Taking one of the world's most dangerous migration routes, this compact goose travels from its wintering grounds in Strangford Lough, Northern Ireland to its breeding grounds in the Canadian Arctic via the 2700 metre high Greenland ice cap. Until now no one has set out to witness this crossing.
Up to 85% of the world population congregate in Strangford Lough in October. By early winter most will spread south down the Irish coastline. Through April and May they move north to Iceland, pausing there for six to eight weeks. In late May or early June they fly en masse across the huge Greenland ice cap, over the sea ice of Baffin Bay and onward to the Queen Elizabeth Islands in Arctic Canada.
The geese fatten up in Ireland and Iceland before tackling the most arduous stretch of their migration.
Reason for migration
They summer in the Arctic because of the relative absence of predators or competing species. It's not clear why this species crosses the Atlantic for the summer instead of following other geese down the east coast of America. They leave the Arctic winter to escape temperatures of thirty degrees below zero and twenty-four hour darkness.
Time and Distance
3000 km over three months.
The population has undergone large fluctuations in the last forty years. There are concerns that a shortage of their favoured eel grass in Strangford Lough and other sites in Ireland and Iceland will put a stop to a recent rise in numbers. Eel grass is vulnerable to a voracious wasting disease and could also be threatened by sea-level rise.
In the autumn of 2007, 29,500 Light-bellied Brent Geese were counted in Strangford Lough. This dense concentration is in sharp contrast to their behaviour in the high Canadian Arctic. Here the birds spread out amongst the Queen Elizabeth Islands in an area the size of Western Europe. Recent studies using satellite tagging have given scientists the chance to find out more about their summer behaviour and provided clues about their astonishing feat of migration.
Brent Geese breeding further south in the low Arctic take the shortest, simplest route to wintering grounds down the east coast of America. The 'Eastern High Arctic' geese, in common with just a handful of species such as the knot, chooses a hazardous crossing of the North Atlantic to Europe. It had been assumed that this journey required the geese to follow the coast of Greenland but recent tagging has proven that they actually fly over the 2700 metre high Greenland ice cap. For a goose to reach this altitude and cross an ice desert is an extraordinary feat of energetics.
What happened in 2008?
No one has knowingly witnessed this migration but World on the Move, in conjunction with Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust researcher Kendrew Colhoun and his Icelandic collaborator Gudmundur Gudmundsson, attached satellite tags to 3 Brents - Skywalker, Geysir and Nendrum to track their progress across the Greenland ice cap.
Skywalker and Nendrum both completed the epic journey to the Queen Elizabeth Islands of Arctic Canada by June. Nendrum settled on Ellesmere Island and Skywalker on Amund Ringnes Island. Skywalker arrived first and thus secures the Top Goose accolade. Unfortunately, Geysir failed to overcome the 2700 m high Greenland ice cap having floundered on the Eastern coast of Greenland.