Sunday, 11 November 2012


The time finally arrived on Thursday to jet off for my first fieldwork of the 2012/13 brent season! I'll keep it brief as I have so far failed at bothering to charge up the camera so there are no pretty pictures to accompany this post...

Today - this morning at least - was an absolutely glorious winter's day, particular down on the coast with all the sights and sounds of Bull Island as the backdrop to my goose chasing. Just what was needed after an early start in the pouring rain on Friday and a slightly hungover (and somewhat lateish) start on Saturday. Its been a whirlwind so far - 348 resightings of 201 different colour-ringed Brent isn't a bad start! I've had less of a chance to focus on any behavioural studies as many of the geese are still feeding inter-tidally, with many roosting on the water when the tide is high (I reckon I counted ca. 1500ish from the Causeway at highish tide today for example). Still many of the parks already seem to be being used by geese in small numbers, particularly those that are close to the coast (there were about 750 in Kilbarrack this morning at high tide) or that draw birds in from Baldoyle Bay (there have been flocks fairly regularly in Portmarnock and at Red Arches - the site of our really big Dublin catches several years ago). As this trend continues (fingers crossed) my work will shift more and more towards focussing on behavioural watches on individuals.

I've been amazed how faithful particular geese are to areas of mud at low tide, with small flocks within certain areas almost always containing the same core individuals - it will be interesting to see how this effects the social networks produced from this field season. Also of note is a continued strong association between V U red yellow and V C red yellow with one of their blue blue juveniles from last year. A sibling of this bird has been seen in that same flock on a couple of occasions too. This persistence of associations between kin is something that might be important in determining social interactions more generally, something we hope to investigate in the next few years.

Now I'm back out in the field updates here should be more regular, work permitting. More tales from Dublin on the way soon!

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Brief update from Cornwall

I'm still hard at work in Cornwall, with presentations to give, things to organise and plenty of computing to be doing. Its not long until Ireland now though, with a brief trip to Strangford next week for the Irish Brent Goose Group AGM and then plans to start my field season proper early in November. In the meantime here are some pretty pictures from Cornwall, some science and a real bird!

This graph is the output to one of the models I can run. Each line (in a selection of different colours) is one of the two hundred virtual geese in this flock. As you can see if you let a flock of 200 geese move randomly around a confined area for a time there isn't much space in that area that hasn't had a goose move over it at some point! All this means that social networks within flocks tend to be highly connected.

With the autumn in full flow the birding in Cornwall hasn't been too bad either! This red-backed shrike spent nearly a week down on the Lizard peninsula and showed really well at times. I've also managed to track down a Glossy Ibis, Yellow-browed Warbler, black redstart and multiple firecrests in the last couple of weeks, as well as that Cormorant....

Friday, 12 October 2012

More news from the virtual brent world

As more and more brents begin to appear in Dublin its beginning to get frustrating being stuck in an office in Cornwall still. There was even a single light-bellied brent (almost certainly from "our" population) just down the road in Falmouth the other day but it didn't seem to stick around for long unfortunately...

I'm still working with virtual geese, hoping to learn a few things about social interactions and social networks that will contribute to us being able to understand and analyse all of the data that 3 winters of fieldwork will provide. A fortnight ago I wrote about a virtual population of geese, and how we could sample flocks from this and look at social networks in a similar way we would in the field, using social groups as a proxy for "interactions". We have used simulations of this population to answer the first of the two main questions we hoped to use them for, and are now busy adapting the code we used so we are in a position to answer the second of the two.

In the meantime I have focussed more on what happens in a single group social group of geese. When we construct a social network for the whole population we tend to assume that all individuals in a group interact (the Gambit of the Group assumption). However, this seems unlikely to be the case as a goose can only "interact" with geese immediately around it. By looking at how movement of geese within groups influences how many other geese in the flock they interact with we can see how accurate this Gambit of the Group assumption is.

Our simulations create a flock of geese and instructs them to move around randomly within their flock (see the video of a program running below). We vary how much each goose can move and look to see how this effects the properties of the social network for the group.

This is already producing some interesting results, and I hope that as we continue to work on the "rules" that govern the movement of each goose we can begin to really get to grips with what within flock networks of social interactions really look like in brent geese. For one thing, I'm particularly excited to see how adding in dominance hierarchies might effect which individuals are important in forming connections in the network of interactions.

Hopefully more to come from me soon!

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

41,000 and growing: totals coming in from surveyed sites last weekend!

The Excel spreadsheet into which the site totals are being computed is changing hourly. At present the count undertaken by so many of you stands at over 41,800 Brent with the biggest totals predictably coming from Strangford (ca. 23,000), west coast of Iceland (ca. 4,000), Lough Foyle (3,500), Tralee Bay & Castlemaine (3,800) and Dublin (2,000). It was evident that since we brought the date forward and re-organised many of the Strangford birds had dispersed elsewhere and the Icelandic birds had pushed south also. We also have counts from Wales, Jersey, France and many other Irish sites and there will be more! Many thanks to all who participated. Update to follow.
Anyone interested in making a guess at the number of Brent in this picture?....

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Conference Announcement: January 2013 en France

The 15th International Goose Specialist Group annual conference will be held over the period of 8-11 January 2013 at Arcachon, France.

The focus of the conference is on the various flyway populations of Brent and their main food resource, Zostera and presentations on various populations of Light-bellied Brent, Dark-bellied Brent and Black Brant will be given. The area has been deliberately chosen as it is internationally important for wintering Dark-bellied Brent, holding over 50,000 birds feeding on the extensive Zostera beds there.

Further details are available here:

Sunday, 30 September 2012

Brent Goose research goes virtual!!

Last week I was back in Dublin for the first time this winter, but didn't see a single brent goose! In fact I rarely even ventured away from a computer screen (at least not before it was time to head to the pub in the evening...). Instead I was hard at work in TCD with Dr Andrew Jackson creating a population of virtual geese that will help us understand more about what can affect our social network construction for our real geese! 

