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Greenland white-fronted geese, creatures of habit

Posted on 19 Dec 2019 by Glengoyne Distillery

The Greenland white-fronted geese are very much creatures of habit, returning to the same bogs and peatlands year after year. Their families are close-knit, and they will often fly in extended family groups, sometimes containing several generations of the same family.

They are Europe’s rarest goose – there are less than 20,000 of them left – so any impact on their ability to reproduce is a concern. Their numbers have fallen by almost half in the last twenty years alone, so they have been accorded the highest level of conservation status for any of the UK’s species of geese.

The breed on the coastal fringes of west Greenland and winter exclusively in Ireland and Britain. However, in Greenland, the past two years have been ones of complete contrast weather-wise, with significant changes in weather conditions. At such a latitude, the coverage of snow and ice severely impacts food source and can have a knock-on effect on the success of the breeding season as a whole.

In May last year, for example, temperatures dipped as low as -15 degrees, delaying the annual thaw of snow and ice which did not start until right at the end of the month. This freezing weather came at a time when the geese need to gather their energy reserves to produce and incubate their eggs. Research has shown that in such low temperatures, birds can decide to either delay nesting or defer it altogether to a subsequent year. Last year the overall production of new chicks, as a result of the late onset of summer was at a low point.

To compound this poor breeding year last year, we also lost ten tagged geese, including two adult females. Even worse was the fact that these two were the only ones of the tagged birds that had shown any signs of successfully rearing a brood. We know that as data showed that they had settled in an area for more than 25 days, before moving off, suggesting that they had hatched a clutch of eggs and gone looking for food with their brood.

The breeding conditions were considerably more favourable this year. The weather in May is significantly milder, with the temperatures on average 2-3 degrees above the norm; that’s a significant amount when we’re talking about averages.

By the second week of May, temperatures of 10-15 degrees were recorded. That was warm enough to thaw the snow early, allowing plants to grow, creating an ideal environment for the geese feed, grubbing among the roots in the softening layers of soil, and at the lake and river margins. This unusually warmer weather continued until August, and it looks to have created the ideal conditions for geese to raise their broods.

At the end of the summer, and with the onset of the first snows, the geese begin their long migration back to the British Isles. It is a journey of over 3,000km over the Greenland ice cap, and then across the Arctic Ocean to Iceland, where they rest-up and refuel before the final leg of their journey. 

It is here, in Iceland, that the geese tagged with GPS transmitters start to come back online, as they come within phone network coverage areas. Only then can we begin to get a good idea of whether this year has been a successful one.

Early signs so far are that good numbers of birds have made it to their staging areas on the south-western and southerly coastal regions of Iceland. Our data shows that many of the tagged birds have successfully hatched chicks, been moving around their feeding grounds with their broods in tow.

Yet while they may have done well to produce a successful brood this year, the geese are not however out of danger. That’s because their Icelandic feeding grounds are not only used by white-fronts, but also by flocks of migrant whooper swans and the much-bigger greylag geese. Unfortunately, even though white-fronts are a fully protected species, hunters looking to shoot the more plentiful and unprotected greylag geese, can mistake the young birds with their un-formed plumage, and end up shooting white-fronts by mistake.

That could lead to a double calamity, as being such a close-knit family group, if they lose one of their family, the others have a habit of coming back to see what happened to their relative, and they will likely have been shot as well.

Whether it’s hunting, climate change, or lack of breeding success - fewer than 10% breed successfully in their lifetime – the odds seem to be stacked against these birds.

So, as the nights draw in, and the birds start to arrive back, all we can hope is that for these very special geese, 2019 might be a vintage year.

Haste ye back!