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The epic migration of the Brent goose
By James McLachlan
The Brent goose makes an annual 8000-mile pilgrimage to Jersey's shores. Mike Stentiford explains why.
More than a thousand small dark geese settle each winter around Jersey’s coasts. Their arrival is a sure fire sign the year is drawing to a close.
The journey they make, from as far away as arctic Siberia and Canada, is fraught with danger.
The geese are a favourite among the island’s bird watchers, and for President of the National Trust for Jersey Mike Stentiford they hold a special place in Jersey life.
Loyalty to Jersey
Mike said: “What I like about the old Brent goose is its loyalty to Jersey. The first record of them in a Jersey history book was way back in 1694.”
“We have so many, around a thousand each year. Guernsey has nothing like those numbers simply because the quantity of food is not there.
“Birds will only go from A to B or what have you, because of the food source. If the food source is not there they won’t come.”
The food supply which attracts the geese is a variety of sea grasses, which grow around Jersey’s shores.
One such grass is eel grass, identified by its thin short strands. But there are other varieties as Jersey’s marine and coastal officer Greg Morel explains:
Goose staple: Eel grass
“We have beds which extend from Fliquet on the north-east corner right the way around to St Aubin’s Bay.
“We have two types of sea grass. One is sub-tidal, which means it is never exposed when the tides go out.
“Another one which is exposed is higher up the beach. It is a smaller type of sea grass, which looks like the grass you have in your garden.”
Experts in Jersey are mapping the sea grasses in an attempt to monitor whether there are any significant changes.
Greg Morel said: “If we find there are changes we will investigate what might be done to mitigate those.”
There are two species of Brent goose that make Jersey their winter holiday destination. The dark-bellied variety spends a short summer in Iceland and further north into arctic Siberia.
They then make the epic journey to Jersey because of the winter food shortages in that most inhospitable part of the world.
Mr Stentiford said: “If you imagine Jersey on the global map, in the northern hemisphere you have got the Channel Islands and the UK. Then you go right up to Greenland and Iceland.
“The geese travel a definite pathway. The fact they have been flying this journey for hundreds of years shows the map is inbuilt into their little computer system, so to speak.”
The pale-bellied geese come all the way from arctic Canada to St Aubin’s Bay. According to Mike Stentiford, this is a very special destination.
“I believe there are only a handful of places, a few in Ireland and some on the French mainland. But Jersey is the only place the pale-bellied race winter,” he said.
Brent geese tucking into eel grass
When the birds leave Jersey, some stop to rest and refuel at a nature reserve at Strangford Lough in Northern Ireland, before their last great effort to their arctic breeding ground.
The 8000-mile round trip will take them to Iceland over the Greenland ice cap and on to north-east and high arctic Canada.
Keeping an eye on the birds as they come through is Dave Thompson, the National Trust property manager at Strangford Lough.
He explains how perilous the migration is: “The weather they can get, and I have sailed up there, can be quite appalling. If there is a strong wind in the opposite direction to the way they are travelling that can make the journey all the more strenuous.”
“The weaker birds can be be put under enormous pressure. If they have not got well fed and aren't in good condition those sort of journeys take their toll.”
Nature at its best
After a short breeding season the geese will start their journey back to Jersey. It is an awe-inspiring event says Mr Thompson.
“This is nature at its best. I mean why got to the high arctic? Why not just stay in Jersey? But it doesn’t provide the sort of places they want to breed in and bring up youngsters.”
“The trade-off is no food in the winter. This is the dynamics of the bird. They are locked into this pattern.”
For more than 300 years the arrival and departure of the Brent geese has signaled the changing seasons in Jersey. So you may be sad to see them leave and glad when they return.
last updated: 21/04/2009 at 14:29
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