a tracking device!

I don't know how much this type of bird weighs, but I imagine 5g for the tracker is a small percentage of its overall weight

4 Kg is only about 5% of the weight of an average adult male. Now imagine that weight tied to different places on your body. On your back it might not be a big issue, but glued to the tip of one finger or maybe tied to one of your toes it could effectively disable or immobilize you.

The weight isn't the whole story, it's how it is placed that matters as well.

It’s a matter of weight ratios, how can a 5oz bird carry a 1lb coconut?

It grasps it by the husk.

Distance of 70 feet or 7,000 miles?

from the link

>The transmission technology will continue to be of great importance, as sensors weighing five grams are still too heavy for many animal species: 70 percent of bird species and 65 percent of mammal species, not to mention amphibians or insects, cannot be equipped with sensors using the current technology. The next generation of Icarus sensors will therefore weigh just one gram.

This is just amazing

And the really bonkers thing about many birds is that the single gram will still be a sizeable fraction of their total body weight. Chickadees and nuthatches (and other birds of that size) weigh somewhere between 10 and 15 grams, usually. Zebra finches are about the same. It'll be a really long time before we can put sensors on those!

According to https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/wildlife-guides/b..., the bar-tailed godwit weighs around 230-450g. So the tracker would add somewhere around 1-2% of its weight.

An African or a European bird?

Not much, but the design of these things is incredible. I spent 20 years managing the operations for the ground processing of this data in North America. We worked closely with the transmitter manufacturers to certify them for use with the system (https://www.argos-system.org).

Microwave Telemetry builds the smallest ones: https://www.microwavetelemetry.com/solar_ptts The design and manufacture of these devices is incredible. The guy behind the company is an incredible engineer (and a nice guy)!

> Since landing in New South Wales, 4BBRW’s tracker has intermittently gone offline, which is common as birds rest because their feathers can cover the solar charging panel.

So surprising you can run a GPS on a solar panel of about 1cm2 (my estimate), see picture in article

There are solar powered wristwatches with GPS.

Article mentions a solar panel on the tracker, which seems positioned to receive charge when the bird is on the wing, because when the bird landed it’s feathers covered it up.

For anyone wanting to fly along with the birds, the movie Winged Migration is truly stunning. It is shot in a very unique way where you really feel as though you're flying with the various birds. (Same director has another great movie called Microcosmos.)


As a human being, I find these feats of navigation and stamina astounding.

Human beings cannot do anything like this.

These birds are awesome.

Still, I find it peculiar and somehow off the mark to contextualise one bird's flight as a "world record".

In the bird's world, these are ordinary events. The only standout feature of that flight is that no human had witnessed and recorded anything more superlative.

It's OK that humans enjoy measuring things and celebrating the longest X or the biggest Y or the fastest Z. As I human, I get that.

What's less OK, and somewhat diminishing of the bird's natural majesty, is that if another bird were to fly 2% slower or less far, humans might shrug their shoulders and ask, so what?

Our ancestors would jog for hours to chase down prey. The prey had to stop to pant to cool down which it couldn't do while running. I don't know how long it would have taken but at least a few hours seems like a reasonable assumption to wear down the animal prey. Although I don't think even our ancestors could jog for 239 hours straight.

I don't recall the title, but I remember a documentary where an African tribe member would slow jog after an animal for about 24 hours before the animal would get exhausted, so a few hours seems on the lower end of the jogging requirements for our ancestors, but am happy to be proven wrong

There's Cliff Young's win in the 875km Westfield Sydney to Melbourne Ultramarathon.

> While the other competitors stopped to sleep for six hours, Young kept running. He ran continuously for five days, taking the lead during the first night and eventually winning by 10 hours


This is the one that I remember watching https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=826HMLoiE_o. Not exactly 24 hours though.

