Small wheatear on the move at high altitudes

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The wheatear weighs only a few dozen grams, but can cover its 4500-kilometer mig
The wheatear weighs only a few dozen grams, but can cover its 4500-kilometer migration route in 80 hours of flight. To do this, it is on the move for about a month. Recent data now show that some individuals can ascend to over 5000 meters to fly over seas and deserts. Photo Markus Varesvuo
Even though the summer is still in progress - for many birds the migration to the African winter quarters has already begun. Among them is the wheatear, which breeds in mountainous areas. On its 4500-kilometer journey, which takes about 30 days, the small bird can climb to an altitude of more than 5000 meters. This is shown by a new study of the ornithological station.

Sempach. - An important basis for the protection and conservation of migratory birds is knowledge about where the birds stay during the year. Thanks to novel geolocators that measure atmospheric pressure, researchers studying the wheatear have now learned more about its migratory behavior and the resting areas it uses. The recorders also revealed astonishing facts about the adaptability of this mountain bird to the high mountains.

Geolocators weigh little more than a gram and therefore open up new opportunities to study the life cycle of "lightweights" among birds such as the wheatear. On their way to the Sahel region of Africa, wheatears apparently make short stopovers on the Mediterranean islands and a longer rest to "refuel" in the heights of the Atlas Mountains. They are mainly on the move at night and at altitudes that vary between 2000 and 4000 meters. The maximum altitude recorded was 5150 meters: a mature performance for a bird weighing only 25 grams.

Furthermore, the study of local movements in the breeding area revealed an unexpected behavior: In order to cope with the difficult conditions in the high mountains when returning in spring, Wheatears fly to the valley during the day to forage during snowfalls and then back to the mountains.

Rime, Y., Nussbaumer, R., Briedis, M., Sander, M. M., Chamberlain, D., Amrhein, V., Helm, B., Liechti, F. & Meier, C. M. (2023). Multi-sensor geolocators unveil global and local movements in an Alpine-breeding long-distance migrant. Movement Ecology, 11:19.­’023 -00381-6 .