News

Tracking white-fronted geese

3.10.2017

It's an exciting time for the project and although we are still a long way off knowing the full story behind the decline of the Greenland white-fronted goose our research over the last few months has given us a few clues. We know that our warming climate is already having a big effect.

The geese breed in west Greenland, making an incredible migration over the vast Greenland Icecap. This ice sheet measures over 2,300 km in length, over 1,000 km across and up to 3 km thick. If the entire Ice cap was to melt it would lead to a global sea-level rise of 7.2 meters. To put this into perspective, Glasgow would become an underwater city.

It might not be an imminent threat but we're already seeing significant melting due to increasing temperatures that if continued will start to have a serious impact on us.

Warmer spring temperatures in west Greenland in recent years is hampering Greenland white-front breeding success. A warm spring actually means more snowfall in Greenland. It doesn't last long enough to top up the icecap, but if it sticks around for a couple of weeks in the key breeding period that's enough to prevent all but a few geese breeding. We now think this is a key reason why Greenland white-fronts are suffering such a dramatic decline.

New technology

Spurred on by this progress we enlisted the help of some new technology and earlier this year we fitted 15 Greenland white-fronted geese with special new GPS tags. The tags send us live updates on each individual bird's location through the mobile phone network.

They have been attached to the collars the geese wear around their necks, the whole thing only weighs 26g, which is only 0.75% of their bodyweight on migration. It's a bit like us taking a water bottle with us on a walk.

So, although the tag is a little extra baggage for the birds their bodies strengthen to compensate for it and they quickly get used to it.

It's all in the detail

The information that we get back from each tag is extraordinary and gives us detailed understanding of each individual's daily life. So as they prepare for their return to Greenland this autumn the trackers will show us exactly how the geese prepare for their arduous and dangerous migration.

Before they leave they will be feeding themselves up and gaining body fat reserves to see them through the long non-stop flight they will have to make across the ocean. They'll also be keeping a close eye on the weather, trying to judge the best time to take off.

The eye of the storm

One of the most challenging parts of this migration is the long stretch over the North Atlantic. This ocean crossing is fraught with danger for the birds and when they are at their most vulnerable. There is little margin for error and if the birds get it wrong or an unforeseen storm whips up the are at the mercy of the wind and the waves, so in big trouble.

The GPS trackers will show us the specific cues they use to judge when it is time to leave and if they are able to react to any unforeseen changes in the weather. And if so how do they do it? The data we receive will be a huge step forward in our research as it will allow us to evaluate whether storms during migration can start to explain why fewer and fewer Greenland white-fronted geese are returning to our shores each year.

Samskip is a proud sponsor of this project

To find out more about the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust's Greenland White-fronted Goose conservation work, click here.

Related articles:

┬╗ Samskip to fund Greenland White-fronted Goose research




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