BATON ROUGE — That waterfowl migrate north in the spring is certainly no revelation.
But researching the migration patterns of geese and ducks is paramount for biologists to gain a better understanding of these species.
A female greater white-fronted goose, also known as a spec or speckle belly, tagged in southwest Louisiana by state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries biologists in November of 2018 helped open the window into the incredible journey the birds make.
The goose trekked more than 5,470 miles over the course of eight weeks on her spring migration, starting near the Texas-Mexico border to Alaska’s Arctic North Slope region, said biologist Paul Link, LDWF’s North American Waterfowl Management Plan Coordinator.
“And that doesn’t account for all the daily foraging flights she made,’’ said Link, who captured and tagged the bird on Nov. 22, 2018. “It’s crazy to think she racked up more than 11,000 miles on her annual migration. Amazing birds. Amazing technology unlocking their mysteries.’’
The tagged goose is part of an LDWF study in which the primary goal is to determine use of habitats by white-fronts in Louisiana then look at status and trends of those habitats over time. Link started the project in 2015 and is collaborating with others to assess other aspects of the data.
White-fronts making this migration is nothing new. Band recovery data has documented this for decades and LDWF radio-marked birds have selected this area in previous years. What makes this bird’s trip so impressive is it was tracked in near real time. New cell towers being built in Arctic villages and research stations enabled two data transmissions on this bird’s spring migration. Normally that data wouldn’t be retrieved until the bird initiated fall migration and hit cell service somewhere in Prairie Canada.
The transmitters gather more data than just a spot on a map.
“The data these transmitters collect is just phenomenal,’’ Link said. “They collect everything from the air temperature and the percentage of cloud cover to the barometric pressure from the nearest weather station as well as accelerometer (how fast the bird flies) data. During flight we know she is heading 283 degrees at 117 kilometers per hour and is 2,083 meters in altitude. All that information can be pieced together to determine their energetic demands, or how much fuel they need to make those big moves.’’
She flew 636 miles non-stop to the Isabel, Kansas, area on her first migration leg. She then flew 415 miles on another leg and 325 miles to Peace River area in Alberta, Canada.
On May 4, she made a 770-mile non-stop flight from the Peace River to a frozen mountain lake 75 miles northeast of Whitehorse, Yukon Territory. The next day she flew 1,038 miles to the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve off Alaska’s Bering Sea.
“That’s roughly the distance between Baton Rouge and Minneapolis,’’ Link said. “That is some rugged country without any food along the way. Everything is still frozen solid and snow covered up there right now.’’
The reason they want to get back quickly is to secure prime Arctic breeding spots in the summer, Link said.
Finally, she flew another 360 miles coming close to Russia during the flight and to her last known location on Alaska’s North Slope.
“They’re an interesting species because they arrive down here (Louisiana Gulf Coast) really early,’’ Link said.
“Most white-fronts don’t wait to get pushed down here by weather like some other waterfowl species. They depart the north when there is a lot of open water and food. Conversely, in the spring they’re chasing the ice line trying to go back north. They’re trying to be the first one back to the Arctic, gambling on their fitness and when Arctic ice-out will occur.’’
Link said there is an advantage to the birds getting to the region early so they can defend their preferred spot.
“These birds have a nest bowl on the edge of a wetland,’’ Link said. “The male will chase other geese away from their chosen piece of real estate. Goslings are going to be flightless for 4-5 weeks after they hatch. They select nest sites where they can walk the young to prime grazing areas. If they don’t get a good spot, they may have a farther walk to get the goslings to a safe place.’’
The birds Link has captured span the entirety of the breeding range of white-fronts from east to west.
“It’s an enormous area spanning 2,300 miles from eastern Nunavut (in northern Canada) to the North Slope of Alaska,’’ Link said. “I capture the birds as independently as possible during the fall and winter and they branch out and go their own way. It’s great to see that we’re getting birds from the entirety of their range, not just a couple of breeding colonies. We’re learning but still have a lot of work to do.”
The tagged goose, which was harvested by a subsistence hunter on May 15 near the small Inuit village of Point Lay, made some long single-day flights as well, according to the data gathered.
Link, who was able to retrieve the transmitter from the goose, said data gathered from the study, which will continue at least two more years, is invaluable.