The Epic Journeys of Migratory Birds

We’re learning more about what they endure as they fly thousands of miles—and how humans and climate change are making it tougher for them.

NORTHERN GANNETS Bass Rock, Scotland During breeding season, 150,000 gannets throng this island in the Firth of Forth. In winter the birds decamp south as far as West Africa. To make this image, Wilkes and an assistant lugged his gear 122 steps uphill and set up near the ruins of a church about six feet from the nesting birds. Standing on the rocky ground for 28 sleepless hours, he took 1,176 photos. “It’s like a meditative state,” he says. “I’m alert to everything. I’m seeing everything.” He selected about 150 photos to make this image.
COURTESY OF THE DALRYMPLE FAMILY AND THE SCOTTISH SEABIRD CENTRE

As the sun was setting over the Firth of Thames in New Zealand, dozens of bar-tailed godwits shuffled about lazily on the edge of the bay, the wind fluffing their feathers.

The tide was coming in, submerging the mudflats where the birds had been feeding, sticking their long bills into the soft earth to dig up worms and crabs. As the water advanced, they stopped foraging and waded ashore, inelegantly carrying their plump, butterball bodies on stilt-like legs. A bit homely and ungainly, with drab plumage, godwits appear quite ordinary. As the sky turned orange, they settled down to roost. Resting for hours on end, they can seem rather sedentary.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Six months earlier, these birds had made an epic journey to get here, flying all the way from Alaska. Astonishingly, they didn’t stop along the way. For eight or nine days straight, they flew, beating their wings the entire way: about 7,000 miles, more than a quarter of the way around the world.

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