I’m Anne and have been working at WWT for six years now – I’ve recently started a new role in the Species Recovery Unit after transferring over from WWT Consulting. I’m now spending most of my time working on the Safe Grounds for Red-breasts LIFE+ project, which is the reason I’m writing from a Bulgarian hotel looking out over the Black Sea. I’ll be here in Dobrudzha for two months helping with the various fieldwork activities that are going on here in one of the major wintering grounds of the red-breasted goose.
One of our key objectives is to catch some red-breasted geese and fit satellite transmitters to them, so that we can learn more about their movements here and along their migration routes. However, we’re now two weeks into our month-long mission to catch the birds and so far we’ve had little success.
These satellite transmitters can be attached to red-breasted geese like a backpack (c) Sacha Dench WWT
Red-breasts can usually be seen here in their thousands at this time of year – over 80% of the world population have been recorded wintering in the area. But no more than 300 birds have been spotted since our arrival in early January, reducing our chances to catch some.
A flock of red-breasted and white-fronted geese in Bulgaria 2011 (c) Sacha Dench WWT
The number of geese wintering in Bulgaria does vary greatly between years. Cold Siberian winters usually force the geese south from Russia and Ukraine to the relatively-warmer wetlands of coastal Dobrudzha in Bulgaria and Romania. This winter has been unusually warm though. The geese, wanting to stay as close to the breeding grounds in the Russian tundra as possible to reduce the length of the return slog north, haven’t been driven as far south as Bulgaria, as they would in extreme (or even normal!) cold weather.
So we have been bracing ourselves daily for the weather forecast, hoping for some colder weather. In between, the catching team from WWT and BSPB has been making dawn trips to locate the few geese there are, as they move from their roosts on the Black Sea, Durankulak and Shabla Lakes to feed in arable fields.
Fortunately, despite the low numbers the birds tend to stay in the same flock, along with the more numerous greater white-fronted geese and they have been using the same few fields sown with winter wheat close to Durankulak.
The WWT/BSPB goose catching team monitoring the fields (c) Sacha Dench WWT
Watching the geese in the fields allows the team to detect any signs of predictability in their activity, which will hopefully allow us pinpoint locations to set the cannon nets we use to catch the geese. Puddles in fields, for example, are good locations for catching because geese need to drink during the day.
Setting cannon nets for catching red-breasted geese in 2011 (c) Sacha Dench WWT
This week the team found red-breasts and white-fronts using puddles in the tyre tracks along a dirt road – seemingly, a good place to set the nets that night. Unfortunately, the next day, although the flock was is the right field, the birds stayed well away from the nets. They were frequently buzzed by white-tailed eagles and peregrine falcons. At that point, they took to the air, and returned to the lake nearby where they took the opportunity to have a drink, which meant they didn’t need to return to the puddles.
Today however, we’ve had good news. Around 2,000 red-breasted geese have been seen, coinciding with a drop in temperature. This bodes well – or at least better – for the next two weeks, so fingers crossed we’ll catch some geese soon.
Flock of red-breasted and white-fronted geese in Bulgaria 2011 (c) Sacha Dench WWT
Winter wheat in Bulgaria (c) Sacha Dench WWT
Safe Ground for Redbreasts is a partnership between BSPB, WWT, RSPB, Kirilovi Ltd – an agricultural cooperative – and the Shabla Hunting and Angling Association. It has been made possible with the contribution of the LIFE financial instrument of the European Community (No. LIFE 09/NAT/BG/00023)