Dynamic Soaring

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You may have marveled at the spectacular and elegant control albatrosses have over their above ocean flights. You may be familiar with dynamic soaring, the method albatrosses use to remain aloft over the ocean for days, covering as much as 3000 miles a week, as measured by bird-borne video flight loggers. Feeding at sea, young albatrosses may not touch land for five or six years, when they are mature enough to breed.

Spending all this time at sea, often a windy and turbulent place, albatrosses have evolved a behavior that helps them to maximize their travel and minimize their energy use. Albatrosses fly in a distinctive flight pattern in which the birds swoop down to the top of a wave, flying into the wind. Using the speed of the wind to gain altitude, they climb to around 30-50 feet, and when they reach higher altitudes, where the wind moves faster, they turn to fly in the same direction of the wind. That way, they can glide at a relatively fast speed while descending. By the time they are at lower altitudes, where wind is moving slowly, they have picked up a lot of momentum and are moving fast. That lets them turn their bodies diagonally in the direction they want to travel, even if it’s against the wind. Finally, when they are running out of energy and slowing down, they restart the cycle by catching another thermal.

Wind speed increases with height above the sea surface, so as a bird gains altitude, it is facing stronger headwinds. But those headwinds also provide lift and even though the bird may be moving slower or even backward, when it turns around, it not only trades altitude for distance, but flies faster with a tailwind.

Wandering Albatrosses, with winds spanning 12 feet, have the largest wingspan of any living bird, may spend 1-14% of their time slowly flapping their wings, when thermals or ocean breezes are not sufficient to give them lift, which means, of course, 86-99% of their flying time is spent soaring. Lots of other birds soar, of course, but not nearly as often or efficiently. For example, the Red-tailed Hawk, with broad wings and a denizen of open environments, only spends about 20 percent of its flying time soaring.

Depending on the bird species, flapping flight may require 20 times more energy use than that at rest (basal metabolic rate.) That works for some species where the flights are short and resting places are available, but if you are an albatross living on the wavy ocean, there aren’t a lot of choices. You have to eat and you have to move.

Although dynamic soaring has always been associated with albatrosses, recent research shows that Manx Shearwaters do it too.

If you are a fan of physics and would like a Newtonian explanation of dynamic soaring, this link if for you,

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