There are regularly 24 hour races and I've done a few myself. 100 miles in 24 hours isn't that hard. The record was just recently set at 192.25 miles (309.4 km):


There are also 48 hr and 7 day races. Sleep is necessary somewhere between those two points, though two guys just went 85 hours with basically no sleep:


That's a race where every hour on the hour you have to complete 4.166 miles. You get as much rest as the balance of your time after you complete a lap till the next hour begins. Most competitors complete a lap in around 48-52 minutes. The race continues until there is only one runner left to complete a lap.

Then we have Cliff Young who ran 875 km in 5 days - at the age of 61.


Humans can effectively run forever if it weren't for needing sleep, or eventually, needing to replace fat stores.

> Previous estimates, when accounting for glycogen depletion, suggest that a human could run at about a 10 minute per mile pace, which allows existing fat stores to be converted to glycogen, forever. The only limit to our eventual mileage, therefore, is our need for sleep. https://nikomccarty.medium.com/how-far-can-humans-run-d5c97f...

Maybe they invented relay too.

You might be thinking of this documentary: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0262452/

Reminds me of the man vs horse races (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Man_versus_Horse_Marathon). Man rarely wins unless the weather is hot.

To be fair, though, horses are uniquely good at endurance compared to almost all other non-primate mammals. They have sweat glands all over their body just like humans do.

what about dogs? They can cover nearly 1,000 miles of rough winter terrain in under 2 weeks, as seen in the iditarod. Or if we're looking at long distance travel in hot environments what about camels? I think this "humans can run down any animal with our endurance" stuff is vastly overblown. We're above average, but hardly the best on earth.

Dogs can't do endurance running in the heat like we can. Cooling is a limitation for most mammals.


Humans vs horses: https://slate.com/culture/2012/06/long-distance-running-and-...

Cheetahs, wolves : https://www.businessinsider.com/how-humans-evolved-to-be-bes...

We're really good at running.

Pretty interesting that all the counter-examples named so far are those that have been domesticated by humans

A human can run down any animal on earth because we're smart, not just because we have amazing endurance.

Animals don't realize that if they just ran 10 miles away they would escape easily. They'll just run far enough away that they can't really see us anymore. Then we find them and chase them again. Eventually they get tired because they sprint away and we conserve our energy.

A horse may be physically capable of running farther than a human, but actually getting them to do that is another thing.

Also the times are relatively close.

The book Born to Run by Christopher McDougall should probably also be mentioned here. It has this theory as one of it's central premises.


> Human beings cannot do anything like this

We're quite good when trained, but the average diet/lifestyle doesn't allow us to come anywhere close to our potential

> Human beings cannot do anything like this.

Yes, and birds are lousy coders. We all have our strengths.

They may be lousy coders, but they're quite good at carrying data as per RFC 1149.

> Human beings cannot do anything like this.

Well, I've flown that far in a day, carrying a couple of suitcases, but it took that bird a week and a half with no luggage.

Also it was not carrying any liquids.

So we're not so different after all.

the breatharian bird

> Well, I've flown that far in a day

To be the nitpick: You have been flown that far in a day. On a species-level perhaps an equally impressive feat, but on an individual level I’m more impressed by the birdie..

If we're going to do accounting on an individual level then a tiny fraction of individuals are responsible for flying everyone else (and their luggage and their mail and...) which is super impressive again.

A human can fly on their own lift provided you accelerate the human fast enough (bricks fly too after all). Not very comfortable though.

Human beings cannot do anything like this.

The most comparable feat of navigation and stamina that humans can do is sailing around the world alone. Some sailors will sleep for no more than 20 minutes at a time scattered throughout the day.

Humans are pretty mind blowing animals too.

About the closest thing I can think of are the Polynesian canoeists who first crossed the vast distances of the Pacific to reach isolated island chains and they must have done that more than once too.

Those guys were some very special people if you ask me.

Human beings the best long distance runners on the planet. I think that's awesome as well ;)

They aren't though, unless you start adding specifically tailored constraints like the run should happen in a very hot place.

A trained horse can cover 100+ miles per day with a rider, a husky can run 100+ miles in a sledge, and they will probably outpace humans. Not to mention that only a tiny fraction of humans can even finish a marathon, which is no big deal for most wolves or horses.

