Guest blog by Amy Burns, Fermanagh Reserves Warden
Greenland white-fronted geese are a winter visitor to Northern Ireland, migrating from their breeding grounds in Western Greenland.
Arriving at the end of October after travelling 1,900 miles, they will remain here until April. The island of Ireland holds more than half of the world’s wintering population of these birds. The largest flocks can be seen on the Wexford Slobs, which supports a spectacular 10,000 geese each winter. However, smaller flocks can be seen across the country including at Lough Foyle, Lough Swilly and several locations in Fermanagh. They are monitored monthly at traditional sites by RSPB NI reserve staff during this time when numbers of adults and juveniles are counted.
They can be distinguished from greylag geese as they are smaller and have a large white patch at the front of their head around the beak and bold black bars on their belly with orange legs and beak; the young birds of the year, however, do not have a white forehead or black belly bars and hence look very like other species of goose. Traditionally they were known as the ‘bog goose’ because of their preference for feeding and roosting in upland and river valley bog areas.
They can be secretive birds and are not easy to find amongst the undulating landscape of the bogs on which they feed, primarily on white-beaked sedge and bog cotton. They do, however, switch to re-seeded grassland to ‘bulk up’ before they commence the journey back to their breeding grounds and are much easier to find and identify.
They are very site faithful, meaning they return to the same wintering ground every year. Migrating in family groups, the young stay with their parents during their migratory flight and throughout the winter before returning together as a group to Greenland.
Unfortunately some traditional feeding sites in Northern Ireland have been lost because of drainage, peat cutting and afforestation. Inappropriate siting of wind turbines could also potentially threaten some flocks and the geese are also very vulnerable to human disturbance. They are fully protected by law and cannot be shot.
Thanks to the appointment of a Project Officer in Fermanagh through the Co-operation Across Borders for Biodiversity (CABB) project, funded through the European Union’s INTERREG VA Programme, RSPB NI will be producing a management plan working with landowners and providing land management advice on how best to safeguard one of the sites used by this secretive migratory goose.