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Migration mystified

Ever wondered why those swallows darting around your jeep in the Okavango look just like the ones nesting down the road back home? Or what those white storks that deliver babies to Alpine villages are doing poking about in a Masai Mara waterhole? Mike Unwin explains all

WILDFILE

GETTING TO KNOW OUR FLORA AND FAUNA

SAFETY IN NUMBERS: White storks gather in Zambia’s Luangwa Valley, awaiting favourable weather conditions to begin their 10,000km journey to Europe.
MIKE UNWIN

The answer is, of course, migration. Forget wildebeest: those lumbering herbivores have nothing on the mass feathered invasion that every autumn sees one and a half billion birds from across Europe and western Asia travel south to Africa. By the time they reach their warm winter retreat a few weeks later, most will have covered thousands of kilometres. And, what’s more, by February or March, most will be on their way back again.

Hundreds of different species make the journey. Many are small, insect-eating songbirds, such as warblers, wheatears and flycatchers. These minuscule nomads binge-feed before departure then move fast and directly, relying on their fat reserves to see them through. Larger birds, such as storks and eagles, travel more slowly, using thermals to lift them over sea crossings or mountain barriers. Shorebirds, such as plovers and sandpipers, follow the coast, stopping to feed as they go.

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