And camels and maybe ostriches will probably outrun us in hot climate as well (but that I didn't check).

A trained human can also run 100+ miles per day. The world record is 309.399 km (191.879 miles) for men [1].

[1]: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/24-hour_run

> Not to mention that only a tiny fraction of humans can even finish a marathon

Depends on the time constraints - I think a large percentage people can finish a marathon within 12 hours, even more if you allow up to 16 hours.

That's walking pace though. Humans probably compare even less favourably to other animals if you open it up to the ability to walk marathon distance.

However, horses are uniquely good at endurance because they have sweat glands all over their body, just like primates do. (And that's of course one of the reasons we domesticated them.) Almost all other mammals fare much worse.

Hmmm that's fair. Well none of these animals have internet and until they do, I'll continue to find humans just as impressive

Unless you let the human have a bicycle.

Amazing that our state of the art technology is a fragile device that can fly for 30 minutes, while this ancient entity can fly nonstop, deriving energy from bugs and water, fly through storms, self repair any damage, has global navigation and local avoidance, and even can self replicate.

It's humbling to realize how far off our technology is in certain areas from competing even with insects.

Let's give the technology 60 million years to be perfected and then compare.

P.S. This aircraft flew from Japan to Hawaii in 118 hours solely powered by solar energy https://www.architecturaldigest.com/story/solar-impulse-2-br...

(n.b. this isn't to dispute the awesomeness of birds.)

Yes, and then they had to replace the batteries that suffered “irreversible damage” and that took several months to fix. These birds just keep on going.

Self-replication helps a lot. Birds suffer irreversible damage all the time. They just spam the world with more birds to replace the dead ones.

Unless they hit one of our earlier attempts to survive long enough to be as good as birds. I hope new wind farms are built with awareness of bird migration in mind.


I'm sure the bird started the trip with a full stomach, so that it had the fuel not only to power itself but also to repair itself in flight.

> Let's give the technology 60 million years to be perfected and then compare.

Your point being?

I mean, it’s pretty clear what the point is. That we are comparing a few decades of work with what is essentially millenias worth of evolutions.

Of course our technology is going to lose, it’s nowhere near as mature as nature’s.

I really don’t get the point of that comment, that was a genuine question.

Technology will never replace nature, only augment. People who think wrongly will be the destroyers of nature.

I am so glad to hear this statement from someone else. You put into words a feeling that I have have struggled to express properly.

A lot of folks look at the narrow window of time of their life as evidence for very broad-sweeping claims and frankly, I find that to be very arrogant, short-sighted, and frightening. A lot of people with this kind of mindset are now in high-power positions and making decisions that we have yet to see the repercussions for, with the short-term results they can show as evidence of their success and no concern for the long-terms effects.

My favourite is when they suggest replacing bees with miniature quadcopters for pollenation.

I'd go a step further and say that technology is nature. Humans just represent another way for nature to enhance the permutation of new possibilities. For thousands of years, we acted like the animal analogue to the fungal mattes that had terraformed the continental landmasses to become livable by plants hundreds of millions of years ago.

Everywhere we went, we planted intricately organised forests of different plant species that then aided an enhanced biodiversity of the fauna too. It's only recently in our history that humans have turned from a proliferator of biodiversity to a poison for it.

Humans have always been a disaster for the environment they move into. We drove mammoths to extinction over 10,000 years ago. Australia used to have large numbers of megafauna species which the aborigines killed off tens of thousands of years ago. Humans would use fire to burn their prey out of hiding (and destroying their habitat in the process), then just move off to the next habitat once everything was burned up.

Humans being a destructive force to the ecosystems we depend on is definitely not a new thing.

That humans had a major role in the extinction of wooly mammoths is likely correct.

However this cannot be said for the megafauna in Australia: https://theconversation.com/aboriginal-australians-co-existe...

Our propensity to blame past extinctions on humans often has more to do with projecting our own civilisation's tendancies at destruction than some immutable fact about human nature.

