Large birds can migrate fast: The post-breeding flight of the Purple Heron Ardea purpurea to the Sahel

J. Van Der Winden*, M.J.M. Poot, P.W. Van Horssen

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

32 Citations (Scopus)


Large and heavy birds usually use soaring flight during long-distance migration or make regular stopovers en route for substantial refuelling. Purple Herons are large, long-distance migrants. Because of their size, large herons migrating southwards from Europe to Africa were expected to make one or more stopovers to refuel. However, data from seven Purple Herons, fitted with satellite transmitters, showed that the herons were able to cover the distance into the Sahel of about 4000 km within 5-7 days. One individual even flew 5600 km non-stop, mostly over sea. The herons migrated mostly at night and partly during the day with a high travel speed indicative of flapping flight. The herons made few diurnal stops in Europe and North Africa. Substantial 'stopover' time was limited entirely to a period of several weeks before departure, and after arrival south of the Sahara. We assume that this is energetically possible for birds with a maximum wing load of 4-5 kg body mass per m2 of wing surface. Larger wing loads as in storks or raptors prescribe soaring or refuelling with the consequence that most migratory journeys to African wintering grounds then take at least a month. The results emphasize the conservation importance of abundant and high-quality feeding habitat near the breeding areas for pre-migratory fuelling of this species. Furthermore, arrival habitat is likely to be more essential than previously expected. We suspect that the lack of suitable arrival habitat might explain the observed high adult mortality in dry Sahel periods better than 'winter' survival.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)395-402
Number of pages8
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2010
Externally publishedYes


  • Conservation
  • Migration
  • Purple heron
  • Sahara
  • Satellite transmitters


Dive into the research topics of 'Large birds can migrate fast: The post-breeding flight of the Purple Heron Ardea purpurea to the Sahel'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this