Bird Flies 2,500 Miles for Baby's Food
By MICHAEL CASEY, Christian Science Monitor
Talk about a working mother. A Christmas Island frigate bird named
Lydia recently made a nonstop journey of just over 26 days and
covering nearly 2,500 miles -- across Indonesian volcanoes and some of
Asia's busiest shipping lanes -- in search of food for her baby.
The trip, tracked with a global positioning device by scientists at
Christmas Island National Park, is by far the longest known nonstop
journey by one of these critically endangered seabirds.
Previously, the black-and-white scavengers with distinctive pink beaks
and wingspans of up to 8 feet were known only to fly a few hundred
miles from their nesting sites, staying away for just a few days at a
time, officials said.
"It's a real revelation," said David James, coordinator of
biodiversity monitoring for Christmas Island National Park, the birds'
only known breeding ground.
"The thing that really surprised me is that it was a long, nonstop
journey, and that she crossed overland over volcanoes," James
said. "Normally, you would expect the seabirds to fly over the sea."
Lydia's trip started Oct. 18 from Christmas Island, an Australian
territory in the Indian Ocean about 310 miles south of Indonesia's
capital, Jakarta, and 1,600 miles northwest of Perth, in western
Leaving a baby chick in the care of her partner, Lydia headed south
over open waters -- probably to steal fish from other seabirds, a
common habit among frigate birds.
She then circled back on Oct. 26 and flew between Indonesia's Java and
Sumatra islands. From there, she headed across Borneo island on Nov. 9
before flying back over Java and returning on Nov. 14 to her nesting
site, where she likely regurgitated a meal for her chick.
Though the journey was a record for a frigate bird, it falls short of
the top trip among birds monitored by scientists -- a 46-day
round-the-world trek by a gray-headed albatross, according to Birdlife
International, a Britain-based conservation group that keeps track of
Lydia is one of the first four Christmas Island frigate birds to be
fitted with a satellite tracking device. Funded by a grant from the
American Bird Conservancy, the devices -- metal boxes about 2.5 inches
long and 1 inch wide, with an eight-inch antenna -- are attached by
They give scientists much needed data on the flight paths and feeding
patterns of frigate birds. Previously, most such data came courtesy of
bird watchers, who have reported frigate birds turning up mostly in
Asia, but as far away as Kenya in east Africa.
Officials hope the new satellite data will help improve conservation
"With only around 1,200 pairs confined to this small island in the
Indian Ocean, the Christmas Island frigate bird is one of the worlds
most threatened seabirds," said Ed Parnell, spokesman for Birdlife
International. "This new satellite tracking data will add enormously
to our knowledge of the species."
James said the distance Lydia traveled raises some serious questions
about efforts to stem the decline of the birds, whose numbers have
fallen by 10 percent over the past 20 years.
"We're surprised she would have spent that long away from her nest
when she had a chick," he said. "That begs the question: Why does she
need to go that far? It raises the suspicion that fish resources
around Christmas Island are not currently adequate. That might explain
the slow and gradual decline of the bird."
James and Birdlife officials said Lydia's route also raised concerns,
since it covered industrial areas, mining sites and waters popular
with commercial fishing fleets.
"It is tragically ironic that while Lydia nests on one the world's
most remote and pristine islands, she makes her living in some of the
most degraded seas on the planet," James said. "Fishing pressure is
huge and marine pollution is severe."
Copyright 2005 The Christian Science Monitor
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