Remarkable travels of migratory birds

Article | Updated 7 years ago

Christmas Island
Christmas Island
R. Johnstone

Some migratory birds are able to travel thousands kilometres. In this audio our curator of Birds, Ron Johnstone, explains how scientists were able to study birds that migrate from Indonesia to Australia, and often further. 


Further Information

Researchers at the University of Oldenburg in Germany have shown that electromagnetic noise emitted by human devices is affecting birds' ability to sense the Earth's magnetic field. Find out more in the Nature videoLost in migration”, 8 May 2014.

Look up to the sky and you might see birds flying in a 'V' formation. How and why are birds doing that? Discover more in the Nature videoCome fly with me”, 16 January 2014.


We’ve seen huge numbers of what we call Palearctic migrants coming down from the northern hemisphere, and these are birds, with new techniques now with geo-locators and satellite trackers and so on [we know] just travel remarkable distances, so they are leaving their breeding grounds in Northern Siberia, right across to Alaska and all of that far northern tundra and then traveling, you know, distances of up to eleven thousands kilometres, pretty well non-stop, some of them - the bigger ones are non-stop, and they can actually shrink their stomach that built up all these fat reserves and they burn up all this body fat in these remarkable journeys, and we’re are able to – we have all sorts of records… I had some come in the other day actually of a particularly bird going back the other way. They arrived down here in Western Australia and particularly in places like the 80 Mile Beach, which is now part of JAMBA and CAMBA these are International Agreements of Australia has with Japan and China on migratory birds, in their millions, virtually, every year - their numbers are – that’s one of the things that’s became fairly evident to us: the numbers are declining because of massive clearing of Yellow Sea for development so, with some of the species like Great Knots and so on, their numbers are certainly diminishing. But some of them carry on, once they’ve hit Northern Australia some of them carry on right through to New Zealand, but the fact that we know now there is often non-stop movements [is] quite exceptional. So we have all of these non-breeding birds that are pouring down, and a lot of them just carry on once they’ve hit that Kimberley coast, places like The 80 Mile beach and places like Lesley Salt in the Pilbara, a lot of them carry on down to southern parts of Australia, but a big, large numbers, in fact some millions, remain there to feed up during the non-breeding season and fatten up for the return, the return trips, but then we also have quite a number of our sea birds, like Bridled Terns for example, that come down from the seas around the Philippines and Celebes and so on, and breed here on islands like Rottnest and Penguin Island and all of our little coastal islands, and then in March they take off, they head back north again to get out for our winter and we have quite a number of banding recoveries of those, in fact of the Bridled Tern – I’ve banded six hundred over a ten year period catching them by hand and most of my band returns are from people in Indonesia who couldn’t read, write or speak English but they listened to radio Australia, the Indonesian service and were able to take the bands into the radio officer or send them in and we got all of those recoveries back, so we were able to pin point exactly where our birds were wintering, so it’s often very important not only to preserve the birds in their breeding grounds here but also their wintering grounds in the northern hemisphere. But I think the thing that has also been greatly overlooked in WA is the massive movement of our land birds, you know, during the winter now, for example, huge numbers of Western Australian birds get out of the deep South West where, you know, aerial insects become pretty scarce, so you have things like all of our Bee-Eaters - Rainbow Bee-Eaters - move right up through to Indonesia - some stay over a bit in the Kimberley, but a lot of them, you know, thousands go through to Indonesia. Our Sacred Kingfishers in huge flocks - and our work in Indonesia has highlighted this because we have been able to not only collect birds and match them up with WA birds, but see these big movements of flocks across the Kimberley islands, across the Timor Sea and into the Lesser Sunders. But our Tree Martins, a lot of our Cuckoos, even things like Black Faced Cuckoo Shrikes and Magpie Larks take off and make those crossings. So there’s a lot more movement of land birds between Western Australia and Indonesia than people previously, you know, had thought.