Using a statistics program called R we created a population of geese that were sampled to produce "flocks" that could be used to build social networks. By having a virtual population of imaginary geese it is possible for us to play with properties of the geese, the way the flocks form, or the methods that we use to build social networks to see what effect these might have on what we observe in real life.


Already, we have found some really cool stuff using these "simulations" of real life, and hopefully this new population of geese for me to study will teach us a lot more in the imminent future! In fact those two days of hard work in Dublin may just have been the two most important of my PhD so far!!! That and it was awesome to be back again - its not long until fieldwork time now.....

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Autumn 2012 International Brent Goose Census

Since 1997 we have been organising an international census of Brent along this flyway, timing of which is generally coincident with the October peak at Strangford Lough, Northern Ireland. Over the weekend of 28th - 30th September 2012 many people from as far apart as western Iceland and northern France will be trying to get a handle on how many Brent there are at each location and how many young are present in the flocks. The latter is of course an indication of how successful a breeding season the 2012 one was in the High Arctic breeding grounds.

Our 2012 census date has been brought forward given the unprecedented early influx into Ireland as mentioned in previous posts. So early that birds have already left Strangford for sites in Dublin, Kerry and elsewhere.

Feel free to post your observations on this blog - we want to know how many Brent you say, when and where over the count weekend (or as close as possible to that date). If you can please also record the number of young and adults in the flock (or proportion of) and if possible the size of individual family units (e.g. 2 ads + 3 young, 2 ads + 4 young etc).
When our results are compiled we will bring you the total counts from along the flyway.

Friday, 14 September 2012

Brent migration still in full swing!

As this news from the Bridges of Ross from yesterday shows. Light-bellied brents have even been turning up in South-West England including in Cornwall! Presumably these are "our" brent heading south to their wintering areas in northern France. I'll be in Dublin very briefly next week to talk about all the nasty statistics I'll be having to think about over the next couple of years so am hoping to catch up with my first brent of the season within the next seven days!

Thursday, 13 September 2012

More geese and more social networks!

So they may not be quite as awesome as the brent but a colleague down here in Falmouth has (fairly) recently started a blog about her research, which use social network approaches in Canada Goose populations in the UK. A lot of the stuff we do is fairly similar, but her work looks more at how social structures can affect the spread of diseases through a population and how changing these social structures might affect how these processes work.
Find it here!

Its all interesting stuff and tends to updated with impressive regularity!! (I should get my act together really....)

More brent stuff on the way soon!

Monday, 10 September 2012

Generally poor breeding season in the eastern 'low' Canadian arctic

Realistically our first reliable assessment of how good or bad this (2012) breeding season will have been will be when Gudmundur, Magnus and others in Iceland get access to some of the large flocks in western Iceland which will happen in the coming days.

Kathy Dickson a senior waterbird biologist at the Canadian Wildlife Service has reported that although she has no direct information on the performance of species breeding in the high arctic (~75 degrees N +), terrible weather in the low arctic (Baffin Island latitiude) lead to a poor breeding year for many species. The team working on Atlantic Brant (which look like ours, winter on the eastern seaboard of the US and breeding on Baffin and surrounding islands) had difficulty finding enough families to ring and many of the adults (failed/non-breeders) were already moulted and mobile. I agree with Kathy that this abundance of flying adults are probably adults that we would classify as 'failed' breeders who, because they have no reason not to, moult early.

Early moulters are mobile more quickly and one would have thought would thus migrate earlier. It wouldn't be a huge leap in imagination to think that this may have happened for 'our' Brent also.

Thanks to Kathy for this insight from the low arctic Brant in Baffin!

16,000 Brent at Strangford!

The unprecedented influx of Brent to Strangford (~ 5000 birds by 28-30 August) has now risen to approximately 16000 individuals, counted as part of the long-term annual monitoring by Kerry Mackie at WWT Castle Espie.
Folk have been busy resighting ringed birds from these flocks as well as smaller early groups along the west Scottish coastline (including < 1000 on Islay).
We've never seen this many individuals this early in the season and we wonder what it may mean for how the breeding season went. One possible explanation is that the also unprecedented melt of the polar ice this year (minimum recorded extent - see bbc and canadian ice monitoring websites for info) is a sign that conditions were favourable for breeding, the birds have bred and had the opportunity to leave early. A second, conflicting hypothesis might be that the season was dreadful. A good (sunny) late summer season doesn't necessarily mean the season started off well. And those of us who've seen the breeding range in the summer have seen that there are large regional differences with the archipelago of the Queen Elizabeth Islands. We aqctually know very little about how all of this works.

What is sure is that irrespective we wouldn't see large numbers of young yet. These will generally be the last to leave the breeding grounds (as adults await continued development of their young for the flight to Greenland/Iceland) and their schedule will mean that the young will form a disproportionately high % of flocks in Iceland this month. In Ireland we'd expect to see a predominance of failed- or non-breeders at this early part of the season. The jury is out and whilst I have a prediction I'm not prepared to stick my neck out just yet...

Friday, 31 August 2012

The Brent are back!!

Reports are filtering down to Cornwall from various parts of the Emerald Isle, and further north in Iceland, that the brent are returning from their summer jaunt to the far north. Already there are an impressive 5000 or so gathering at the north end of Strangford Lough, and there has been a trickle of birds been seen flying south past the Bridges of Ross (in County Clare over on the West Coast) in recent days too - why any of the seawatchers here are counting geese rather than keeping an eye out for more exotic things is anyone's guess!!

All this means its hopefully not too long until I'm escape the computer again and am back enjoying views like this!! Hopefully the relatively early return of such high numbers of geese implies there are lots of non-breeding immatures from last years successful breeding season rather than that it has been a bad breeding season as was the case for so many subarctic species. We'll only get a true idea of this when family parties begin to return in a week or two...

Monday, 30 July 2012

What we hope to learn using social networks: Part 1 - Do different geese have different "social strategies"?

