Where do the geese go? Some unexpected answers

Officials are learning more about snow geese from a handful of satellite transmitters affixed to members of the flock that migrates to the Northwest from Russia.

The first thing they’ve learned is that geese don’t like transmitters.

“We lost (signals from) three of them in the first week,” said Don Kraege, head of the waterfowl section for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. “We saw one of them chew the antennae off.”

One goose died during migration and another was shot during hunting season in Alaska. That means five of the original 10 transmitters installed were working when the birds flew to their breeding ground on Wrangel Island in Russia this spring and returned to Northwest Washington this fall.

The trip to Russia, about 3,100 miles, took the birds about two months. It took them about half that time to come back. “They were much quicker than we thought,” Kraege said.

The migration route was also a surprise because officials had always assumed the geese flew along the coastline through Canada and Alaska, taking stopovers to feed and to rest.

What they found was that two of the birds with transmitters flew east of the Rocky Mountains into Calgary, Alberta, a migration route for the geese wintering in the eastern United States.

“That’s new information,” said Joe Evenson, who tracks the geese for the state wildlife department.

Kraege said that’s important because Alberta officials are considering expanding the hunting season for snow geese because they believe they’ve got an excess.

“If the Wrangel birds are mixed in, that has to be considered,” he said.

Evenson said the transmitters show that the birds fly in the open ocean much more that expected, which may account for the quick trip back from Russia.

“We thought they went along the coast more,” he said. “It’s shorter, but it’s more dangerous (over the ocean). It’s possible they were riding a weather front.”

Locally, the geese spend the night in Skagit Bay and in Port Susan Bay south of Stanwood. During the day, many eat in farm fields in Snohomish and Skagit counties, with some flying to the Fraser River delta in British Columbia.

Evenson said there’s a lot of fragmenting of the flock. In Snohomish County, there are small groups going to a variety of farm fields from Stanwood and Silvana to Snohomish and Monroe.

There are about 70,000 snow geese wintering in the region, down from a peak of about 100,000 in 2009. Evenson said the flock is healthy and the lower number of local visitors could mean that larger percentages of them are going to California.

Vasiliy Baranyuk, a senior scientist with the Wrangel Island Nature Reserve in Russia, who has studied snow geese there for decades, said the numbers of birds on Russia’s mainland tundra are increasing.

As he has for several years, Baranyuk will study snow geese in Western Washington this winter.

The transmitters will help scientists on the ground understand the birds better. Watching their migration path should “help us give them more protection,” Kraege said.

The state has used transmitters on other migratory birds, like scoters, but this is the first time they’ve put them on snow geese.

In addition to studying the migration path of the birds, this is the first time they’ve been able to see where the geese go locally and where they go at night.

The transmitters were funded mostly by a federal grant and are equipped with batteries expected to last three years. State officials would like to install more of them.

“Just a handful of transmitters have shown us things we weren’t expecting,” Evenson said, noting the two birds that flew to Calgary. “We’d like to see if that’s normal.”

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