Nature Blows My Mind! The 6 Longest Bird Migrations

Flocks of birds in the sky
credit: Miguel Vieira

This winter I've been watching the many interesting species of birds that use the Pacific Flyway to make their seasonal migration. In fact, it's been shocking to see the huge diversity of species that pass through. It got me thinking about just how far some species are willing to fly each and every year. We know that many species of birds make amazing long-distance migrations, but for some species, the mileage they travel every year is staggering. In fact, the record-holder flies the equivalent of three trips to the moon and back over the span of its lifetime. Check out the six longest migrations of birds on the following pages; plus, find out which unexpected species made the world's longest non-stop flight.

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Sooty Shearwater (40,000 Miles)

credit: JJ Harrison

Sooty Shearwaters travel an incredible distance each year, logging as much as 40,000 miles as they travel their circular route from their breeding colonies in the Falkland Islands in the spring to Arctic waters to feed throughout the summer, and back down to the breeding grounds in the fall. They are regular globe trotters, moving from southern to northern hemispheres and covering as much as 310 miles a day. The Sooty Shearwater was once the record-holder for the longest migration for a bird, but that record was overthrown recently by another featured in this slideshow.

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Pied Wheatear (11,184 miles)

You don't have to be big to travel far, as the Pied Wheatear proves. This small insect-eating bird travels from the extreme southeast of Europe to China, wintering in India and northeastern Africa. Moving from breeding grounds to wintering grounds and back means one bird may travel more than 11,000 miles in a year.

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Pectoral Sandpiper (18,000 miles)

credit: Andreas Trepte

For some of us it's hard to imagine driving our car 18,000 miles in a year, so just imagine flying that distance in the average course of annual life. The Pectoral Sandpiper travels from breeding grounds in the tundra of northeast Asia or Alaska and central Canada, all the way down to wintering grounds in South America, with some of the Asian breeders going as far as Australia and even New Zealand.

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Short-tailed Shearwater (27,000 miles)

credit: JJ Harrison

Another shearwater with an affinity for travel is the Short-tailed Shearwater, though it doesn't travel as far as its cousin. The Short-tailed Shearwater travels the Pacific every year, moving from breeding grounds in Australia in the austral winter up to the Aleutian Islands and Kamchatka in the far north, then traveling back down the western coast of North America before crossing over to Australia to begin its next breeding season. This loop of the Pacific means flying some 27,000 miles annually!

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Northern Wheatear (18,000 miles)

credit: Aviceda

The tiny Northern Wheatear, which weighs about as much as two spoonfuls of salt, travels across 9,000 miles of open ocean, ice, and desert to move between its breeding grounds and wintering grounds, making an annual migration of 18,000 miles. This species spends the spring in the north, ranging from northern and central Asia to Europe, Greenland, Alaska, and even parts of Canada. It then travels all the way to Sub-Saharan Africa for the winter. Just imagine this tiny bird crossing the open ocean! It is the longest known migration for a songbird. But this isn't the record-holder for longest migration of any bird; that bird is revealed in the next slide.

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Arctic Tern (44,000 miles )

credit: LindsayRs

And now for the record-holder: In 2010, researchers discovered that the Arctic tern travels twice the distance previously thought, traveling an average of 44,000 miles per year. That gives it the longest migration of any bird in the world. The Arctic tern travels from Greenland in the Arctic north all the way down to the Weddell Sea in Antarctica. Its migration takes it from pole to pole as it travels from breeding grounds to feeding grounds and back. Mind-blowing! And now, find out which bird made the longest flight without once stopping to rest, eat or drink...

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Longest Nonstop Flight Ever Recorded: Bar-tailed Godwit (7,145 miles)

credit: Andreas Trepte

Many species travel amazing distances over the course of a season, but what about in a single flight? The longest nonstop flight for a bird ever recorded was taken by a Bar-tailed Godwit, a migrating wader bird. This bird flew 7,145 miles from Alaska to New Zealand in nine days, without ever once stopping for food, water or to rest. Talk about endurance! While the species makes an annual migration from Alaska to New Zealand and back, researchers had no idea that they could make such long flights without stopping. In an article on National Geographic, Phil Battley of New Zealand's Massey University, who took part in the study tracking this species, states: "The prospect of a bird flying all the way across the Pacific was so much further than what we thought possible, it seemed ludicrous." Here is what their migration route looks like according to satellite tagging by researchers.