Constructing social networks for our study populations of brent geese is all well and good but to take advantage of their full potential its important to use them to answer specific questions about individuals or the population as a whole. Perhaps the most simple questions to answer using the information available in a network is to ask whether individuals have different "social strategies" and whether these are consistent or vary over time, either randomly or because of changes to an individual's status or the environment that it finds itself in.

Brent flock in McAuley Park, North Dublin

Individual geese could follow any number of different social strategies, with the formation of lots and lots of weak social associations, and forming rather few social associations that are much stronger than expected by chance being the extremes. If these extremes do exist, the using social networks to find out which geese follow particular strategies could be important in understanding processes happening at a population level. For example, if a goose forms lots of weak social interactions it may be important in connecting different parts of the social network which could make it more likely to be important in spreading diseases through the population. 

It is movement between sites that can be important in causing the fission and fusion of flocks that causes the social structure in Brent Geese to be so complex - this is a flock disturbed from school playing fields in Clontarf

Obviously the importance of social strategy depends on how consistent the type of social associations are for each individual. If the social strategy of an individual is random and varies greatly over short time-scales then there is only so much we can learn from the social networks. However, if particular individuals or types of individual (those that are unassociated or in poor body condition say) tend to consistently form similar patterns of association in multiple networks constructed over different time periods then the differences we can find in "social strategy" by looking at our networks our real and of great importance. The causes and consequences of these variations in social strategy will be discussed further in future posts.

Monday, 23 July 2012


With all of the resightings from the Irish winter now entered into the database by Graham there are now 102,277 records of our colour-ringed birds up until the end of this winter - an incredible effort for such a young project. This year alone observers have resighted 1867 different geese a total of 13,065 times as far a field as Ireland, Iceland, Scotland, Wales, England, France, the Netherlands and Canada! With all the records still to arrive from Iceland this spring, there'll be plenty more records to come as well....

Saturday, 7 July 2012

Social Networks revisited...

Remember this: - seems like a long time ago now! I figured it was about time I wrote some more about social networks and social network analysis as they are so integral to our work. So here goes again:

Back in March I introduced the basic concept of what a social network was and how and why we use them, so I'll use this post to introduce some more "in depth" social network ideas and some more complicated network pictures - hopefully meaning when the full social networks are posted from Dublin or Alftanes they won't take too much explaining....

The social network in that March post is about as simple as could be. It contains relatively few individuals (nodes on the graph) and edges (the lines connecting them) are present if two individuals have associated and not present if they're weren't seen together. Clearly a social network could include a lot more information than this. For example, it is useful to have the edges weighted by how strong the association/interaction between two individuals is - whilst weak associations between individuals can be important, it is generally much more interesting to know that two individuals interact frequently, especially for our research which is focussed on investigating "friendships" or patterns of social interactions. Below I've reproduced the same network as in that first post on the subject, but this time with edges weighted by how often individuals are seen together. Clearly networks that contain information on the strength as well as the presence of associations contain lots more useful information.

Part of a brent goose social network. Lines join individuals that have been seen together three or more times. The thickness denotes how strong the connections are

As more individuals are included, networks begin to get more complicated - much more complicated! Larger social networks often contain distinct clusters of individuals (known as communities in social network speak) that are normally connected by links between only one or two individuals. Often the associations of individuals themselves become difficult to ascertain just by looking at the network, as patterns of interactions become very complex, particularly within social clusters. Here is a larger section of a social network from Iceland this year:

A brent goose social network from the Alftanes peninsula this spring. Edges are weighted by the strength of the association between two individuals. The colour of each node represents which social community an individual belongs to

Clearly this sort of situation is where we need to start using the properties of each node (called metrics) to fully understand an individual's position in a social network, and I'll introduce the more important of these in the next post from me.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

The Importance of Spring Staging

Once again I've failed spectacularly to keep this blogging lark going... Time for another attempt! June has flown by in a sea of excel spreadsheets. Not that you'd notice it was June, the sun seems not to exist in Cornwall! Anyway, back to geese - with the analysis of our Iceland data in full swing I'll hopefully be able to use the blog to share some our preliminary results. Exciting news from the database is due in the immediate future too...

Iceland represents an essential part of the Brent's annual cycle, and not just a mere stop off on the way from Ireland to the Arctic. The vast majority of individuals spend a month (sometimes more) at various staging sites on the West Coast, building up energy reserves that must not only fuel the next stage of their epic migration, but also a large part of their breeding efforts as well - there is not much for them to eat in the Arctic at the start of June and they must start breeding almost immediately to be able to escape before the winter arrives again!

That means that improving their body condition as much as possible during their spring staging period is essential to being a successful breeder in the summer. As such, it is possible to watch (some) birds gain fat stores at an incredible rate as the spring progresses. Below is a graph that shows changes in the mean API (the method we use to give each bird a body condition score) for individuals recorded on each day of the study period as May goes by for two different "types" of individual. The green line is adults in family parties and the red line is for adults that are in pairs without any juveniles.

The difference between these two "types" of individuals is interesting. They seem to improve their body condition at a similar rate but birds in family parties arrive and leave Iceland in worse condition (the mean for the first day is best considered a blip as it is based on a very small number of individuals). This seems particularly surprising given that family groups are dominant in flocks and so should be able to compete most effectively for resources.

Fortunately, thanks to previous work - mainly by Rich - an explanation is on hand! The poorer condition of adults in family parties is best explained by the fact they have had to "care" for their useless young over the course of the winter. Juveniles are less experienced and struggle to exploit more nutritious intertidal resources as they become scarce during the winter. Families therefore spend more time feeding on terrestrial grassland and maintain worse body condition over the winter months.

The inability of adults to "catch up" in their energy stores means that they arrive at their breeding sites in worse condition and are less likely to be successful breeders. This highlights the huge importance of geese making the most of their springtime in Iceland!!

[Main reference is Inger, R. et al. 2010 Carry-Over Effects Reveal Reproductive Costs in a Long Distance Migrant. Journal of Animal Ecology, 79, 974-982 for anyone still reading...]

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Long overdue update!

Well so much for more on that later! With the arrival of Team Jameson and ever increasing daylight hours fieldwork got ever more hectic and the blog ending up being neglected...

