Flying Home for Christmas

IMG_3869aArctic tern on display in Nature’s Library, Manchester Museum.

Around the world in … 365 days!

Not many days left until Father Christmas travels around the world, delivering his presents to everybody… but did you know there’s also a bird that does the same round trip every year? (Though, of course, without Christmas magic it does take a little longer!)

That’s right – the arctic tern is most famous for its extraordinary migration. They migrate from the Arctic circle to the Antarctic coast, and six months later, go back, and do the same journey again – and, because they need to know where to stop and refuel on the way, that’s not ‘as the crow flies’, but instead an ancient, convoluted route. This means they travel about 90,000 km (56,000 miles) on any of these one-way trips, and seeing as these little birds can live to be over 30 years old, this means they can cover in excess of 2.7 million km (1.7 million miles) in a lifetime! Imagine travelling to the moon and back three times – that’s how far it is.

4A map of the Arctic tern’s migration routes, with summer range in red and winter range in blue. (Source)


Chasing the Midnight Sun

The reason is because they breed in the north, taking advantage of the longer daylight hours (and midnight sun, in some areas), and then overwinter around the South Pole, again, taking advantage of that midnight sun. So, for the Arctic tern, it’s always summer somewhere.

Some of these Arctic terns nest in the UK, too, around 53,000 pairs of them (out of around 1 million total). Because of their migratory habits, they’re rarely seen here outside the breeding season. However,  some Arctic terns don’t choose the northern extremes to raise their chicks, with some populations instead nesting as far south as the Netherlands!

Right now, though, they’ll be down in the Antarctic, soaking up that summer sun, eating small fish, marine crustaceans and flying insects, while we’re up here in the depths of winter at the other end of the world.

1Arctic terns fishing off the coast of the UK, taking food home for their chicks. Look out for them next spring! (source)

Conserving Species, Inspiring Action


This Christmas the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) will be on our galleries to promote the amazing work they do – from species recovery and large-scale conservation, to policy-influencing and inspiring change or action. You can find out how to support them in a huge number of ways, including purchasing their winter themed badges in our shop, donations or taking small actions in your day to day life.

Have a lovely Christmas, wherever you’re spending it!

Bryony Rigby

Find out more:

RSPB – Arctic Tern (Includes the Arctic tern call)

BBC News (How the migration route was tracked)


Sustainable Christmas Tip #3: People often travel huge distances to be with the ones they love at Christmas. For a greener Christmas, think about how you might do this in a more environmentally-friendly way.

Car sharing, public transport and video calls are all good ways to minimise your carbon impact. However, if life the Arctic tern air travel is unavoidable, think about using a service like Atmosfair or MyClimate to offset your flights by funding reforestation projects.


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