Finally getting round to posting what I wrote on Saturday. Better late than never..
The 2 hour ferry crossing from Kennacraig on Kintyre to Port Askaig on the Eastern side of Islay seems as appropriate a place as any to start this blog – which will hopefully give a bit of an insight into the fun, games and interesting places I’ll come across this winter whilst conducting fieldwork on Greenland white-fronted geese upon the Hebridean island of Islay.
I guess the first question is why?! The short answer is that Islay (pronounced eye-la) is very important for geese – and some of those are particularly interesting. Which begs the question..
Islay is renowned for whiskey (definitely the topic of a future blog post or three) and wildlife. In wildlife terms it is perhaps most famous for hosting over 40,000 barnacle geese; who come here for some winter warmth (?!) from their east Greenland breeding grounds. However in mid-late October each year the barnies are joined by Greenland white-fronts – described by a BBC World Service programme in 2008 as one of the “world’s most charismatic birds”! Whilst this may be arguable to all but the most over-enthusiastic goose aficionados, they truly are a remarkable bird. They undertake an arduous migration in the spring and autumn each year between their nesting sites in west Greenland and their wintering areas in Ireland and Scotland, via Iceland.
Rather touchingly, they live in tight-knit family groups; a rare trait in nature and unheard of amongst waterfowl. We know (from studying birds that have been caught and marked with uniquely coded orange neck collars) that some individuals will stay with their parents in a non-breeding capacity for up to nine years – probably foregoing all chance of breeding themselves, but almost certainly benefitting their family members in the process.
Y6H - marked in Iceland this year. We'll be keeping an eye out for him!
However the white-fronts are in trouble. They are undergoing a dramatic population crash – 40% in the last 10-15 years – from a high of 35,600 in the spring of 1999 to a current population around 22,000 birds. As such, they are classed as Endangered and in the UK are red-listed as a species of conservation concern. Critically, the Islay population has declined considerably faster than the global average – from around 13,000 to about 5,000 during the same period. The reasons behind this particular decline are what we are trying to establish through this project. It seems that either the Islay birds aren’t getting the resources through the winter they need to successfully breed later in the year, or, they are simply spending the winter elsewhere.
I’ll save the detail of how we’ll attempt to answer these questions for another time – something to look forward to, maybe?! Meanwhile, the ferry is approaching the jetty and I’m about to set wheels on Islay for the first time. Will let you know how we get on!