All of the British and Irish have now returned from Iceland, with Rich and Stephen the last to leave on 1st June. Most of the geese were already well on their way to Arctic Canada by then, with Mummi noticing a big departure from the 26th to the 29th. Certainly during our last week of fieldwork geese were getting noticeably fatter and preparing for the off.

Everyone seemed to have a successful time in the last two weeks of May. Team Jameson managed an impressive number of resightings away from Reykjavik, spending several days based up around Snaefellsnes and also managing lots of resightings from Hvalfjordur and Blautos. Meanwhile the Exeter team continued spending 18/19 hours a day scouring the Reykjavik area for geese and ended up with nearly 5400 resightings and over 340 focal watches of behaviour (that more than 24 hours of watching individual ringed geese!)

Hopefully I'll be able to post pictures and stories from our last couple of weeks up there over the forthcoming weeks. More to come soon?

Wednesday, 16 May 2012


Successfully twitched by me/Rich/Stephen early this afternoon (although only just!!). Back off out into the field again now, full update later...

Monday, 14 May 2012

Age and experience: Team Jameson back in the motherland

With a combined average age of 91 and average beard length of 5cm (average brought down by Pat's lack of), reinforements from the 4 provinces of Ireland have arrived to keep an eye on the young 'uns, chew the fat and drink the ale. Pat - can you keep them on the straight and narrow?!
I received a text update yesterday from Air Vice Marshall McElwaine and it summarises as follows:
"Good evening!! Wild strong winds here, but the unsurpassable TJ marches on!! 53 rings read north of Mossfellsbaer. Heading to Breidafjordur tomorrow; young guys got the local stuff carved up".
So with the Heineken Cup looming it's only the fact that Munster are not in the final that is going to maintain this effort and minimise Jamo intake offset by vanilla ice cream.
Keep her lit lads!

Research update

Things are still very busy for us around Alftanes. Fieldwork each day is starting at 4.30am and finishing at about 10pm - although we aren't all out for all of this! After today's efforts we've now completed about 2800 resightings of nearly 500 different colour-ringed brent geese around Alftanes and collected over 180 audio recording of behavioural watches on birds (15 hours worth!!). In the gaps between time in the field, I'm just about keeping up with data entry and have managed to start constructing the first (very preliminary) networks - maybe more on these soon.....

Getting towards the end of another long day in the field: Alftanes Golf Course this evening

Black Brant

There seem to be two separate brants at Alftanes currently, one is much paler than the other but a little bit of research suggests both seem to be black brants (Branta bernicla nigricans), birds that should be migrating up and down the Pacific flyway in North America rather than in Iceland with our geese! Some digiscoped pics below:

Note the very full, joined-up collar, very dark breast and back and clean white flanks. This is the paler of the two birds - the other is more impressive still!

Friday, 11 May 2012

Brent on the box

Our Chairman, the Rt Hon Mr Murphy, has informed us of some upcoming coverage of Brent on a piece on RTE's Nationwide on Friday evening. The main feature is on the new Wetland's Centre at Blennerville (Tralee). The IBGRG supplied some interpretative material for the displays there so I guess that's the Brent link. I have a sneaky suspicion that Mr Murphy might feature too but he hasn't declared that. In the very same place a certain someone was behind the camera rather than in front of it unaware that he was recording audio too. A true comedy moment "I told them not to put the net there.....I told them to put the net there". BS :-)

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Blautos and Grunnafjordur

A nice change of scenery for us on Tuesday afternoon. Am beginning to explore the idea of using this area as a second site for fieldwork. There were at least 700 brent at Blautos spread over the mudflats and saltmarsh, but we struggled to find any elsewhere.

More on this morning's Turnstone

Thanks to some impressively speedy work from Kendrew this afternoon, I already have a full history of today's colour-ringed turnstone to hand! The bird was ringed as an adult in 2001 on Southampton Water, which makes it at least 12 years old - quite old for a turnstone already according to the BTO website. Amazingly it has been seen in the same area during mid-May in four previous years, including at exactly the same site in three of them!! Thanks to all involved in this speedy turn around of information!

Perhaps inspired by this, had a quick look at the knot in the roost on Hliosnes this evening and, amazingly, quickly found a ringed bird. Frustratingly it dived into the flock and was lost from view before I could get any details...

After a slightly frustrating morning, we had an excellent rest of the day - and ended up disappointingly just short of 300(!!) resightings (although definitely not 300 different birds..) for the today and over 20 focal watches - a great haul from a combined effort of nearly 17 hours in the field. The discussion this evening over dinner was when we were going to break the 300 for the first time. Maybe tomorrow....

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Colour-ringed Turnstone

A good spot this morning by Rich, feeding on the road side at Seltjarnarnes. A quick look at cr-birding suggests it was ringed in Hampshire (England) - will hopefully be able to find this out for sure soon....

Still too busy to blog properly...

Rich and Stephen did the early morning shift round Alftanes/Hafnarfjordur/Seltjarnarnes today leaving me with some time to catch up on data entry (and a little bit of sleep!). The racked up an impressive 125 resightings in this time alone, which meant we decided to make a trip recce trip up to Blautos in the afternoon. It was low tide and birds were scattered all over the estuary/lagoon with none in the fields, so we explored northwards around Grunnafjordur and whilst not finding many geese had a good opportunity to learn the layout of the area and the key roads/tracks to use. At one point we had breathtaking flyby views of a hunting Short-eared Owl that stopped to investigate the car a couple of times. Rich has some awesome pictures that will hopefully be on his computer and stealable soon! After this we headed back to Blautos and spent some time reading some rings on the estuary and on the saltmarsh near  the stables, although many birds were on the far side and out of range of our scopes. Still it was a useful recce trip and we plan on heading back closer to high tide to assess whether it would be a good field site for our social networks stuff soon. The evening saw another tour round our Alftanes route with plenty more resightings and focal watches recorded along the way.

