Wild goose chase takes researchers to the Arctic

Published on: 18 June 2014

The team will be spending three months monitoring Brent geese. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Shotgun training and Arctic survival were just some the skills a team of University of Exeter researchers needed before heading out to the Arctic last week to monitor the breeding habits of geese.

The team of three, led by Stuart Bearhop, a professor of animal ecology, will spend three months at the Eureka station on Canada’s Ellesmere Island looking at the winter breeding habits of light-bellied Brent geese. These geese migrate over vast distances, but little is known about how animals cope with the immense physiological demands of migration. This project aims to better understand the physiological costs of long-distance migration and how this affects animals’ reproduction once they reach their breeding grounds.

The Exeter researchers will join seven others at the Eureka station, which is the second northernmost permanent research community in the world.

This research is part of an ongoing project; Professor Bearhop was at the station in 2007. He said: “Initially the work will involve going out in the helicopter and looking to see if birds and colonies we identified in 2007 are still there. In the breeding areas we will be studying their basic biology and investigating the size and weight of the clutches of eggs and the females who are incubating them.

“I will be leaving in July but the two post docs will say on until August. After I leave they will camp at the colonies where they will go out to the islands during hatching and record how many of the clutches hatch.

“The third stage of the project is to catch the breeding geese to collect blood samples and ring them so we can identify them when they get back down Ireland. We round them up with the helicopter because they are all flightless at this time of year - the babies can’t yet fly and the adults shed their flight feathers.”

Breeding

The team have already collected blood samples from the geese at different stages of migration to understand what they are eating to fuel their journey and how much stress individual birds are under. They travel around 3,000 miles in three months from their grazing areas in Ireland via Iceland to their breading site in the Queen Elizabeth Islands in the Canadian high Arctic.

Postdoctoral researcher Dr Ian Cleasby explained: “The reasons the birds choose to breed in the high Arctic is probably due to the relatively low numbers of predators. The geese are vulnerable throughout the chick rearing period and during their moult when they are unable to fly.”

The group will also have an Inuit student working alongside them bringing field skills and experience to the project. Professor Bearhop is also hoping to get her involved in the scientific side of the project.

But before the Exeter trio could depart for the Arctic they needed to undergo rigorous preparation and training. They attended two Arctic survival courses that taught them far-from-help (days rather than hours) first aid, including how to help a patient through those days where you can maintain them even if you can't fully resolve their issues. They also discovered how fast you can create a shelter out of a handful of pegs and a cheap tarp.

Postdoctoral researcher Dr Thomas Bodey said: “Learning how little in the way of fancy gizmos you need to make shelter, and how much you can do with a few simple items, was very enlightening.”

Training

Professor Bearhop said the last time he was in the Arctic he saw some ‘spectacular’ wildlife including Arctic wolves and polar bears – hence the need for shotgun training.

The shotgun training saw the researchers firing at incoming projectiles and learning how to strip down and care for the guns. In order to take the weapons to the Arctic Dr Bodey had to apply for a gun licence.

He explained: “I had to get a shotgun license to borrow guns from our Irish colleagues so we can legally hold them in the country before taking them to Canada. We also have to buy special solid slugs, which are illegal in the UK, as these are the only things that can stop a very large animal.”

Dr Cleasby added: “The shotgun training was great fun. I had never used a shotgun before so I was a bit apprehensive at first and also concerned that I would not be the worst shot.”

Dr Bodey has spent the last six months planning and getting all the correct permits in place, this included having to put the work to a consultation process of aboriginal peoples.

He was also in charge of online shopping. He explained: “This was interesting as I was unable to choose specific items or see what the store stocked. I had to suggest broad items eg, 'chocolate bars, various types' and trust that the pickers would mix it up and not provide us with bizarre options. I then had to check the list of supplies in French which added to the fun. Also rather than giving a delivery address, you gave delivery coordinates!”

Expedition

The team are looking forward to the expedition.

Dr Cleasby said: “I am looking forward to the trip although I must admit there is a certain degree of trepidation as well. I have done fieldwork on various bird species before which has taken me to various small islands and even fishing vessels. However, I have never been somewhere as remote as the high Arctic and for that length of time.”

Dr Bodey added: “It is quite nerve-wracking trying to sort everything, checking that all the licenses, permits and equipment are ready. However, I am sure it is going to be fun, and we are all extremely privileged to be able to go to these types of places as part of our work. To actually see the whole of the migration cycle of these birds is fantastic, and to be in a place few people get to visit is always special.”

You can follow the progress of the project on Twitter at @brentgoosechase or check out their blog

We will be speaking to the team again when they return in August.

Related links

» Irish Brent Goose Research Group
» Wildfowl and Wetland Trust

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