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The Greenland white-fronted goose

Updated Friday 7th December 2012

Waterfowl expert Tony Fox talks to Saving Species about a goose that has been on conservation concern for many years.

The Greenland white-fronted goose breeds in west Greenland, and migrates to winter in Ireland and Britain.

But numbers have fluctuated in recent years, and conservation of its sites is increasingly important.

Tony Fox explains all to Saving Species Brett Westwood.

Audio

Greenland white-fronted goose Creative commons image Icon Greenland White Fronted Goose / Hilary Chambers / CC BY-ND 2.0 under Creative-Commons license A Greenland white-fronted goose Copyright open university

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Professor Tony Fox: 

At the moment as of last winter the numbers are round about 22,400 - which is actually not very good because if you go back to the late 1990s there were over 35,000.  Now Scotland has a particular responsibility, in recent years it’s supported between 40 and 60% of the entire world population of green and white-fronted geese.  So obviously it’s of particular Scottish importance, and that’s really why it’s been involved with the Species Action Framework.

Brett Westwood: 

We’ve already heard that green and white-fronts winter at traditional sites from year to year, and in fact presumably from generation to generation as well, so it must be particularly important to conserve those sites.

 Professor Tony Fox: 

Yeah, that’s precisely it.  Back in 1979 when we didn’t know anything about green and white-fronts at all, we went to Greenland and caught birds then and put leg rings on them, and we found to our utter amazement that they’d come back to the same field on the same farm year after year.  So if a bird is alive in two successive winters, there’s an 85% chance it’ll come back to the same place in the following winter.  So yeah this is what makes protection of the areas that are used for winter particularly important, because they’re very site loyal to both a roost where they can safely spend the night away from foxes and predators.  But they’ve also got an associated feeding area which is close by that doesn’t involve too much energy expended to get to and from every day when they’re coming in to feed.

Brett Westwood: 

And how easy is it to make sure that land management doesn’t change, or at least alters in favour of the geese?

Professor Tony Fox: 

It varies a lot.  We went to the west coast to a place called Benderloch. It was interesting there to go to places where actually grazing has been abandoned, because it’s simply not economic anymore to run cattle on a lot of the fields.  We saw fields which used to be very very important sites for green and white-fronted geese, actually now sort of knee high in rank grass, and willow scrub even, because of abandonment of pasture.  So interestingly I think land use change is beginning to play in on the white-front and affect its winter quarters here.

Brett Westwood: 

Wind farms, wind turbines in particular were raised as one of the potential issues at the Caithness site, how big a problem do you see that in Scotland?

Professor Tony Fox: 

One of the things that came out of the Species Action Framework Programme was that we wanted to avoid any source of additional mortality.  Because in the early 1980s we managed to get the population protected from hunting on the wintering grounds; in the early mid 2000s we managed to protect them in Iceland and also in Greenland from hunting; so now these birds are protected everywhere from being killed by hunters.  So it’s ironic now if we start to put up turbines right next to where they feed if the birds are going to collide with them from a population which is very sensitive to additional mortality.  You know, we’ve made the case very strongly.

We can see changes in the population trajectory after hunting was stopped.  For instance up until 2004 the population was dropping at about 6% per annum, and in 2004 we started to talk to the Icelandic government, in 2006 they stopped hunting, and since 2006 the population has levelled out.  And it’s done so in a way which we predicted from modelling would happen with the cessation of hunting.  So that shows that every bird that is actually killed by hunters, it’s not some sort of harvestable surplus that the population produces, it actually contributes to the continued decline of the population as a whole.  Quite clearly that is very likely to be the same with any wind farm mortality.

Brett Westwood: 

Have you got any evidence that wind turbines can cause fatalities in migrating geese?

Professor Tony Fox: 

Yeah we do.  In generic terms we see this in Europe, I think there’s quite a few cases in Germany where geese have collided with, not necessarily green and white-fronts, well not at all green and white-fronts but other species have collided with turbines.  And recently our counter in Caithness, Stan Laybourne, sadly he’s just passed away but just before he died he actually documented a whole family of green and white-fronts that flew into overhead wires.  Now those wires have been there for donkeys’ years and they’re in the neighbourhood of the area where this flock in Caithness are regular, so those birds would have known about it, and yet they still collided with them.

So this shows that green and white-fronts are susceptible to collisions with aerial objects, and we need to be extremely careful about where these turbines are positioned.

Brett Westwood: 

What you’ve talked about is the responsibility we have for one particular part of the green and white-fronts year, and that’s the non-breeding season.

Professor Tony Fox: 

Right, right.

Brett Westwood: 

But of course in the breeding areas of Greenland they’re also having problems.

Professor Tony Fox: 

Well we think so.  I mean the main reason why the decline has happened since the mid to late 1990s is because the birds are not breeding very successfully.  And for a while we thought maybe we ought to give them all sex manuals and just tell them where they’re going wrong, but in fact we think the problem is very likely to do with a run of poor seasons in West Greenland.  We don’t know if this is really a long term climate change or whether it’s a cyclical pattern, but we know that warmer waters in the North Atlantic in recent years has caused a deflection of the movement of frontal systems across the Atlantic.  So that instead of crashing into Iceland and Britain in Spring they tend to be driven further north and deposit a huge amount of snow in West Greenland in March, April and May.  Now the white-fronts typically arrive in West Greenland in the first two weeks of May, and so the females have already gone from Iceland over the sea.

Brett Westwood: 

Iceland, we should say is a staging post isn’t it?

Professor Tony Fox: 

It’s a staging area.

Brett Westwood: 

Between Scotland and Greenland.

Professor Tony Fox: 

That’s right.  Every spring the birds stay there for about three or four weeks, in fact it’s nearer five weeks in recent years, where they fuel up, they tank up, they get lots of energy, they load on the fat.  Then they fly across the sea and then up over the ice cap which at its highest is over 2km high.  And then they drop down to the west coast of Greenland.  Now they can’t know when they leave Iceland what conditions are like in West Greenland.  And typically we know that they spend two, three weeks often fuelling up again, getting enough nutrients to invest in their clutches.  Now obviously if they arrive to a landscape which is covered in snow, as they have done in very recent years, they can’t recoup that energy to put into the eggs.  And therefore we think that’s what’s really hit them in recent years; in fact there’s a lot of statistical evidence that that’s the case.

Brett Westwood: 

So Iceland they’re still managing to cope?

Professor Tony Fox: 

In Iceland ironically the climate hasn’t changed very much, so the spring period when they arrive is still as cold as it was 20/30 years ago.  But the interesting thing is that they now arrive there nearly three weeks earlier, well in 2012, than they did say 25 years ago.  So since the late 1960s they’ve advanced their departure date from the wintering grounds and that is extraordinary.  Now you might say well that’s bound to be climate change, and I think it probably partly is, but in fact temperature on the wintering grounds doesn’t explain the advancement in the timing of departure.  What does explain it is how fit the birds are by the 1st April.  And I’m sorry this is going to be a very difficult story to tell no matter what, but one of the ways we judge how much fat the birds have accumulated is to stare at their tummies.  And the little white part under the tail is a very sensitive indicator of how much fat the birds have inside their body.  Now when you compare how fat they are as of 1st April back through time, that is an incredibly good predictor of the date that they will leave.

Now what I think has been happening is that generally the food has been getting better and better because the climate has got warmer so the grass does grow, but also in some places where we study them, the management of the food has got much much better as well, and so what we’re doing is giving them more and more food in the agricultural landscape in the sites where we study them, which means the birds are getting into better and better condition earlier.  Now as I say that’s partly due to climate change, but not enough to explain the difference in year to year variations.  So these birds are leaving in good condition earlier and earlier, and they’re spending longer and longer in Iceland.  And the really funny thing is that they’re leaving at the same time as they did nearly 70 years ago to go to Greenland.

So the first part of the journey they’re doing earlier, they’re spending a longer time in Iceland, but then they’re arriving to the breeding grounds almost at the same time as they did just after the Second World War when Finn Salomondsen, a Dane, actually documented when they arrived there.

Brett Westwood: 

And what are they arriving to?

Professor Tony Fox: 

In recent years they’re probably arriving to more snow than ever before, because the precipitation in March, April, May in some years recently has been four times that of average.  So they’re actually arriving to very bad conditions.  Which means the female’s got to spend longer waiting for the snow to go and then tanking up again and getting into condition where they’ve accumulated the fat and the protein that they can invest in the white and the yolk of the eggs which they lay to reproduce. 

Brett Westwood: 

I seem to remember a certain Tony Fox once suggesting that it might be competition with Canada geese moving into Iceland which may have caused them to have less favourable territories and therefore maybe rear smaller clutches. 

Professor Tony Fox: 

Yeah, all biologists live to regret anything they’ve said previously.  In Greenland, the birds are facing more and more Canada geese from Greenland that we know.  But just recently we just published a thing this year where we found out that in fact these Canada geese had been there for over a hundred years.  So they’re not new arrivals; they’ve been there for a very very long time.  And I had a student a few years ago who showed that during the moulting period when the birds replace their flight feathers and they’re unable to fly, there is competition because then they’re bound to the lakes, because they take to the water to avoid arctic foxes and any predators, and that means they’re pretty much tied to a little patch of vegetation around the lakes.  And of course at that time when there are two species together it’s almost inevitable that they’ll compete because there’s only a limited amount of food, while they’re stressed at this period to re-grow their feathers, which is about three or four weeks.  But the rest of the time we think they use slightly different habitat, they’re in different places.  But yeah it still could be the case that more and more Canada geese are having an effect on white-fronts.  It’s very very difficult to prove that, sort of competition is desperately difficult to prove in a field situation.  It’s great if you’ve got a bucket of daphnia or some captive animal where you can do horrible manipulative experiments, but out in the wild it’s very difficult to find situations where there are both Canada geese and white-fronts and then the two species separately, to be able to see the difference in behaviour and ecology and reproductive success.

Brett Westwood: 

From the Caithness interview we learned that 2010 seemed to be a better year, so are we seeing fluctuations in the numbers of green and white-fronts reaching Scotland and Ireland

Professor Tony Fox: 

Yeah, 2010 was an extraordinary year because that year I was actually in West Greenland in the spring, so I can tell you first hand that it was so hot and it was so mild.  And it was a spring when the birds arrived, I was there, the first bird actually arrived on the 1st May and then we had a trickle in the next few days, there was no snow.  And a lot of the lakes at quite high level had melted already because it was an exceptionally early spring.  And that year on Isla for instance, the geese brought home 22.8% young.  Now that is way above, and we haven’t seen production above 10% for donkeys’ years, so to have 22.8% was a real boom, in fact it was the best year since 1985.

Now that to me shows that it isn’t solely Canada geese, because there were just as many Canada geese in West Greenland on the breeding areas in 2010, and yet the birds came back with more young than they’ve had for many many years.  So that to me is evidence that it’s more likely to be weather on the west coast than anything else, or a combination of factors including weather.

Brett Westwood: 

So if we get everything right in Scotland and in Ireland and other places where they winter in Europe, is it really in the lap of the gods as to what happens in Greenland?

Professor Tony Fox: 

Well it’s always the case.  I mean one of the things you learn about working in the Arctic, you often go up there and you sit in the blooming airport lounge for a couple of weeks waiting for the weather to clear.  It’s a way of life, you just cannot predict from one year to the other what’s going to happen.  I remember in 1979 we arrived in early May and there was no snow at all, we went back in 1984 thinking we knew it all, and we stepped out of the helicopter and I disappeared up to my chest in snow drifts.  It was just chalk and cheese, and that snow that year for instance stayed until the beginning of June when we had this amazing Fern wind which is a katabatic wind comes off the ice cap, it’s like standing in a hairdryer.  It’s a hot wind and all this snow melted literally over two days, and there was water everywhere, we couldn’t move from one day to the next for ice and then for water, running water was everywhere.  It washed away our camp, it washed everything, it was just unbelievable.

There are no two years in the Arctic the same, and even though obviously there’s horrendous warming and very rapid change now, it’s still very unpredictable, and those are the conditions the geese have to put up with.  And that’s why I love them, that’s why I admire them, because whatever happens here they have no idea what happens up there on the breeding areas from year to year, it is extraordinary what they have to put up with.

Brett Westwood: 

So do we worry about conserving them?

Professor Tony Fox: 

Yeah we must, because they’re part of our unique natural history, and our cultural heritage as well.  These birds undoubtedly have lived on the western fringe of the European land mass, even when it wasn’t necessarily Britain, going back through to not just the last ice age but other ice ages.  And as I say when abandonment of pasture goes on and the human culture moves off of the land in West Argyle for instance, then the geese go as well, you know, it’s all part of the fabric of the landscape, it’s not just humans, it’s not just nature, it’s an interrelationship.  And we’re missing things and we need to keep that alive.

 

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