Otherwise, there is relatively little to report from the previous couple of days. Fieldwork still seems to be progressing well  (after today we're up to about 1600 resightings of nearly 500 different colour-ringed geese, and have recorded close to 100 of our five minute behavioural focal samples) and there have been a smattering of birding highlights along the way. An adult/near adult Kumlien's type gull at Seltjarnarnes yesterday was nice, and I have also picked out a couple of apparent GlaucousXHerring hybrids at a couple of sites. At Seltjarnarnes one of these was flying up to drop and break open shellfish on the rocks along the shoreline which was quite cool to watch. Goose wise the Black Brant still remains at Alftanes and yesterday we found a putative Grey-bellied Brant to go with it (pictures on the way soon hopefully), with a smattering of dark-bellied brents and the same small group of barnacle geese also still amongst the pale bellies.

Hopefully more to come soon....

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Rings galore!

Most of our days tend to be spent like this...

Well the data entry is done, but it is very much time for bed - Stephen is arriving from Hvanneyri at 4.30 tomorrow morning and someone has to be up to let him in! Another really good day. We managed to read 220 rings (165 different individuals) despite going on a brilliant tour of some of the sights (and smells!) of the Reykjanes peninsula for some of the morning. Thank you Oli!!

Today's effort now means we have done over 1000 resightings since starting on 30th April, just have to keep it going now. Will try and post a fuller update tomorrow when with three of us here there might be a bit more time free....

Still Brent in Wicklow!!

Niall Keogh let me know today that there are still some brent geese hanging on at Kilcoole! See here -  - for more info and a picture. There has definitely been a big arrival at Alftanes over the last couple of days though, with lots of "new" rings appearing and what seems to me at least (we'll have to wait for Mummi's count really!) to have been an increase in numbers too.

Stories from today from me and Rich may/may not be posted later depending on whether data entry ever ends.......

Saturday, 5 May 2012

Alftanes in the sunshine

Another late night, another token effort to update the blog! After a slightly frustrating morning today might have turned into our best yet. A quick look at the notebooks suggests well over 200 resightings, and on top of this we recorded at least 15 (probably more) focal watches on colour marked birds throughout the day.

The undoubted highlight of the day was bumping into Oli, who just happened to have an Icelandic delicacy sitting in a bucket in the boot of his car for us to try. The sur hvalur (sour whale), made from blubber from the throat pouch of a fin whale, certainly had a very distinctive taste! (sorry to the Icelanders if I've got any of the details of this wrong...)

Anyway here are some pictures of Alftanes in the sunshine today!

Friday, 4 May 2012

Its late, the alarm is set for hideously early tomorrow morning (again!) and the camera is in the car so there are no pictures to upload, so just a brief update on how things are progressing up here...

The last couple of days have seen a combined total of about 28 hours in the field and this has resulted in our resightings total reaching 550 by the end of this evening. These 550 resightings are of about 280 birds, which shows just important the area is for Brent staging (we haven't made it away from Alftanes/Hafnarfjordur/ Seltjarnarnes yet). In addition to this we have started recording five minute focal observations on colour-ringed individuals - more on why we're doing this when I have a bit more time! All in all stuff seems to be going OK so far, although lots of frustrations along the way with uncooperative geese often choosing the worst possible times to fly away!

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Best ring read of the day!

Rich's awesome photo let us get a read on CJBW before it had even landed in "field 17" this afternoon!! A good job too as it wasn't an easy spot for ring reading. 

Getting to know Alftanes...

Rich and I completed three tours of the Alftanes peninsula today as well as dropping Stu back off at Keflavik, although our post dinner jaunt was a bit too late in the day to add anything much to the previous two. Still the weather was great and the geese behaved well meaning we managed to read about 150 rings during the day. This included lots of "old friends" I'd bumped into in Dublin over the winter.

Other highlights at Alftanes were a smart Black Brant spotted in fields near the roundabout (next time the camera won't be in the boot!!), at least 7 Barnacle Geese and a single Dark-bellied Brent. Elsewhere a quick seawatch from Gardur on the way to the airport produced a single "blue" Fulmar (a first for me) amongst an impressive stream of other seabirds.

Monday, 30 April 2012


Arrived yesterday with Stu and there has already been plenty of brent watching around Alftanes and Seltjarnarnes, despite today being cut short slightly by some fairly unpleasant weather. This has included seeing some of the birds we caught this winter in Dublin which is pretty cool!

Brent geese at Seltjarnarnes Golf course

22BB and 44BB - juveniles caught in South Dublin in February

The scenery is amazing, particularly on the drive north to Blautos and Hvalfjordur, and have seen lots of other awesome birds including two stunning drake Harlequins earlier today.

Fieldwork proper starts tomorrow!!

Sunday, 22 April 2012

A short hiatus from fieldwork, to Norway!

Hi folks,

The regular brent goose updates from Iceland are not far off now! Matt Silk is coming up soon, so will fill this with more exciting news on his birds. In the meantime, what's happening on the white-front side of things? I've been away from fieldwork this week and in Steinkjer, Norway for the 14th meeting of the Goose Specialist Group. It has been a great opportunity to meet new people, network, and discuss other goose research going on in Europe. Wednesday and Thursday were spent listening to researchers such as Ingunn Tombre (Norway), Jesper Madsen (Denmark), and Bart Ebbinge (The Netherlands) as they presented their latest findings. It's great to hear the many angles one can approach work in conservation and ecology, while using arctic-nesting geese as study species. Friday we went on an excursion, which provided a better glimpse of the beautiful Norwegian landscape. We started with a visit to one of the local communities, where a 'Pink-footed Goose Festival' is held each spring (few weeks from now). Greeting us were many school kids, all singing and dressed in their pink-footed best (see attached photo)! It was great to see how the community has embraced this species! We then travelled to the primary roost site for staging Pink-feet in this part of Norway, and were excited to see over 5,000, with more joining every few minutes! After seeing the geese, we met 'The Eagle Man,' who is known for exhibiting local White-tailed Eagles on the west coast of Norway. It was amazing to see as he successfully 'called in' a pair, much to the excitement of the group. We were also shown the eagle nest, which was fun.

