Wheee! Bird takes 1,000km spin through typhoon

A seabird fitted with a tracking device has been observed zipping around a typhoon 5 times, covering a distance of more than 1,000km in 11 hours.

The streaked shearwater (Calonectris leucomelas) usually flies at about 10-60km/h, at altitudes under 100m.

But this shearwater clocked speeds of 90-170km/h and heights of more than 4,700m above sea level during its typhoon ordeal.

Dr Kozue Shiomi, a seabird biologist at Tohoku University, Japan, observed the joyride in September 2019. She’s published her account in Ecology.

In late August 2019, Shiomi attached GPS tracking devices to 14 streaked shearwaters to study their homing behaviour.

A couple of weeks later, on 5 September, the super-strong Typhoon Faxai formed. With record-breaking windspeeds of 213km/h, making it one of the strongest typhoons ever to hit Japan.

Most of the shearwaters avoided the typhoon but one appeared to fly right in the middle, with 5 anticlockwise circles of 50-80km in diameter.

The seabird stayed in the typhoon as it made landfall, only leaving once the typhoon changed direction and headed back into the Pacific Ocean.

After 11 hours and 1,146km traversed, the bird landed back on the ocean. There, it stayed for 5 hours – resting and waiting out the storm, suggests Shiomi – before heading off to forage.

“It remains unknown whether the bird could not or chose not to escape from the typhoon,” writes Shiomi in her paper.

“Once caught in the storm and displaced toward land, it might have been safer to stay within the storm rather than to resist it until it returned to the ocean with reduced wind speeds.

“This speculation was supported by the fact that the bird landed on the water as soon as it returned to the sea.”

Ocean-foraging shearwaters prefer low-flying altitudes, but they’re vulnerable and uncomfortable on land.

Shiomi points out in the paper that climate change is causing more intense storms.

“While this particular bird survived the unfavourable weather event, streaked shearwaters, especially juveniles, are often found to fall inland and weaken after the occurrence of typhoons or disturbed weather with stronger winds,” Shiomi writes.

“The present study appears to demonstrate an example of behaviour of seabirds at the extreme edge between failure and success of survival during a storm.

“Further accumulation of such data would contribute toward an understanding of whether and how seabirds manage to survive frequent but irregular weather events.”

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