The female ibis known as Goja flew from a nature preserve in Italy, across Austria, and as far as Burghausen in Bavaria during her epic 1,300 kilometre trip, which started in May and ended last week.
The flight could mark a turning point in the battle to reintroduce the Northern Bald Ibis, an odd-looking black bird with a curved beak, to Europe.
The ibis once roamed freely throughout the continent before disappearing 300 years ago due mainly to human encroachment on its habitat. Today only a few are left in the Middle East, and the ibis is considered critically endangered.
Recently, scientists have been using ultra-light aircraft in an effort to train hand-fed ibis to fly from the preserve in Italy to Germany on their traditional migratory route.
But Goja is the first to make the flight by herself, something scientists weren't expecting until at least next year, particularly because the bird isn't yet sexually mature.
“This is surprisingly early for Goja. We actually first expected her in April 2012,” said Johannes Fritz, the manager of a team looking to reintroduce the ibis. “She's just a little premature.”
Last autumn, scientists showed Goja and other young ibis the way south. The scientists hope that within two years all the mature birds will be able to find their way to Bavaria and back.
“You have to show a young bird the migration route once, and the bird will remember the path its entire life,” Fritz said.
Now, scientists hope Goja will return to Italy and show other ibis the way to Bavaria next year. As the birds breed and produce offspring, the migration route — forgotten for centuries — will be in use again.