Migrating swans profit from favourable changes in wind conditions at low altitude

M.R.J. Klaassen, J.H. Beekman, J. Kontiokorpi, R.J.W. Mulder, B.A. Nolet

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    Because energy reserves limit flight range, wind assistance may be of crucial importance for migratory birds. We tracked eight Bewicks swans Cygnus columbianus bewickii, using 95-g satellite transmitters with altimeters and activity sensors, during their spring migration from Denmark to northern Russia in 1996. During the 82 occasions where a swans location was recorded in flight, average flight altitude was 165 m a.s.l. with a maximum of 759 m a.s.l., despite winds often being more favourable at higher altitudes. We also counted Bewicks swans departing from the Gulf of Finland and subsequently passing an observatory in the next major stop-over area 800 km further north in the White Sea, northern Russia, during the springs of 1994, 1995 and 1996. A comparison of these counts with wind data provided evidence for Bewicks swans using favourable changes in wind conditions to embark on migration. Changes in the numbers of birds arriving in the White Sea correlated best with favourable changes in winds in the Gulf of Finland 1 day earlier. Again, migratory volume showed a correlation with winds at low altitudes only, despite wind conditions for the swans being more favourable at high altitudes. We conclude that the relatively large Bewicks swan tends to gear its migration to wind conditions at low altitude only. We argue that Bewicks swans do not climb to high altitudes because of mechanical and physiological limitations with respect to the generation of power for flight and to avoid rapid dehydration. [KEYWORDS: Bewicks swan ; Cygnus columbianus bewickii ; Migration ; Flight altitude ;Tailwind vector ; Satellite transmitters]
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)142-151
    JournalJournal of Ornithology
    Issue number2
    Publication statusPublished - 2004


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