Performance of migrating birds can be affected by a number of intrinsic and extrinsic factors like morphology, meteorological conditions and migration strategies. We compared travel speeds of four raptor species during their crossing of the Sahara desert. Focusing the analyses on this region allows us to compare different species under equivalent conditions in order to disentangle which factors affect migratory performance.
We tracked raptors using GPS satellite transmitters from Sweden, Spain and Italy, and evaluated their migratory performance at both an hourly and a daily scale. Hourly data (flight speed and altitude for intervals of two hours) were analyzed in relation to time of day, species and season, and daily data (distance between roosting sites) in relation to species, season, day length and tailwind support.
Despite a clear variation in morphology, interspecific differences were generally very small, and did only arise in spring, with long-distance migrants (>5000 km: osprey and Western marsh-harrier) being faster than species that migrate shorter distances (Egyptian vulture and short-toed eagle). Our results suggest that the most important factor explaining hourly variation in flight speed is time of day, while at a daily scale, tailwind support is the most important factor explaining variation in daily distance, raising new questions about the consequences of possible future changes in worldwide wind patterns.