Tracking geese, eh?

Posted: Sunday, March 05, 2006

The Canada goose of Southeast Alaska is a singular bird.

Unlike any other Canada goose in North America, this one apparently does not migrate south for winter, federal biologists have recently discovered.

Instead, the subspecies also found in British Columbia - called the Vancouver Canada goose - stays in the Panhandle year-round, feeding on native vegetation.

It only makes sense. The geese of the Panhandle enjoy a warmer climate than their cousins to the north, where the tundra and salt-marsh flats freeze up for months.

So, those Lower 48 folks mad at the Canada geese snacking on their corn fields, lawns and golf courses? They can't shake their finger at the Panhandle's Canada geese.

"This may be the only population in North America that uses totally natural habitat year-round," says Jerry Hupp, a federal biologist at the Alaska Science Center in Anchorage.

Hupp and some Juneau biologists have tracked the birds for several years to settle the migration question and learn more about the Panhandle geese.

Before their study began, the region's subspecies was one of the least-studied Canada geese populations in North America, Hupp said during his February presentation at Juneau's Alaska Bird Conference.

As it turned out, Hupp said, not one of more than roughly 150 Vancouver Canada geese radio-tagged and tracked by Hupp's research team has been found yet in the Lower 48.

The project is now wrapping up, and the team - which includes the high-flying Juneau federal biologists Jack Hodges and Debbie Groves - has developed a trove of information about the region's geese.

Several times a year, Hodges and Groves have climbed into the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's Beaver airplane to gather additional goose distribution data.

"We provide logistical support with the airplane to find the molting birds and (track down) the radio-tagged birds," Hodges said.

On a recent trip, Hodges and Groves cruised at 7,000 feet altitude, searching for the goose's dark silhouette on the winter-white flats of Neka Bay, near Hoonah.

The right wing of the Beaver carries a radio antenna. Hodges flies the plane while Groves monitors a bulky radio transmitter and computer screen.

The antenna can pick up a goose signal three to 10 miles away, depending on the plane's position, Hodges said.

It's one of many aerial bird surveys that the Juneau-based biologists work on every year.

For example, Hodges and Groves spent five years flying the entire coastline of the Panhandle, counting waterfowl and sea mammals. They flew at a mere 100 feet elevation, a memorable experience that still makes Groves' stomach flip.

Hodges and Groves initially helped Hupp find the birds so that they could be radio-tagged.

The biologists, who worked with veterinarians, then implanted the radio tags in the bird's abdomens. It was actually more benign than external tags, which could harm the bird's reproduction and survival, Hupp said.

Tracking the birds over the next few years turned up some interesting information, other than just their lack of migratory behavior.

For example: The Vancouver Canada goose is nesting in the old-growth forest.

The research team has tracked the large birds to nests in the muskeg and among old-growth hemlock trees.

After finding the birds by radio, biologists tracked them on the ground to some nesting sites on Admiralty Island, Hupp said.

There, the biologists found 25 females, half of them on nests. Then, the team accidentally found nine others.

Most of the birds were nesting within roughly 19 miles of where they had spent the winter, Hupp told the Alaska Bird conference audience in February.

They were also rearing their young in the forested areas, Hupp said.

When visiting nests, the biologists also noticed that the Canada geese were munching on skunk cabbage.

Not just the shoots, but the leaves, Hupp said. "They'll eat it down to the mid-rib," he said.

While the Vancouver Canada goose study is near its end, Hupp said researchers are still working to gather more information about the birds' breeding and nesting ecology.

Though the goose population in the Panhandle appears to be thriving, it is also secretive and has so far escaped heavy hunting pressure by humans, he said.

The birds may choose to brood their young in the forest order to avoid eagle predation, Hodges added.

The pilot-biologist said he also has noticed Canada goose standing on the beach run into the forest when he flies over them.

The geese who winter closer to Juneau also have learned to spend their days in the hunting-free zone of Auke Lake, instead of hanging out at the Mendenhall wetlands, noted Juneau ecologist Richard Carstensen.

Then, the birds spend the night foraging for food on the wetlands, he said.

"They learn where they are safe and where they won't get shot at. They are really bright animals," Carstensen said.

The only problem is that the birds' direct line of flight between the lake and the wetlands crosses the approach zone to Juneau International Airport, he added.

"It would be nice if we could encourage (the geese) to disperse to other parts of the wetlands," Carstensen said.

In absence of that, hunters can help the situation by not encouraging the geese to flee Auke Lake. "Anything that moves the birds from the lake can be dangerous to aviation," Carstensen said.

• Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at

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