Champions of the Flyway
‘Beautiful’ really is not a term that is usually applied to geese. More common adjectives would be ‘noisy’, ‘scary’, or ‘intimidating’ as some species are known to be aggressive and since they are typically rather large, an encounter can end poorly. Don’t get me wrong – geese are impressive birds. They are easy to ID for beginners, powerful flyers, and occur in easy to view areas.
Anyways, back to beautiful – the Red-breasted Goose (Branta ruficollis). Closely related to Brant (Branta bernicla), which I like to call the most formal goose due to its tuxedo plumage, may actually have been a result of hybrid speciation. It seems that we have an ancestral Brant and White-cheeked Goose to thank for a chance encounter some 3.5 million years ago that resulted in what we now call the Red-breasted Goose.
These geese can be found breeding in Siberia, mostly on the Taymyr Peninsula. They can be found breeding among the dwarf birch, willows, and lichen in the unforgiving Siberian tundra. During breeding season, this goose does something pretty clever, they nest near birds of prey to protect their nest from other predators, such as Arctic foxes. Their temperament is rather timid and since they are smaller, they turn to birds like Snowy Owls and Peregrine Falcons to provide the muscle in the case of a predatory attack from something like a Siberian Gull. Otherwise, they nest on islands to further reduce the chance of a land-based attack.
In June, they will lay eggs in their shallow nests built on steep grades, like rocky outcroppings or riverbanks. Groupings of 5-6 pairs will nest near each other under the watchful eye of Peregrine Falcons, Rough-legged Buzzards, or Arctic Terns. Each pair will lay 6 or so pastel green eggs, which the female will incubate for 3-4 weeks. The male standards guard nearby. The families leave the nest a day after the chicks have hatched and follow their parents to a known feeding site.
They winter along the Black Sea in Bulgaria, Romania, and Ukraine with others that winter in Azerbaijan. Historically, they would also winter in a bay off the Caspian Sea, but due to changes in land use it has since been abandoned by the geese who would feed on cereal crops, but it is now filled with vineyards and cotton. In migration, the geese follow along a narrow migration corridor leaving the Siberian tundra in mid-September and arriving on the grounds by November.
Their diet is mostly composed of leaves, stems, and other green plant parts from grasses and sedges. When available, they also will eat cereal crops like barley and wheat. They forage similarly to that of a Canada Goose, by grazing on land. There has been records of them foraging in brackish marshes.
Red-breasted Geese are considered ‘vulnerable’, due to a variety of factors including poaching in Russia, Kazakhstan, Bulgaria, and Romania, development of tourism in wintering sites, and changing of agricultural practices.
The Champions of the Flyway is a 24-hour, whirlwind bird-a-thon throughout the Negev, southern Israel. Teams compete for four prizes: Champions of the Flyway – the team that spots the most bird species during 24-hour race; the Guardians of the Flyway – the team that fundraises the most for the conservation species; the Knights of the Flyway – the team that does the most to spread the word of the competition and conservation species to the world; Green Champions – this goes to the teams that incorporates low impact strategies to run the race.
There are a few things that really sets this experience apart. It occurs in a time and place with an incredible migration that many birders never take the opportunity to see. Birders will witness as thousands of hawks dance along the ridgeline, larks and buntings dotting sparse shrubs of a wadi, and shrikes hunting along roadsides. Also, the funds raised go towards on the ground conservation work that will have a real impact. As the competition draws in birders from around the world, you have the opportunity to share and learn with folks from all across the globe and enjoy birds together.
Anyone who has done a big day knows that making a plan and sticking to the plan are key to successful birding…but sometimes sticking to that plan doesn’t always happen. There are a couple of key places to visit on this race including Yeruham Lake, Ben Gurion Memorial, International Birding and Research Center Eilat, Yotvata Sewage Ponds, and Eilat – KM20 Plantation. It’s important to identify locations that will maximize species and minimize time needed at that particular stop.
The competition day starts at midnight looking for owls, nightjars, and anything else you can scare up on the way up to the northern section of the play field. Most teams congregate around Yeruham Lake around sunrise in search of your first water birds like crakes, herons, ducks and then open field birds as the sun begins to warm the grass and birds begin to forage for the day. The next few hours are filled scanning along any accessible water body for what might be taking advantage of water or riparian vegetation and the roadsides for any larks or shrikes that are hunting in the desert. Mid-afternoon is a great time to look for raptors and other soaring birds from atop the Ben Gurion Monument or at the vulture feeding station. More searching along the desert highways till you make it closer to Eilat and hit a few of the key hotspots: Wadi Shaalav for the Blue Rock-Thrush, Ortolan Buntings, Yellow Wagtail (in almost all subspecies), and wheatears; Neot Smadar for more raptors, storks, Eurasian Wryneck, Palestine Sunbird; Yotvata Sewage Ponds for Collared Pratincole, Egyptian Goose, and wagtails; KM20 ponds for Greater Flamingo, Lichtenstein’s Sandgrouse, a variety of ducks, and dozens of shorebirds, gulls, and terns; IBRCE for more shorebirds and a few migrants; the evening is typically spent trying to wrap up sightings around the Eilat area like at the north beach area for Garganey, Black-winged Stilt, herons, and parakeets.
Of course, this is all subject to change dependent on water availability at any of the sites. As we all know, rainfall can make a world of difference in the desert. In years of high flow, wadis can be filled with life and other years will be quiet.
For more about what it is like to compete in this competition, you can listen into our podcast about it: https://podcasts.apple.com/sk/podcast/champions-of-the-flyway/id1403064308?i=1000562508525
The Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity of Kazakhstan (ACBK) and Bulgarian Society for the Protection of Birds (BSPB) came together to propose the Red-breasted Goose for this year’s competition. These organizations will use all the funds gathered to combat the illegal killing of Red-breasted Geese through a variety of ways:
· By placing satellite tags on geese, researchers will be able to target threats and inform them as to where to monitor.
· Work with local law enforcement to better manage hunting and reduce poaching with adding more eyes on the ground.
· Improve the legal process so that poachers are brought to justice.
· Create and distribute educational materials and provide outreach to educate hunters.
This multi-pronged approach will work to protect the geese where they are most threatened, along their migration route. Illegal poaching of wildlife is rampant throughout much of the world and has huge implications for these species. By providing education, having the ability to effectively monitor, and then prosecute poachers the hope is that it will reduce the number of geese killed each year as they try to go between breeding and wintering locations. The ACBK has made strides already by working with local law enforcement agencies and scoping out specific actions that can have a huge impact and the funds raised through this effort will allow them to bring these projects online. More about this can be found here: https://www.champions-of-the-flyway.com/where-your-money-goes/
How You Can Help
You can help by supporting our teams with donations and spreading the word about the Red-Breasted Geese! Maybe in the future consider putting together your own team and competing in the Champions of the Flyway, not only is a great event in an incredible birding spot, but the experience of meeting other birders from around the world and collaborating on a single cause like this is priceless.
Hannah's Team: https://www.champions-of-the-flyway.com/wis23/
Erik's Team: https://www.champions-of-the-flyway.com/kowas/
Carboneras, C., G. M. Kirwan, and C. J. Sharpe (2020). Red-breasted Goose (Branta ruficollis), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (J. del Hoyo, A. Elliott, J. Sargatal, D. A. Christie, and E. de Juana, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.rebgoo1.01
Flyway, C. o. (n.d.). Home. Retrieved from Champions of the Flyway: http://www.champions-of-the-flyway.com/