The Greenland White-fronted Geese Leave Galloway & Head North

Greenland White-fronted geese are a distinct and relatively rare race of white-fronted geese (Anser albifrons) which breed in Greenland and over-winter in Britain and Ireland. The British wintering population includes sites in the north and west of Scotland, with only two wintering flocks in southern mainland Scotland – one of which is found right here in the Ken/Dee Valley around Loch Ken.


Global wintering numbers of Greenland White-Fronted Geese declined from approx. 20,000 in the 1950s to approx. 15,000 by the mid-1970s. A hunting ban implemented in Scotland and Ireland in 1982 caused numbers to increase immediately in these two countries. Annual winter census counts since then have been coordinated by the national Greenland White-fronted Study Group and indicate that numbers have declined again and that these birds are now near globally threatened with some small wintering sites no longer attracting any birds.


This is quite a small goose, rather smaller than the more familiar greylag. The name of the Greenland sub-species refers to the white between the eye and the beak, on the ‘front’ of the face.


The other flock in southern mainland Scotland is at West Freugh near Stranraer and both sites have been designated as Special Protection Areas. Numbers wintering around Loch Ken gradually increased from the late 70’s to the late 80’s from about 300 – 350 birds and were largely stable.  Since then the Lock Ken flock has shown a marked decline to under 200 birds in recent years.

One of the projects supported through the Galloway Glens Scheme is an initiative led by RSPB Scotland (Scottish Lowlands & Southern Uplands) and the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust to raise the profile of these special birds, focussing on the flock that overwinters around Loch Ken. The project has seen the tagging of a number of geese to better understand their use of wintering habitat and to track their migration, with work underway with local farmers to make habitat management plans as partners seek to protect this iconic species.


To date, this project has seen 5 tags fitted to Greenland White Fronted Geese from the Galloway flock, two of which were funded through the project. The tagged birds are known by the codes on their collars, such as XV and XU. There was much excitement this week as the Geese departed Galloway, heading north for their annual migration.


Their progress is being monitored by Julia Gallagher, from RSPB Scotland. Having seen the migration get underway, Julia said:

In these challenging days of Homo Sapien lock-down due to COVID–19 it is at least reassuring to see our geese paying no observance of movement restrictions or isolation measures. Indeed, a goose travelling alone is no goose at all since it finds itself at increased risk of predation and the impact of inclement weather. So safety in numbers is key and while our tracking data appears to show the ‘XU’ tagged goose travelling solo we know that it is accompanied by fellow untagged geese flanking its sides.
XU is the only bird tagged by our project in 2018 that successfully returned to Loch Ken last October to spend its winter on local farms. XV, another project bird decided to stay on Tiree on its way back from Iceland where it paired up with a mate while 38 and 39 were sadly lost to predation. We therefore have a lot pinning on XU and it is with great anticipation that we witnessed her departure to Iceland today. Tracking data over the past months has shown her feeding and roosting on local farms including on four farms where we have management plans in place or pending.
Yesterday she was close to our local office at Crossmichael before taking to the wing this morning (31/03/2020) at 06.00 heading due north-west towards the Argyllshire peninsula. She immediately followed the east bank of Loch Ken crossing to the west at New Galloway, past St Johns of Dalry keeping west of Earlston loch then through the Galloway Forest park crossing Loch Doon at 07.29 before heading off the mainland north-west of Maybole at 08.10.
She continued on as far as the Outer Hebrides to North Uist, a ten-hour flight non-stop to safe ground where she has alighted just across the road from our very own RSPB reserve at Balranald! We’ve asked staff to be on the look out for her and her family. XU was spotted by Arthur who is one of our project volunteer surveyors and long-term local study group members with her partner and four juveniles after she returned last October at Loch Ken which confirms that she had a successful breeding season in Greenland last summer. We weren’t certain of her success at the end of last summer but we were hopeful when we had this update from WWT’s Larry Griffin who had started to download the data from tags from over the summer months on Greenland.
We had a quick rattle through the data coming in live from XU and XV in Greenland, XU has back-filled all the summer data and a quick check of that suggested it laid about 5 eggs and then got down to incubation on 4th June and completed it by 2 July with a bread-crumb trail from its nest at 700+m up to nearby lakes and then eastwards towards further lakes nearer the ice cap. A classic trail of a bird with a brood so that looks really promising, let’s hope we see it back at Loch Ken”.


Julia added:

We’ll keep you posted on news of XU’s continued journey onwards to Iceland over the next few days though she may be tempted to take the opportunity to stay for a bit of rest bite at the excellent b+b facilities provided by our Balranald nature reserve on the Uists…!


Nick Chisholm, Galloway Glens Project Officer, said:

Animal migration is one of the wonders of nature and in Scotland each spring and autumn there is a huge shuffling of wildlife with species returning from their wintering grounds and at the same time our winter visitors moving on to their own breeding grounds. The Greenland White Fronted goose has a particularly hard route, traveling from firstly from Scotland to Iceland and then over the Greenlandic glacier to the shores of Baffin bay to breed in the short artic summer.
The radio transmitters that we are buying allow us to get an insight into their travels, how fast they are going, where they are. We can even work out things like breeding success and foraging behaviour. All of this information allows the RSPB and WWT to conserve the species. Please keep an eye on the Galloway Glens facebook page as we track their progress!


McNabb Laurie, Galloway Glens Team Leader, added:

“People of Galloway are used to seeing geese in the sky at this time of year, but may not know this includes our flock of Greenland White Fronted Geese which are increasingly rare. Thanks to funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, with support from a range of partners, we are able to better understand, raise the profile and ultimately support efforts to protect this vulnerable species.”

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