Saturday was spent back in the classroom, with great talks by Joel Schmutz (United States), Jouke Prop (The Netherlands), and Bart Nolet (The Netherlands). It's amazing to hear the challenges facing each country represented (19 total) here. While some are having difficulty enforcing hunting regulations, others are working to determine common flyways for potential future regulation/protection. Despite existing networks and inter-agency partnerships, it is clear that we will need increased collaboration and cooperation from all countries involved to ensure best management and healthy goose (and other wildfowl) populations for generations to come. Now back to Hvanneyri to finish up the spring field season! Have really enjoyed my time in Norway, but it's time to get back to business. Will update again as we enter the final staging period before the white-fronts are off to Greenland. Bye for now!

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Mundane update from Ireland

Well I've been monitoring the local Brent at Dundrum at the tail-end of the season, in part to try to avoid the embarassment of coming near the bottom of the list of data contributors for the season. The award ceremony is a glamorous affair, typically a slagging match over a bottle of Jameson in Iceland in which Gerry or Graham play Sir Alan Sugar and the shamed observer gets fired. In our world it's funny. A mixture of 'gold' observations (quality not quantity) with some volume from Dundrum Bay in Co. Down will have slightly redeemed my status this year.

Part of this is due to having recruited a scribe. Attached is my 6.5 year old daughter Anna's solid attempt at writing down ring combinations, colours and API scores. You've just got to love writing something as it sounds. On the top line the time - 'haf 11'; on the next line the 16th became the 61th. Maybe I said that wrong. I always get that wrong..

The latest from Dundrum is that there are still about 600 birds and API scores have increased from 3s to some 4s over the last week-fortnight.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

New exodus

Last few days Brent Goose numbers have been growing fast in Iceland. This morning Svenja Auhage found 600 foraging in Blautós, near Akranes. In the afternoon I counted 1630 at Alftanes w.o. 1100 were at Skógtjörn. I did not have much time, but managed to read nearly 50 rings at high water. Despite having read about 50 before most of today's birds were new. The new arrivals are generally in good condition and many with API of 3 and some even score 4.

Monday, 16 April 2012

I am just heading back from a week in British Columbia. Had a great day yesterday checking out Western Sanpipers and wintering Snowy Owls at Boundary Bay (Vancouver) along with a hugely impressive 30,000 staging Snow Geese. Lots of Black Brant as well including this one with a ring. These are likely birds that breed in Western Alaska. Quite different migratory strategy to ours. Their last major staging cite is at the coast about 300 miles from the breeding colonies, whereas for our Light-bellied brent, the last major staging area is Iceland!

Friday, 13 April 2012

Tagged bird finally reaches Hvanneyri!

Hi folks. Another non-brent update on Greenland white-fronts from Hvanneyri, Iceland. It has been a very busy week as more team members arrived, including Kerry Mackie, for catching. After a frustrating first couple of days, Kerry and the team caught seven white-fronts yesterday. Catching during early and mid-April will be essential in determining arrival condition in Iceland. Because of the mild spring (and winter), most white-fronts appear to be in exceptional shape. In fact, we've looked at data from previous years (to the early 80s) and thus far, birds seem to be ahead by two weeks! They've put on so much weight already, many sleep the day away in the fields...almost unheard of for geese in Iceland during spring!

Another exciting piece of news. Alyn Walsh, Larry Griffin, and I put on 20 GPS/accelerometer tags at wintering sites in Ireland and Scotland this winter. The tags take one GPS fix/day and record a behavioural trace every six minutes. Tags are meant to last just over one year to cover the entire annual cycle. On Wednesday, Rich Price (Exeter MSc student) spotted the first tagged bird here in Hvanneyri! T3U (pictured) was collared/tagged on 12 March 2012 in Wexford, Ireland. I've only started to scan through the behavioural traces, but there is much to be gained even from just one month of data! It looks like he left Wexford 1 April--riding SE winds--flying 17 hours straight, roosting on the Atlantic for the night and reaching the southern coast of Iceland the following day with an additional 9-hr. flight. The next 10 days were spent feeding and making short 3-hr. flights around the southern lowlands (east of Selfoss) before he arrived at Hvanneyri at 10:35 Wednesday morning. It is still early in the staging period, so we're hopeful for the arrival of a few more tagged birds. I'll provide somewhat regular updates as the spring progresses. Beautiful day here (5°C and sunny) so I should get out! More soon!

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

After the neap comes spring

Following a number of non-Brent news. Two previous days I have not found any Brent Geese at Álftanes when searching for them around high tide in the afternoon. Today they were there again. A flock of 71 in the innermost part of Skógtjörn was foraging on a saltmarsh at high tide. There I found three marked birds: a pair with only metal on right and yellow on left -ZmY + -VmY and CPLY with an unmarked partner. There were two Brent Geese in a flock of Eiders on the outer part of Hlidsnes peninsula and 33 at Eskines in Gardabaer. A total of 110 today.

Day one with the Whitefronts

Miserable weather up here, but a good first day nonetheless. About 1000 birds in the fields around Hvanneyri and about 500 in the Myrar area. Sighting of the day goes to Richard Price (University of Exeter MSc student) who when checking through his photos (see right) found H6C. Mitch (Weegman) the PhD student on the project checked the data base to find it was a male bird caught on April 23rd 1999 in Hvanneyri as an adult!! This means he is over 15 years old. He has been seen a number of times over the years wintering regularly on the Wexford slobs, but most of his sightings are from here. He was hanging around with a bird that was likely to have been his dad for several years in the early 00s, but we do not think he has ever had a long term partner. Stu is heading back to the UK on Friday but Mitch will send updates over the coming weeks. Stephen Lang (MSc student) is carrying out his research project on these geese and will provide some project updates as well.

