Barnacle Geese - in the Wild

Sitting in the middle of a snow covered field in mid December in Scotland, unable to feel my hands but not daring to flinch, in case I spook hundreds of barnacle geese. Many people may describe this behaviour as mad, but to any waterfowl enthusiast, being surrounded by up to 10,000 barnacle geese is an absolute honour!

Last winter I took a four month sabbatical from Blackbrook Zoological Park in Staffordshire, to become voluntary research assistant for Dr. Larry Griffin at the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust (WWT) at Caerlaverock, Dumfries. The UK is an important wintering site for six species of European geese because of our mild winters and subsequent availability of food. The barnacle goose is one of these species and a species I had come to love over the last four years as aviculturist at Blackbrook. They are an incredibly charming and charismatic goose, and their white cheek patches, contrasting with a black head and neck and barred mantle, make them a very attractive bird - which I am sure is one of the reasons why they were picked as the logo for the BWA, and a good choice too! Therefore I was over the moon to receive the research post to study them in the wild as they wintered in Scotland and I could not have predicted how much I would learn and how much I would treasure the time I spent with these birds. .

Barnacle geese form three distinctive populations that breed in three different part of the Arctic, but all of them winter here in the UK. The Greenland breeding geese migrate to western Ireland and Scotland, North Russian geese cross over land from the White Sea to the Baltic and the Spitzbergen (a group of islands above the Arctic Circle and known as Svalbard) breeding geese migrate to the Solway Firth and it is these birds which I studied.

They arrive on the Solway at the end of September/start of October and leave again in the last week of April for their staging area in Helgeland on the coast of Norway. They spend two to three weeks here before continuing to Spitzbergen. Here they feed on the rocky slopes which are fertilized by sea nesting birds and so are covered by lush grass. Through the summer they experience no darkness but the light rapidly draws in during September pushing them southwards, ensuing mass arrivals of geese at Caerlaverock. The long distance flights of barnacle geese are incredible considering they do not glide or soar they just keep flapping for the 3000km journey which they may do non stop in just over 2 days! The arrival of the barnacle geese was delayed last October, and when I arrived at the reserve on the 3rd October, only 60 had migrated to the Solway. It was a worryingly slow start, but we had confirmation from researchers in Spitzbergen that they had a good breeding season and family groups were still feeding on the grassland which many farmers had not yet cut. North westerly winds continued to hold them back, but eventually they arrived on the Solway in their thousands literally overnight!

The research project I undertook is part of a 30 year ongoing study by the WWT at Caerlaverock. They have saved this population from near extinction as their numbers were at their lowest on the Solway at just 300 birds in 1954. This was due to the loss of their feeding grounds and human predation, as the barnacle goose's ability to graze sward only 1cm high, at an incredible rate of 200 pecks per minute made them very unpopular with livestock farmers! Caerlaverock was set up as a Nature reserve and farmers whom loose livestock grazing to the barnacle geese now receive compensation.

Alongside these protective measures, the birds have been colour ringed as part of the longest ongoing ring study. They have been rung yearly since 1970, and this small ring is put on their leg with a three lettered code, allowing scientists to study their population dynamics each year to ensure the population remains stable. All three populations of barnacle geese are now classed as stable, but in 2004, insufficient freezing on Spitzbergen meant the sea did not freeze entirely and polar bears were unable to ambush seals at their air holes and instead predated the geese. This of course had serious effects on the geese with less arriving back at Caerlaverock and only 2% of the flocks returning with goslings. But in 2005, sea ice was sufficient and grazing was good for the geese, so their numbers had increased from 22,000 in the previous year to 29,000, with an 8-11% return in goslings. So it is good news for the barnacles, and it was lovely to see these family groups grazing together often at the forefront of the flocks, with one parent acting as look out, whilst the other ushered their offspring along!

My role was to calculate the numbers of barnacle geese returning, the percentage of goslings, and their condition (by using a body condition index) and follow their grazing and roosting movements across the Solway Firth. I also had to read their ring numbers through a telescope, entering the information into a database in order for calculate their population statistics for the year.