Mammoths also tended to live in areas of relatively low biodiversity such as the artic and tundra anyway so this does not contradict my point that historically humans have caused increases in the biodiversity in their local ecologies.

There is substantial evidence that the Amazon rainforest for instance was at least in part cultivated: https://www.voanews.com/a/amazon-rainforest-ancient-people-c...

Where are all the horses augmented by technology doing the plowing?

Well we are destroying nature. And don't forget the whole "sustainable agriculture" movement, and recent attentions brought to how plowing degrades soil, etc.

(Just responding to your point; not claiming the parent is right or wrong.)

Is this a trick question? The horse does not naturally have a plough attached, as far as I am aware.

I think in your scenario we’re augmenting humans, not horses.

The plough was meant to augment the nature of the soil, not the horse.

The plough turns out to mine the soil, not augment it.


I once read this bit and your comment reminds me of it: "As life, cockroaches absolutely suck, but as technology they excel".

Though to be fair to technology, it's amazing how it can track a bird 8000 miles on just solar power, giving us a view of the world no other bird will ever really have at the moment.

Building small robots is a pain. The commercially available actuators are huge and not very powerful if they don't come with a gearbox.

That's not the reason they're a pain. They are a pain because friction doesn't scale down nicely.

Biology is basically alien technology that we've been studying but can't figure out how it works.

Nature is the most advanced technology there is. This is why it's such a shame that climate change leads to destroyed habitats and lost species. We'll never know what ingenious solutions nature cooked up in some obscure extinct species.

How does the tracking work? So the birds are carrying a GPS chip? How is the location transmitted back to the researchers? - they are over the pacific for most of the flight

Not GPS - the locations are derived from measuring doppler shift over a handful of messages. If you know where the spacecraft is, you can derive the location of the transmitter. On a good day you can get 100-400m accuracy. Not close to GPS, but good enough for tracking animals. I managed the North American data center for www.argos-system.org for many years.

Yes it carries a GPS receiver and transmits to a satellite periodically. Most of the time, most of the tracker package is turned off. It only weighs 5 grams.

Incredible navigation skills too, though not quite "perfect" the paths seem to have occasionally some fairly large deviations

Nature's benchmarks for economy of resources are still so very far ahead from anything human made

Looks like after to Fiji it wanted to go to New Zealand and decided mid flight to go to Australia :)

Probably because of New Zealand closing airspace due to COVID.

Could deviations be weather driven as well?

could be, but it seems the correction signal only kicks in once there is a threshold discrepancy. I guess studying many such tracks could give some hints and correlated with what is known about the physiology of how these birds orient.

The waves down there didn't look familiar, so the bird decided to go back a little.

or maybe there was something in the air that didn't quite feel right :-)

At an avg speed of 34.9 mph, or 54.2 km/h. Impressive!

Laden or unladen?

Gonna have to lean towards laden as the bird was carrying a tracker.

Weighing 5 grams.

That beats a coconut by a factor of 200.

I don’t see how this is relevant considering the bird is neither European or African and didn’t stop in either continent during its migration.

Sorry this isn’t the argument department.

Yes it is.

This is not a argument, this is just contradiction.

Well, that was faster than my last shipment.

Next time I'll send through a pigeon.

Wait a second, how sure are we that the bird was not chillin on cargo ship?

Unless it was an aircraft carrier, unlikely.

The bird's average speed is 33 mph (29 knots). Cargo vessels tend to cruise at about 18-25 knots, and many move more slowly.

There's little direct traffic between Alaska and Australia. Shipping lines are visible through their emissions trails, as in this Nullschool link showing NO2 concentrations, from May of this year. The long lines are shipping lanes. You'll note these from Panama to New Zealand, tracking along the Western US coast and Alaska along the Great Circle route to Japan and China, and past Papua New Guinea, among other notable routes:


The data recorders would also likely note any marked variations in travel speed or direction. Again, ships tend not to cover the routes flown by Godwits.

