By Sharon Wootton Herald columnist
Every now and then I get taken to the woodshed and spanked with a wet feather, which was what a Marysville resident did the other day about an answer in my question-and-answer column last Saturday.
The question was “How high can some migrating birds fly?” with answers ranging from ½ to 2 miles (2 being the alleged correct answer).
Gary Clark served in the Air Defense Command in Montana in the 1960s, helping control interceptors, using radar and computer, watching for signs of a Soviet attack.
One night an “unknown” was on radar, heading south through Alberta, Canada at about 38,000 feet altitude and 137 mph. An F-101 was sent out to identify the UFO. With help from radar and a tracking computer, the pilot had a visual, Clark wrote, and went in for a closer look.
“About two minutes later he said, ‘Sidewalk, (our call sign), you are not going to believe this. The target is a big flock of geese. They are not flying. They are coasting. These are bar-sided geese, with their wings set out, and they are coasting on the jet stream,’” Clark wrote.
“So, there you have it. I know that a bar-sided goose can fly up to at least 38,000 feet. The amazing thing, even to this day, is to realize that the geese knew they could meet up with the jet stream and save some energy on their flight south,” Clark said in his email.
Who would have thought a pilot with bird ID skills would be in the cockpit for a close encounter with a flock of bar-sided geese at 38,000 feet? I wish that there was a way to verify the information with Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology because the pilot’s sighting would likely be the presumed highest sighting of a bar-sided goose.
Cornell (www.birds.cornell.edu) reports that those geese migrating over the Himalaya Mountain Range have been recorded as high as 27,880 feet, but there was no specific source beyond Cornell being a highly reputable source in itself.
However, Audubon Magazine (www.audubonmagazine.org) calls bar-headed geese the world’s highest-altitude migrants, saying that the geese have been sighted flying directly above Mount Everest (summit: 29,028 feet).
National Geographic News (news.nationalgeographic.com) reported in June 2011 that a 2009 study by researchers at Bangor University in the United Kingdom tracked 25 bar-headed geese in India with GPS transmitters just before they left on their spring migration to Mongolia to breed. The result: peak altitude was 21,120 feet.
The BBC (www.bbc.co.uk/nature) website called the geese “the highest flying birds.”
However, Cornell’s site also stated that a high-flying Ruepell’s griffon (large African vulture) was sucked into a jet engine at 37,000 feet. The kings of thermals often go as high as 20,000 feet, so that was one serious thermal.
Or, depending on the source, the 1975 (or 1973) collision over the Ivory Coast was at 36,100 feet (or 37,900 feet). Whatever the altitude (all much higher than the summit of Mount Everest), it makes that griffon the world’s highest-flying bird, or at least the bird that has been seen at the highest altitude.
In the U.S., according to Audubon Magazine, a mallard collided with an airplane in 1963 at 21,000 feet above Nevada. But the magazine’s stat that I enjoyed the most during this search was this: In 1924, a yellow-billed chough, among the highest-altitude nesting species, followed a climbing expedition’s food scraps to 26,500 feet on Mount Everest.
As to the 2-mile answer in last week’s Q&A column, I needed to have asked a more specific question in addition to offering the correct answer. The worse of it is that I’ve seen a video of migratory birds fly through the Himalayan mountain passes.
I think I’ll frame a feather and hang it on the wall for humility’s sake.
Columnist Sharon Wootton can be reached at 360-468-3964 or www.songandword.com.