Arctic Tern Smashes Record For Longest Migration Ever By Flying 96,000 Kilometers

Arctic tern in the Farne Islands
The plucky little birds do the whole trip in a single year. Attila JANDI/Shutterstock

The astonishing migration of the tiny Arctic tern has just set an incredible new record. While it has long been known that the sea birds make the titanic trip from the northern hemisphere to the southern, and back again every year, new data from birds traced from the north of England have just smashed the record for the total distance flown. Researchers have found some birds flying a monumental 96,000 kilometers (60,000 miles) on a round trip.

The researchers tracked the birds flying from the Farne Islands in northeastern England, down the west coast of Africa, across the Indian Ocean, making land fall in Antarctica, and then following the coast to finally make it to the Weddell Sea, before turning around and coming back again just in time for their breeding season. This means that in total they flew for 96,000 kilometers (60,000 miles), beating the previous record set by a bird tracked from the Netherlands by 5,000 kilometers (3,100 miles). And all this by a bird weighing just 100 grams (3.5 ounces).


“It’s really quite humbling to see these tiny birds return when you consider the huge distances they’ve had to travel and how they’ve battled to survive,” explains Dr. Richard Bevan of Newcastle University’s School of Biology. “Further analysis of the data from these trackers will allow us to get a better understanding of how the Arctic Terns organize their migration and how global climate change may affect their routes.”

The Farne Islands off the coast of Northumbria are home to tens of thousands of breed pairs of sea birds. Attila JANDI/Shutterstock

The research was carried out by scientists at the University of Newcastle, for the BBC program Spring Watch, which charts the fortunes of native British wildlife. Last year, the researchers tagged 29 birds with geolocators in the Farne Islands, and then waited with baited breath for their return. So far, they managed to catch 16 of the tagged birds, which have given up their epic migratory secrets, but four others with their geolocators still attached have been spotted, which will add even more data.

The Farne Islands, located off the coast of Northumberland in northern England, are a vitally important site for sea birds. In addition to the 2,000 pairs of Arctic terns that breed there, it also hosts around 23 other species of sea birds, and in incredible numbers. Over 87,000 pairs of birds laid their eggs there last year, including 50,000 pairs of guillemots and 35,000 pairs of puffins, all crowded onto the spits of rock that jut out of the ocean. In addition to the birds that take advantage of the productive North Sea, more than 1,000 gray seal pups are also born there each year.


For those in the UK, Spring Watch broadcasts on BBC 2 at 8 p.m. local time every weekday evening until June 16. The little birds' amazing story will be broadcast tonight, or you can catch up on BBC iPlayer, to see the story in full.


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