Daily Mail seems to have covered a similar journey by this species last year, albeit slightly slower: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-8835459/Jet-fighter...

Still I wouldn’t have known about either without the HN-posted article.

Is a Scolopacidae. This means that can't feed in the air and makes the voyage even more impressive. We have two similar species in Europe.

Just WOW! I am very fascinated by how nature has perfected it, in some aspects.

Yeah the design doesn't even seem like a gliding type eg. albatross or something. 10 days, what is its metabolism like.

The article says they don’t glide, they are actively flying the whole time. That is mind boggling.

Don’t they need sleep?

How do they know to start on the exact same day every year? Fly to the exact same place?

I am a bit jealous of the scientists who get to work with such amazing creatures :)

I think I read something about some birds being able to sleep with only one hemisphere of their brain at a time, similar to dolphins. The common swift often spends months at a time without touching ground.

And lots of birds perform marvelous feats of long-range navigation, storks, for example, travel thousands of kilometers each year to return to their nest for breeding.

They are amazing creatures.

I would suppose that they don’t “know” they just feel compelled.

There are dragon flies that migrate from India to Africa. It takes three generations to complete the round trip. So how do they know? It must be just a feeling.

I guess that a long time ago when India and Aftrica were adjacent parts of Gondwana land, the migration must have been quite short. But as the continents drifted apart the dragoon flies had to adapt to the longer route.

Isn't it the same with Monarch Butterflies, they make the trip from Canada to Mexico and it also includes a few breeding cycles.

It is still possible to be knowledge that is passed on from generation to generation one way or another.

Pure guess, but maybe they recognise position of stars in the sky? that could provide both calendrical and navigational utility

What type of tracking tech would they be using? Satellite uplink?

There's an excellent episode of In Our Time from the BBC about bird migrations - absolutely fascinating stuff - https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08wmk5j

What do they eat and drink during that time?

They don't, they burn fat and muscles during the flight and lose a lot of body mass.

Birds don't sweat, so they needn't drink as much as us.

Tangent: monarch butterflies routinely fly across the Atlantic Ocean, which (given their relatively tiny size and fragility) strikes me as an equivalent feat.

I wonder if their size is not an advantage: if they start high enough they can basically be pushed by the winds with a very limited effort.

Nothing scientific here, just a casual comment.

They have a different extreme low-density advantage that they only need to stay up, and the wind blows them over.


I know this isn't an insightful comment, but


Pretty rad that the bird flies so far that it has names in languages as far apart (geographically) as Russian, Yupiq, Inuit, and te reo Māori.

How would have evolution figured out this path/route? Also any reason why this long trip is made instead of flying to say California?

Probably gradual optimizations in flying from Alaska, thru the Aleutian islands, to Kamchatka Russia, to Japan, to Korea, to China, to Taiwan, to the Philippines, to Indonesia, to Australia.

In fact, going directly over the Pacific is only maybe ~30% shorter.

Cost of living is too high there now.

Lots of people trying to compare our 10k-year old technology (200 years if we talk about machines, even less if we talk about robots) with something that evolved basically with billions of trial/errors in millions of years.

At this point we should check which animal can travel as fast as a shuttle and go back and forth to the moon.

Is that a trick question: because humans are animals?!

Am I the only one trying to wrap my head around the energy storage and sleep patterns of this bird?

Frigate birds power nap [0] so they can stay aloft for weeks, and other birds have been seen to sleep with half their brain at a time [1].

Pretty cool stuff! Have to wonder when this evolved, and whether it could be mimicked.

0: https://www.audubon.org/news/scientists-finally-have-evidenc...

1: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unihemispheric_slow-wave_sle...

they are just switching between parts of brain, essentially running autopilot, sharks do same, soe it's not really THAT impressive for bird to stay in flight for extended periods, 10 days is nothing spectacular

What's the record here? For instance swifts can fly for 10+ months without landing.

