Negotiating an ecological barrier: crossing the Sahara in relation to winds by common swifts

Åkesson, S., Bianco, G. & Hedenström, A. (2016). Negotiating an ecological barrier: crossing the Sahara in relation to winds by common swifts. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 371: 20150393. doi: 10.1098/rstb.2015.0393

Abstract

The Sahara Desert is one of the largest land-based barriers on the Earth, crossed twice each year by billions of birds on migration. Here we investigate how common swifts migrating between breeding sites in Sweden and wintering areas in sub-Saharan Africa perform the desert crossing with respect to route choice, winds, timing and speed of migration by analysing 72 geolocator tracks recording migration. The swifts cross western Sahara on a broad front in autumn, while in spring they seem to use three alternative routes across the Sahara, a western, a central and an eastern route across the Arabian Peninsula, with most birds using the western route. The swifts show slower migration and travel speeds, and make longer detours with more stops in autumn compared with spring. In spring, the stopover period in West Africa coincided with mostly favourable winds, but birds remained in the area, suggesting fuelling. The western route provided more tailwind assistance compared with the central route for our tracked swifts in spring, but not in autumn. The ultimate explanation for the evolution of a preferred western route is presumably a combination of matching rich foraging conditions (swarming insects) and favourable winds enabling fast spring migration.

A Common Swift (Apus apus) equipped with a micro data logger that measures light (Susanne Åkesson / Lund University)

A Common Swift (Apus apus) equipped with a micro data logger that measures light (Susanne Åkesson / Lund University).

Map of stopover areas before initiating migration across the Sahara Desert (triangles), stopover areas on passage (filled yellow circles) and stopover or final wintering areas at arrival after crossing the barrier (squares), for different populations of common swifts breeding in north, central and south Sweden as recorded for spring and autumn by miniature geolocators.

Map of stopover areas before initiating migration across the Sahara Desert (triangles), stopover areas on passage (filled yellow circles) and stopover or final wintering areas at arrival after crossing the barrier (squares), for different populations of common swifts breeding in north, central and south Sweden as recorded for spring and autumn by miniature geolocators. Solid lines are connecting routes for birds recorded outside equinox periods, while dashed lines connect starting and endpoints for swifts passing the Sahara during the equinox period. Lines connecting departure, stopover and arrival events simplify the assumed migratory pathway of the birds (Åkesson et al. 2016 – DOI: 10.1098/rstb.2015.0393)

 

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