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Productive year for the Greenland white-fronted geese

Posted on 31 Mar 2020 by Glengoyne Distillery

Our last Glengoyne geese blog reported that 2019 looked like it was going to be a productive breeding year for the Greenland white-fronted geese. So, it is great to be able to report that those early signs have proved to have been well-founded.

Across Scotland, many flocks have returned with double the number of young compared to the average in the last decade.  For a species that is known for producing between 2-3 eggs each year, one eleven year old female chose to winter on Islay this year, along with her brood of 6 young! These birds generally have a lifespan of around six years, so for this one, which was ringed initially at Loch Ken in 2009, to live for eleven years is very good going!

A GPS tagged bird ringed in 2017 also returned with three young, and along with one of her young from the 2017 catch, making up a three-generational family group.

Weather-wise, this season has been a tale of two halves. The run-up to Christmas was mostly calm and dry, but since Christmas, it has been characterised by an endless torrent of storms.

The mild conditions before Christmas did not help with scientists trying to catch geese. Based on Islay, where two-thirds of the Scottish population occur, they spent a fruitless week in November. At Stranraer, they had to contend with another issue having put down potatoes to lure geese in for a catch; one stubborn and possessive goose family of six managed to oust all the other families off the catch site! Such was the determination of that one family to own that site, in the end, the scientists just cut their losses and left, having just caught that one family.

Overall, this was not good for buoying the scientists’ spirits, so in the new year, three went over to Wexford on the sunny southern coast of Ireland, where they had a lesson from Alyn Walsh, the local white-front catching master. Success! Two days and endless cups of tea later resulted in 15 geese being caught, fitted with GPS tags and x-rayed.

Sadly the x-rays showed that four of the adult birds here had a metal shot embedded in their tissues. It was a surprise as this flock was known to inhabit an area of Iceland where hunting was thought to be absent, so to see birds with shooting injuries was hugely disappointing.

Fresh with their new catching techniques, the team travelled back to Islay. Sadly, that coincided with an onslaught of storms; weekend after weekend, meaning that their first three planned catch attempts had to be abandoned.

At the end of February, the weather cleared, and the wind dropped below gale force. For three weeks the team spent long nights baiting potential catch sites with the grain. The result was a complete change in fortunes, and the team managed a catch on every single morning!

As well as being able to x-ray every one of the 33 birds that they caught, the team was able to place all 12 of their remaining GPS tags on caught geese.

These GPS tags are now able to provide more information than ever, updating goose locations every 15 minutes throughout the whole of the breeding season and migration. It allows the team to take a detailed look at how climate change is impacting on the breeding success and migratory journeys of individuals.

As the days lengthen, the geese begin their migration north. For the monitoring scientists, despite early setbacks, the 2019/20 winter has been a successful one. A winter which had seen good numbers of geese returning, x-rays being undertaken and GPS tags successfully deployed. Hopefully, it all augers well for a successful breeding summer season high up on the arctic tundra.

For the latest updates on this goose population see: