Satellites Help Reveal Secrets of Epic Goose Migration

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
December 27, 2002

Researchers continue to search Irish wetlands for two light-bellied brent geese named Arnthor and Austin, who disappeared during a satellite-tracking project following the birds' annual migration. Four other geese tracked during the project have already provided researchers with new information on the bird's traditional migration route from Ireland to Arctic Canada. The findings may help wildlife managers protect the threatened species in the future.

The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, a United Kingdom-based international wetland conservation charity, began satellite tracking of migrating light-bellied brent geese last summer with support from the National Geographic Society.

Using newly available technology, scientists fitted the birds with lightweight, battery-operated transmitters to pinpoint the bird's location for researchers.

Light-bellied brent geese (Branta bernicla hrota) undertake the longest, and likely most dangerous, migration of any goose species.

The epic flight takes the geese from their winter home in Ireland to breeding areas on the tundra of the Queen Elizabeth Islands in the high Arctic region of Eastern Canada. "Few people in Ireland know that the geese they see in winter travel all the way to Canada in the summer," said James Robinson of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust.

Migration Information Drives Conservation Efforts

"Two of the six birds originally tagged made the complete epic round journey back to Ireland and can be seen occasionally on Strangford Lough," wrote Tony Richardson, managing director of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, in a year-end review of the project.

Two other tagged geese died during migration, but not before providing researchers valuable information about migration and breeding habits of the species.

Understanding the patterns of the long migration is essential to enacting conservation measures to protect the geese. The Eastern Canada population of light-bellied brent geese is relatively small, comprising perhaps only 20,000 birds. It is currently protected by the EU, Canada, and the African-Eurasian Waterbird Agreement.

"We were very interested in learning more about the migration route of this bird," said James Robinson of the Wetlands and Wildfowl Trust. "We had to do it remotely, because we knew the geese passed through very remote areas with no humans. In Europe we can often use a network of people who spot migrating birds and record their movements."

The bird's arduous migration first entails a long sea-crossing between Ireland and Iceland. The geese "stage" in the island's Alftanes area just west of Reykjavik, where they fatten up before continuing their migration. While the bird's winter weight hovers between 2.9 to 3.5 pounds (1.3 to 1.6 kilograms), their weight grows to approximately 4.4 pounds (2 kilograms) before departing for the Canadian Arctic.

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