I would head off in the land rover and scan the area for flocks of geese either roosting or feeding and approach them as close as possible in order to read their leg rings. Writing this now makes it sound easy, but there were many factors to be considered, they fly fast and flocks of thousands could just disappear, they do not sink in mud flats whereas I did, the grass often covered their legs and their rings, snow blighted my vision, and often they liked to tuck their rings under their bottoms and go to sleep!

When the weather was foggy or snowy and the flocks were hard to see, I would sit and listen for them instead, as they are very vocal - like the yap of a small dog! In areas where it was a struggle to locate more elusive flocks, I would select an area of merse, where I would sit (on my incredibly handy fold away stool) and wait for flocking geese to hopefully come in and feed. I can best describe a distant flock of calling barnacles like the rumbling of an aeroplane, then as the flock get closer this rumbling gets louder, until eventually they fill the sky all calling and cascading down to land. Even now, when I hear the faint rumble of an aeroplane, for a split second I think barnacle geese are coming into land which is highly unlikely in Staffordshire!

The most exhilarating part of my job was the satisfaction of creeping up on a flock of geese without spooking them and being absorbed into their world, as I busily took down their ring numbers. Approaching a large flock of any wild bird close enough to read their leg rings without being noticed is incredibly tricky and to begin with I was useless at it! My waterproofs rustled, my ponytail stuck up too high and gave me away and if I carried my tripod at the wrong angle, it would look like a gun! But I quickly learnt how to blend in with the background, crawling through the mud to keep against the lie of the land, whilst simultaneously keeping my scope dry and of course I learnt never to flinch or cough. This enabled me to get close to the geese so eventually they would feed incredibly near to me, simply not realizing I was there. The icing on the cake after all this fantastic goose watching and gathering plenty of ring numbers, was when the geese would become spooked by something (crows and herons passing over or farmyard dog dashing over a nearby field) and these flocks sometimes up to 10,000 geese strong, would lift into the air at once. The noise of the their wings lifting them off the ground was incredible, a surge of downward air all around me, then their bodies and piercing calls would fill the sky which was simply breath taking. The only nuisance was the splatter of dropping which always ensued and seemed to be aimed at me!

Alongside ring reading, I also helped catch, ring and sex barnacle geese during three cannon net catches. I had never taken part in such a catch before and it was truly exhilarating. We baited a local field with wheat over a week, so a small flock of the geese would feed in the same location each morning. Then the cannon nets were put out the night before and set off at first light as the geese came into feed. I must admit I was concerned about any geese being hurt in the blast of the cannons (and what a blast they make!) but fortunately there were no casualties. The geese were pinned to the ground by the net and it was my job as a runner to quickly keep the net in place to avoid escapees, whilst simultaneously carefully removing them and placing them in holding boxes prior to processing. I took on the role of sexing the birds and it was it was an absolute joy to handle these completely wild birds, which over the months I had been observing in the distance! On the last catch of the season, we were able to fit four radio transmitters to the healthiest four males in order to follow their 6000 km migration back to Spitzbergen and back to Scotland again over the next year. The information that has been relayed from these transmitters has given the WWT an invaluable insight into the feeding and roosting habits of these birds and has accurately mapped the extraordinary migration they undertake - which to me will always be the absolute marvel of the natural world.

It was a privilege to be part of the Svalbard Barnacle Goose project last winter and I loved every minute of it. By observing them on a daily basis I was able to gain an in depth understanding of their behaviours and an appreciation of how these birds overcome the struggles of winter so gracefully. People often asked if I got fed up observing them all day in the middle of a wind swept field or marsh and my answer was always 'no!- every day was magical'.

With special thanks to Dr. Larry Griffin and all the wonderful staff at the WWT. This article is dedicated to Mrs. Diana Holloway, whom supported my research and taught me so much about waterfowl. Like many of my work colleagues here at Blackbrook Zoological Park, she was an inspiration and will always be remembered.

Jaclyn Pearson