A typhoon took a shearwater bird on an epic journey when it swept up the bird, beginning an 11-hour journey that saw the bird complete five full circular loops. Tracking data revealed that the unfortunate male reached speeds of 90 to 170 kilometers per hour (55.2 to 105.6 miles per hour) soaring to an altitude of 4,700 meters (15,400 feet).
Shearwater birds typically fly at very low altitudes, cruising above the ocean at speeds of around 10 to 60 km/h (6.2 to 37.3 mph), rarely topping 100 meters (328 feet) above the sea’s surface. However, that all changed one very fateful day for a male shearwater that had been tagged by scientists.
While most seabirds tend to avoid storms, an unlucky male got swept up by Typhoon Faxai, a beast that barreled into southeastern Japan with windspeeds of almost 200 km/h (124.3 mph). Over the next 11 hours, the bird would complete five loops of the typhoon that was about 50 to 80 kilometers (31 to 50 miles) in diameter, traveling a total distance of 1,146 kilometers (712 miles).
Perhaps the most shocking statistic is that the shearwater burst through its typical flying altitude of 100 meters to almost 5,000 (16,400 feet). For some seabirds, this is a tactic they use to avoid passing storms. Red-footed boobies and great frigatebirds are two species that employ this approach, ascending so high that the storm passes underneath them.
Pelicans take a more grounded approach, refusing to fly until the storm has passed by. Other pelagic birds take a more hands-on approach, flying toward the eye of the cyclone. Research has found that shearwaters do this, possibly as a way of avoiding risky wind vectors that could sweep them onshore, but if that’s what our male was going for – it didn’t work out too well.
The tracking data showed that he was carried over mainland Japan before Typhoon Faxai swung back into the Pacific Ocean. In a release, the Ecological Society of America suggests it's possible that this may explain why the bird stayed in the storm for so long. While impossible to know for certain, the bird may have been able to escape but decided to ride it out until the typhoon was back over water again.
It sounds insane to us ground-dwelling mammals but flying low over land can be a dangerous place. Everything from buildings to powerlines and vehicles represents a strike risk, and if they end up on the ground they are vulnerable to predation.
A lucky escape for our shearwater then, but its extraordinary journey may become less unusual for birds under the changing climate. It’s projected that powerful storms are going to become more frequent on a warming planet, raising questions about their limits to ride out the storm.
The study is published in Ecology.