Orientation of vagrant birds on the Faroe Islands in the Atlantic Ocean


Migratory birds are frequently found far outside their normal range but the phenomenon is poorly understood. We used radio telemetry to track individual migratory flights of several species of songbirds on the Faroe Islands, far west of their normal migration route. Birds with expected easterly and south-easterly migration direction departed westwards out over the Atlantic Ocean, indicating that these birds are actively flying in the “wrong” direction and that their occurrence is not caused by wind drift. This is in contrast to the apparently normal south-westerly to easterly departure directions in birds expected to migrate south or southwest.


Orientierung bei verdrifteten Vögeln auf den Faröer Inseln im Atlantik

Zugvögel sind regelmäßig außerhalb ihres normalen Verbreitungsgebiets zu finden, aber dieses Phänomen ist wenig untersucht. Wir verwendeten Radiotelemetrie, um individuelle Flüge bei verschiedenen Singvogelarten auf den Faröer Inseln zu untersuchen, weit westlich der normalen Zugroute. Vögel mit erwartungsgemäß östlicher und süd-östlicher Zugrichtung flogen westwärts hinaus auf den Atlantik, was darauf hindeutet, dass diese Vögel aktiv in die „falsche“Richtung flogen und nicht vom Wind verdriftet wurden. Dies steht im Kontrast zu der anscheinend normalen süd-westlichen bis östlichen Abflugrichtung bei Vögeln, von denen man annimmt, dass sie nach Süden oder Süd-Westen ziehen.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2


  1. Alerstam T (1990) Bird migration. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

    Google Scholar 

  2. Alerstam T (1991) Ecological causes and consequences of bird orientation. In: Berthold P (ed) Orientation in birds. Birkhäuser, Basel

    Google Scholar 

  3. Baker K (1977) Westward vagrancy of Siberian passerines in autumn 1975. Bird Study 24:232–242

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Batschelet E (1981) Circular statistics in biology. Academic, London

    Google Scholar 

  5. Bearhop S, Fiedler W, Furness RW, Votier SC, Waldron S, Newton J, Bowen GJ, Berthold P, Farnsworth K (2005) Assortative mating as a mechanism for rapid evolution of a migratory divide. Science 310:502–504

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  6. Berthold P, Helbig AJ, Mohr G, Querner U (1992) Rapid microevolution of migratory behaviour in a wild bird species. Nature 360:668–670

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. DeSante DF (1983) Annual variability in the abundance on migrant land birds on southeast Farallon Island, California, USA. Auk 100:826–852

    Google Scholar 

  8. Diamond JM (1982) Mirror-image navigational errors in migrating birds. Nature 295:277–278

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Fair J, Paul E, Jones J (eds) (2010) Guidelines to the use of wild birds in research. Ornithological Council, Washington, DC

    Google Scholar 

  10. Fisher NI (1995) Statistical analysis of circular data. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

    Google Scholar 

  11. Gilroy JJ, Lees AC (2003) Vagrancy theories: are autumn vagrants really reverse migrants? Br Birds 96:427–438

    Google Scholar 

  12. Lack D (1962) Radar evidence on migratory orientation. Br Birds 55:139–158

    Google Scholar 

  13. Pfeifer R, Stadler J, Brandl R (2007) Birds from the Far East in Central Europe: a test of the reverse migration hypothesis. J Ornithol 148:379–385

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Rabøl J (1969) Reversed migration as the cause of westward vagrancy by four Phylloscopus warblers. Br Birds 62:89–92

    Google Scholar 

  15. Rabøl J (1976) The orientation of Pallas’s Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus proregulus in Europe. Dansk Orn Foren Tidsskr 70:6–16

    Google Scholar 

  16. Rabøl J (1985) The orientation of vagrant passerines on the Faeroe Islands, September 1984. Dansk Orn Foren Tidsskr 79:133–140

    Google Scholar 

  17. Richardson WJ (1982) Northeastward reverse migration of birds over Nova Scotia, Canada, in autumn. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 10:193–206

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Thorup K (1998) Vagrancy of Yellow-browed Warbler Phylloscopus inornatus and Pallas’s Warbler Ph. proregulus in north-west Europe: misorientation on great circles? Ring Migr 19:7–12

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Thorup K (2004) Reverse migration as a cause of vagrancy. Bird Study 51:228–238

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Thorup K, Ortvad TE, Rabøl J, Holland RA, Tøttrup AP, Wikelski M (2011) Juvenile songbirds compensate for displacement to oceanic islands during autumn migration. PLoS ONE 6:e17903

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  21. Thorup K, Rabøl J (2001) The orientation system and migration pattern of long-distance migrants: conflict between model predictions and observed patterns. J Avian Biol 32:111–119

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Wikelski M, Kays R, Kasdin J, Thorup K, Smith JA, Cochran WW, Swenson GW Jr (2007) Going wild: what a global small-animal tracking system could do for experimental biologists. J Exp Biol 210:181–186

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


We are grateful to Jens-Kjeld Jensen for catching birds on Nolsoy, and to Dorete Bloch, Aksal Poulsen and several local Faroese for much help during field work on the Faroe Islands. We thank Bill and Jim Cochran for technical help. K.T. was supported by a grant from the Danish Council for Independent Research. This study was carried out in strict accordance with Guidelines to the use of wild birds in research of the Ornithological Council (Fair et al. 2010). Animal work was approved by the Faroese Food and Environmental Agency (J.nr. 2009-00101-43) and the Danish Forest and Nature Agency by permission to the Copenhagen Bird Ringing Centre (J.nr. SN 302–009).

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Kasper Thorup.

Additional information

Communicated by H. Mouritsen.

Electronic supplementary material

Below is the link to the electronic supplementary material.

Details of the experiments, experimental birds and weather conditions. (DOC 360 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Thorup, K., Ortvad, T.E., Holland, R.A. et al. Orientation of vagrant birds on the Faroe Islands in the Atlantic Ocean. J Ornithol 153, 1261–1265 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10336-012-0883-6

Download citation


  • Vagrancy
  • Migration
  • Orientation and navigation
  • Songbirds