Every year here on Londolozi, something quite incredible happens. A small bird of prey, the weight of the average banana, sets off from our reserve and begins its migration away from their winter feeding areas, all the way to north-eastern China, where they will begin to breed towards the end of May. The Amur Falcon (Falco amurensis) is a trans-equatorial migrant (crossing the equator) and has one of the longest migratory routes of any raptor in the world. It also happens to be my favourite bird.
As most of these raptors have slowly started their long trip back to their breeding grounds in China, I thought I would shed some light on the journey that awaits these phenomenal birds of prey.
The Amur Falcon takes one of the longest migratory flights of any Londolozi bird of prey, from the reserve (which is only one of the many places in Southern Africa that you can find them), they fly +/- 15 000km (9300 miles) to a few hundred kilometers outside of Beijing in China. Just to put things into perspective on how far this actually is, you would need to take 4 different flights leaving from Londolozi, and then a 10-hour bus transfer from Beijing to get to where they are known to settle for their breeding season.
Initially their migration away from us is relatively slow; this could be that they are stopping multiple times to feed and roost for the evening to build strength for the mammoth task that lies ahead. After moving through Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Zambia, Malawi and Kenya, they will stop for a prolonged time in Somalia (the horn of Africa) for two reasons. Presumably to build up fat reserves before trying to cross the ocean between Africa and India and secondly to wait for favourable winds which will help them across the waterbody. The falcons will take advantage of strong summer winds, usually the tail-winds from monsoons that occur from May to September. These winds will assist them all the way to the coast of India.
This stage of their migration is the most amazing for me; an Amur Falcon will leave the east coast of Africa and fly non-stop, covering almost 3000km over the Indian Ocean in roughly 60 hours. Imagine leaving work on a Friday at lunch time, enjoying your whole weekend and then when you arrive back at work on Monday morning, this tiny Falcon has been flying the whole time, non-stop. I’m not sure about you but I struggle to wrap my head around that.
After reaching mainland India, the birds seems to head steadily north and east towards their breeding grounds in China. On average the total migration is just shy of 15 000 km and will take each bird about 2 months.
As with most wilderness spectacles, I’m left asking myself a lot of questions; which Falcon was the first to figure out how to use the winds to help it cross the ocean? Is this purely instinct or is it learned behaviour, or maybe a bit of both? Sadly we might never get the answers to these types of questions. Although I did find an interesting theory to one of the questions I was wondering about: how can one of these birds go for such a prolonged period of time without rest? A researcher thinks that perhaps theirs brains can function – like Dolphins – somewhat autonomously in which the brain halves sleep alternatively. An interesting theory that makes a lot of sense.
For now though I’ll have to wait until November to see these remarkable birds again, although it would not matter in the slightest to them, I am left somewhat jealous on the adventure that awaits each bird on their return to China, a hop, skip, four flights and a bus journey away.