I just looked that up, very impressive:

> “They feed in the air, they mate in the air, they get nest material in the air,” [0]

> "They can land on nest boxes, branches, or houses, but they can’t really land on the ground.” That's because their wings are too long and their legs are too short to take off from a flat surface.

[0] https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/article/swift-bir...

No it's the Swift. The albatross does land on water, so that's why the article states: without touching land...

Water isn't land though, is it?

That somewhat depends on precisely how cold the water in question is.

Hehe, good point. But for me 'land' means soil, though I'll take landing on an ice floe or the North Pole as land for the purposes of this discussion. I'm not sure how far North/South the Albatros' habitat extends, but it wouldn't surprise me at all if they went there too.

Curious about how / when they sleep

they sleep during flight, I think some/many fish/birds can switch off parts of brain to be esentially sleeping while autopilot works, sharks for instance, I guess for lowly humans closest comparison would be sleep walking

It may be the longest distance recorded for a continual flight by any land bird, but it's not an extraordinary performance.

For instance, common swifts can flight continuously for months. They obviously accumulate a huge distance during this time, even when they're not migrating. They live in Eurasia, from Lisbon to Vladivostok. And they winter in Africa, south of Congo. I think Vladivostok-Harare is a longer trip than Alaska-Australia, but it's probably hard to put sensors on small birds during their migration.

Came here to say something similar. Common swifts are amazing. Quoting Wikipedia:

> Except when nesting, swifts spend their lives in the air, living on the insects caught in flight; they drink, feed, and often mate and sleep on the wing. Some individuals go 10 months without landing. No other bird spends as much of its life in flight. Contrary to common belief, swifts can take flight from level ground. Their maximum horizontal flying speed is 111.6 km/h. Over a lifetime they can cover millions of kilometers.

I'm guessing it's being called extraordinary, because the godwits are flapping continually rather than gliding to take a break, from article:

Unlike albatross or other long-flying seabirds, godwits are active flyers, not gliders—their wings are moving the whole time. “It just beggars belief, really,” Riegen says. “I mean, though I've known that for decades now, I still find it hard to imagine how anything can keep up that sort of effort 24-hours a day, without taking a break.”

Of course, the heart is a muscle many animals possess, that never rests.

Not gliding any/much is amazing.

Animal equivalent of ultramarathons. Only difference between animals and human athletes being that animals are doing it on daily basis without trying to beat records or win something.

I am not sure about these birds but some migrating birds reduce their brain sizes significantly during these trips. This saves a lot of energy.

> setting the world record for the longest continual flight by any __land bird__ by distance

What do they mean by land bird?

Sea birds can fly for longer. For instance an albatross.

One that does not land on water.

As opposed to air birds

I imagine compared to water birds, such as seagulls.

How did they make sure it didn't rest on a a ship or something?

“Bar-tailed Godwit” sounds like a Shakespearean insult

Got sick of the kite surfers in NZ and moved to Australia?

There is also nice "oh shit, wrong way" squiggle after Fiji.

This is fascinating. Thanks for the link to read.

from Alaska to New Zealand, as the crow flies, how does one "stopover" in Australia?

By making a detour from the most direct route. Is this a trick question?

mcenedella from TheLadders?

Meta: The title of this post was different earlier this morning. The change doesn't quite conform to the rules, using a subtitle(?) rather than the actual title. But more interestingly, the bizarre bird name and lack of context actually makes it seem more clickbait-y, not less. Perhaps a title change striving to follow the letter of the law but not the spirit of it?

Caveat: I'm not arguing for another change or passing judgment. I just thought the change itself was notable. And bird names are ridiculous.

We often switch to subtitles when they're less baity. It's a legit source for an HN title. In this case I'd say it's far less baity than "These Mighty Shorebirds Keep Breaking Flight Records—And You Can Follow Along", which is kind of embarrassing.

I agree with you that "bar-tailed godwit" is an invitation to dumb internet jokes (a couple popped into my mind as soon as I saw that), but so far the thread is mercifully free of them.

p.s. Here's a past explanation about all this, with links to others: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=22932244.

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