Satellites Help Reveal Secrets of Epic Goose Migration

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From Iceland, the geese embark on a perilous 1,865-mile (3,000-kilometer) flight over Greenland's ice cap to their Canadian breeding grounds.

Robinson noted that the study also provided information on bird behavior at the breeding site. "We learned some new things about where these birds were spending the summer," he said.

Migrating Geese Run a Gauntlet of Predators

Researchers were most interested in gathering data on the bird's migration from Iceland to Canada and, later, their return migration to Ireland. Researchers fitted the birds with tags during their stopover in Iceland, rather than their original departure grounds in Ireland, to conserve battery power.

"The bird Oscar never left Iceland," Robinson recalled. "Some kids collecting eiderdown found him. He was likely the victim of a bird of prey, something like a Gyr falcon."

The death highlighted the predatory dangers the geese face in addition to the hazards of migration.

The geese began moving in mid-June. The bird Arnthor was lost on Disko Island, off the west coast of Greenland. "We knew that there were probably hunters in this area," Robinson said. "Given that the transmitter just stopped dead, we suspect that it might have been shot in Greenland. But we don't know what's happened to that bird. That's one of the ones we're still looking for in Ireland."

Four birds were tracked across Canada, including a goose nicknamed Kerry. The bird later perished. In July, Canadian Wildlife Service Officials near Resolute Bay on Cornwallis Island decided to look for Kerry on the ground because he was transmitting from an area close to their station.

After fruitlessly searching goose-populated wetland areas, the officials realized that when they were in the town of Resolute Bay the signal grew stronger.

"They tracked it to a house and knocked on the door," Robinson recalled. "The guy inside said, 'Yeah, I shot the goose.'"

The bird was found hanging in the hunter's freezer, though researchers view the incident a bit differently than one might expect.

"For the goose it was unlucky, but it was actually a fortunate occurrence because it identifies a threat that we didn't know these birds were under," Robinson said. In light of Kerry's death, Wetlands and Wildfowl Trust staff would like to further investigate Arctic hunting and to learn how many birds are shot each year.

Subsistence hunting is currently legal in the Arctic unless the number of birds taken is unsustainable.

Hugh and Major Rutledge, two surviving geese from the study, have successfully returned to winter in Ireland. Though their transmitters have lost power and detached as planned, they are distinctively tagged and have been spotted by project volunteers.

The same volunteers continue to search for the two geese as yet unaccounted for. "We'll be going around Ireland to various estuary areas to try to locate Austin and Arnthor," said Robinson. "We're expecting to see Austin in Ireland somewhere this winter."

Austin last transmitted on Ellesmere Island back in September, before the batteries on his transmitter expired.

Results from the project have been very positive, filling in many holes in knowledge of exactly when and how the birds make their annual trek. "We now have a good indication of where the birds were going and where their important staging areas are," Robinson said. "So we're trying to get experts and policy makers together, in all the countries along the route, to work on a concerted flyway management plan. Without the project we might never have been able to do this."

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