Stu, Mitch, Stephen & Richard

Whitefronts are here in numbers (I think)

Not a Brent story but a goosey one from a place where the brent will be soon. The first team from Exeter arrived at Hvanneyri this evening to start this year's Greenland White-fronted goose field work. Arrived at dusk after a brief stop in Hafnafjordur at Oli's diner (thanks Oli), and saw one flock of several hundred GWFs in the fields at the edge of town....there will be many more tomorrow I hope. Some nice large flocks of Eider and Long-tailed ducks (lots of males in full summer plumage) and a small group of Harlequins...which was nice... I am just here for a few days, but Mitch Weegman (GWF PhD student) will be here until the end of the month. Richard Price and Stephen Lang (MSc students) will work on GWFs until May and then join the Brent team when Matt Silk arrives. Watch this space.

Monday, 2 April 2012

And one for the wader biologists.... G3WGRW

Of course it's not just the geese which are heading north. Many of our estuaries are already severely depleted of birds which have headed north-east to the continent (e.g. Bar-tailed Godwits) or Iceland as their final destination or en route further north.

In the interests of balance, as all of us folk are united in an interest in migration, here is a picture of a colour-ringed Sanderling, a picture I took over the winter in Quilty, west Clare. I still have to send this record to Jeroen. Wader colour combinations are much more complex than goose rings as there are above- and below tarsus locations, two legs (hopefully), flags and colour sequences. Nightmare...

The individual we caught (see picture below) is ...wait for it.... G3WGRW, ringed by Gunnar Þór Hallgrímsson and Jeroen Reneerkens at Sandgerði in SW Iceland - a little stretch of beach which is the focus of this long-term study of Sanderling.

Last weekend (25th March) we caught G3WGRW amongst 74 Sanderling at Quilt, mass 58g,  and Jeroen has kindly supplied the following background details for your perusal:

Caught Sandgerði, SW Iceland 26th May 2007; female, mass 71g.

and subsequent observations summarised as follows:-

Quilty, W Clare Feb/Mar 2009
Quilty, W Clare Jan/Mar 2010
Northumberland July 2010
Kilkee, W Clare Nov 2010
Inishmore Isl, Galway Nov 2011
Quilty, W Clare Feb/Mar 2012

Worth keeping a keen eye out for ringed Sanderlings and when they pause their busy little legs noting down their leg colour ring combinations (a good digital photograph can often help). Jeroen's project, like our own, benefits enormously from observations from folk throughout the flyway. Details of the project are here: and the general webpages provide details on how to record colour marks.

Geese are stocking up for the northward migration; goose biologists gearing up to follow them

It's great to see the level of activity on-going researching our goose populations. As spring advances and the geese are preparing for their northward migration and breeding investment it becomes an especially interesting period for study too - behaviour and decisions made at an individual level may have a profound effect on the success of the migration and on the outcomes of breeding attempts. Geese are piling on their abdominal fat; goose biologists are packing their duffle bags!

Detailed recording of numbers, flock age composition, abdominal profiles (to assess body condition) as well as more detailed investigations such as GPS tracking migration are all underway. Local Brent in Co. Down seem to be fairly 'slim' for now and the birds are clearly intent on stocking up on green algae on the intertidal area prior to leaving for Iceland. An increasing frequency of fights amongst flocks is indicative of birds being more protective of their food as well as hormones being elevated. Parallel observations are being made of a number of species in Iceland too.
So in western Ireland the Barnacle Goose team having been busy catching and tagging birds, the departures of Greenland White-fronted Geese being closely monitored from the south-east and lots of ring-reading on Brent is being undertaken on a daily basis right around the country

Plans are afoot too for research expeditions to SW Iceland to work on Brent and Greenland White-fronts in the coming days - more catching, counting and ring-reading in western Iceland studying aspects of spring staging ecology. Over the coming months we'll post frequent updates on the type of work being undertaken, the personalities involved and do our bit for promoting Iceland (on a non-commission basis) as a destination for birdwatching and other general wildlife tours...

Thursday, 29 March 2012

Reverse migration of 'west Atlantic' Brent to Ireland

Following reports of an odd double-metal ring combination on a pair of Brent in Dublin, observations of which were made several times, Graham managed to get to the bottom of the mystery thanks to our Canadian colleagues Sean Boyd and Kathy Dickson.
These birds appeared to have a metal (steel) ring on one leg and an aluminium ring on the opposite leg which made them unusual.
The birds were observed at several Dublin locations between 20th November 2011 and 28th March 2012 and it turns out they were probably banded on Baffin Island.

Canadian biologists have been studying this "Atlantic" population which breed in low-arctic Canada and winter on the eastern seaboard of the US (example the 'banana-eating Brent at Queen's New York in the previous blog post'), banding birds on the Great Plain of the Koukdjuak, Baffin Island, or on Southampton Island further west in the Foxe Basin. The fact that the birds appeared to be a pair makes it most likely they were banded on Baffin Island, where pairs and family groups are the target of banding activities (at the Southampton site the majority of birds are non-breeder moulters, but may also include failed breeders).

Lest you think that fitting two metal rings was an accident (and it sometimes happens!) we are advised that 'double-banding' Brent at these two sites has been done intentionally as part of a study to determine band loss rates by comparing regular aluminum bands to stainless steel.

Thanks to all keen-eyed observers involved, the diligence of getting to the bottom of the story (Graham) and the information from Sean and Kathy. As Sean says we can all sleep easy now :-)

And here is a picture from Cian which apparently he is embarrased about. It would take an exceptionally good picture to be able to distinguish these 'Atlantic' Brent from our 'Irish' birds but the rings give the game away - it would be interesting to know how many and how frequently low Canadian Arctic birds head across the Atlantic in the winter. We certainly know now that it does occur!

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

What's yellow and lies on the beach?

We all know that Brent Geese prefer inter-tidal foods where available in sufficient quality and quantity. It's certainly the food of choice in terms of its digestibility and nutritional quality. But not all inter-tidal food is green and slimy. Check this out:

which is a description and more pictures showing this!

But is it a banana or is it something else?

