British birds’ long-distance feats and longevity are revealed

Flying around the world may have become an unappealing prospect or a distant dream for most people during the coronavirus crisis.

If you are a Manx shearwater, however, there is no limit to your long-distance travel, and one of these small seabirds from the Hebridean isle of Rum was last year clocked journeying more than 7,564 miles from its Scottish breeding colony to the seaside resort of Las Grutas in Argentina.

An arctic skua from Scotland flew to Brazil – a straight line of 6,845 miles – while a swallow covered at least 6,400 to reach South Africa. A sanderling and a sandwich tern also made journeys of a similar length from Britain to South Africa.


The records were collected thanks to uniquely numbered rings fitted by volunteers to more than 1 million birds in Britain during 2019, enabling individuals to be identified for the rest of their lives.

The records, collected by the British Trust for Ornithology, provide insights into the remarkable migrations of birds but also the human and climatic pressures they face – and their longevity.

Several species set new age records in 2019, including a fulmar humanely caught on Scotland’s Sanda Island found to have a ring that was placed around its leg 41 years, 11 months and 17 days earlier. A siskin captured and ring-checked near the village of Tarbet in Argyll and Bute was found to have been ringed at the same site in 2010, making it the oldest known individual of its species.

A 50-year-old Manx shearwater caught by a ringer on Bardsey Island in Wales in 2008 holds the record as the longest-living wild bird in Britain after being ringed on the same small island in 1957.

A fulmar glides towards cliffs at Rathlin Island, Northern Ireland

“Without fitting birds with uniquely numbered rings and monitoring their nests we wouldn’t be able to follow their lives and our knowledge of them would be much poorer,” said Rob Robinson of the BTO.

“The data gathered by our fantastic volunteers help us to determine whether species are in trouble and, if they are, at what point of the lifecycle the problems are occurring.”

A blackcap

Of 1,047,521 ringed birds, the most-ringed species was the blue tit, not known for its epic migrations. Second was the blackcap, traditionally a summer migrant which is now increasingly seen during winter because of global heating and the lure of garden bird feeders.


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