It's not all about geese

Last weekend part of the IBGRG catching group, ringers and the newly converted Highland Brent Team ascended on western Clare for some wader action. It pays to maintain familiarity with lesser species but nonetheless impressive migrants.
Catches of Oystercatcher, Turnstone, Sanderling effectively rounded up about every bird that was on the beach - the plan expertly executed by Brian, Kerry, Ron and Simon and a jolly good time was had by all.
The blog here would be a very good spot to post some of the video and still pictures taken from the day. I, in particular, would like to see the picture of BE falling in the maggoty weed. Nice.
We were trying to recover geolocators from Purple Sandpipers but nobody told them about the catching party and they failed to show. So we made the best of a bad job.

This is not a Brent Goose

First Brent arrivals in Iceland

This period of fine weather has no doubt accelerated the annual exodus of Brent (and other geese) northwards. By all accounts Barnacles, Greenland White-fronted and Brent are existing Irish airspace and I watched a flock of Whoopers fly out into the Atlantic about 10 days ago.
On 25th Gudmundur reported the first observations from western Iceland - 5 birds without rings. No doubt the numbers are well up on that by now.
A picture of Gudmundur's two dogs attached. They were the first to spot the birds and are looking forward to many hours of their guardian abandoning them in the house or the boot of the jeep now that 'Brent season' is upon us.
Note that 'Tina' (on the left) is all geared up for feeding labrador puppies....

Monday, 19 March 2012

Dark-bellied Brent Geese in Dublin

Just a quick post on tonight seeing as I haven't added anything for a while...

Prompted by an ID query I cam across on the internet earlier this evening thought I'd right something about one of the other races of brent geese that occasionally can be seen in Dublin in the winter. There were at least 3 (the true figure is probably far higher) dark-bellied brent geese wintering in North Dublin this winter and I saw them fairly regularly during the course of my work. Normally dark-bellied brents winter elsewhere in Europe - they are common for example back in the south east of England where I grew up. To start with they can often look surprisingly similar to the light-bellied in certain light, but after weeks of looking at brent geese telling them apart soon becomes second nature! Below are some pics I took at Red Arches at the end of February.

Picture 1: Note how much darker the underparts and flanks are, and how the dark area extends further towards the belly and up the flanks

Picture 2: This picture shows another useful feature quite well. The back colour of dark-bellied brents is subtly different to that of light-bellies being more slate-grey. Additionally the colour of the back tends to be a bit more solid, lacking the narrow pale fringes that are more common on light-bellues

Picture 3: Note the dark smudgy area that extends beyond the legs on the otherwise white belly. I think this is the easiest feature to split the two subspecies - its particularly obvious when ring reading!

I'll try to add some more stuff about the science soon when work is keeping me a bit less busy!

Sunday, 11 March 2012

My research in Dublin - Colour Rings and Social Networks

I've just spent 5 weeks in Dublin and during that time resighted nearly 500 of our colour-ringed brent geese over 3000 times - but a big question is what can we learn from all this information?

My research is focussed on looking at patterns of social interactions in the population, so that we can improve our understanding of what causes them and the impacts that they can have on the individuals themselves. In order to do this I'm using a method known as social network analysis, which I'll attempt to introduce and explain briefly below. It is using this approach that requires such a huge amount of data on where and when we've seen each individual goose.

Part of a flock of brent geese in Kilbarrack containing 2 colour-ringed birds

By resighting colour-ringed individuals in flocks together on many occasions over a short period of time, we can build up a picture of which individuals are found together most often, and whether an individual is always seen with the same other ringed birds or whether it moves between flocks and is seen with lots of other colour-ringed birds. This picture can be represented using a diagram known as a social network. This is a graph where each individual is a point on the graph and lines between the individuals represent whether they have been seen together a set number of times. A simple example is illustrated below.

Part of a Brent Goose social Network. Each red square is a different individual (labelled by its ring code). Lines join individuals that have been seen together 3 times or more

Using social networks you can consider the interactions of an individual within a wider context. You can calculate a number of characteristics of an individual that gives you an idea of the number of associates it has, the strength of these associations, how important an individual is to the structure of the network as a whole. Additionally you look at the overall properties of the network itself, in particular whether individuals occur in little clusters of "friends" or whether all individuals are well connected to each other or not.

All of this can provide us with some very interesting and useful information on the structure of social interactions in the population, and I'll go into more detail on each of these applications in future posts.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Why did the brent goose cross the road?

The geese in Dublin seem very comfortable with an urban lifestyle now! After all, the grass is always that little bit greener on the other side....

Friday, 2 March 2012

Researching Brent Geese in Dublin

There's no better place to get up close and personal with light-bellied brent geese than Dublin. This morning I was sat watching a family crossing the road in front of my car!! The geese here spend most of the winter feeding in parks, on sports pitches and even on small patches of grass in housing estates and have learnt that people don't really represent any threat. This means that they can be approached to within only a few metres.

 Juvenile light-bellied brent goose, Old Yellow Walls, Malahide 

All this means that finding ringed geese and reading their rings can be pretty easy - sometimes you can even do it even without binoculars! This is one important reason why Dublin is the main study site for our current research efforts. After all my job at the moment involves resighting as many colour-ringed birds each day as I can, so that we can begin to understand how their social structure works and to what extent individual birds tend to remain in distinct social groups.

PFYY at Portmarnock Park (the metal ring on the bird's right leg shows it was
ringed in Iceland)

There is another reason, why Dublin makes a great place for my research. Birds feeding in the parks are often disturbed (over enthusiastic dogs are often the cause!) and groups often split up or join together as they move between different parks and grassy areas. This means it is possible for group membership to change many times in one day and allows me to collect data much faster than I could in many other places. All this disturbance can be very frustrating though if it happens just after you've found a flock!

Lots more about the brent geese of Dublin, and how our research in the capital is going will be added shortly!

Sunday, 26 February 2012

PhD update

Matt Silk (University of Exeter PhD student) is busy trying to resight guess caught in the recent Dublin catches. Seems to be going well and he has started building the first social networks. Hoping to be over there for more catching attempts in late this space.

Friday, 24 February 2012