Project Lesser White-fronted Goose

Project Lesser White-fronted Goose (LWfG) is a conservation project which main goal is to have a viable population of Lesser White-fronted goose in Sweden. The project has been running since 1970 and the focus has been on breeding and releasing LWfG to strengthen the wild population. Since 2011 the main part of the project’s activity is according to the Swedish management plan for the species. Head of the project is The Swedish Hunting Association in cooperation with Nordens Ark zoo and Norrbottens ornithological association. Further operations include measures to improve geese habitats and to reduce disturbance at sites which are used by Lesser White-fronted Geese. In addition, monitoring of the population and information activities are carried out. The Swedish population of LWfG is the only population in the world who is not decreasing, and Sweden inhabits the only breeding population of LWfG within the European Union.

News

  • During spring 2022 an extra effort was done to count LWfG at spring migration in Ammarsnäs. A minimum of 74 LWfG appeared in Ammarnäs in spring 2022 and of them 31 pairs could be detected. 4 pairs of LWFG were seen outside Ammarnäs so at least 35 pairs of LWfG returned to Sweden.
  • The Autumn counting 2022 showed more wild bred goslings then ever in the project’s history. Neither was the spring weather very satisfying nor was there a lot of rodents and still so many geese succeeded in breeding, it was a happy surprise! One female LWfG was seen with non-less then 14 young. 2 of the young were her own and 12 of them were young released by the LWfG Project.
  • In 2021, project LWfG got a generous contribution from Vattenfall AB that made it possible for us to buy GPS transmitters. These transmitters come as collars and were pot on some of the birds released in 2021 and 2022.  
  • During the years of 2020, 2021 and 2022 captive bred LWfG was released at a new site in Lappland at the same time as half of the group was released at the old site. This was made as an attempt to help the LWfG to stake new breeding locals in the mountainous area of Sweden.          

Background

Until early 20th century the Lesser White-fronted Goose was a rather common breeding bird in the mountainous area of Scandinavia and all the way to far east Russia.

The population then suffered a dramatic decline. In 1970 there was only a small part of the Swedish population left. As a reaction to the population decrease, Lambart von Essen at the Swedish Hunting Association and his colleagues initiated a conservation project for Lesser White-fronted Geese (hereafter LWfG) in 1975. The first years after Project Lesser white-fronted Goose had started they put a lot of effort in trying to locate wild LWfG still breeding in Sweden. They also tried to investigate what had happen to the population and a lot of interviews was done with local inhabitants and native people in the Swedish mountain area. In 1981 the first release of young LWfG, bred in captivity, was done in the mountains of Arjeplog, Sweden. This, as an attempt to reinforce the wild LWfG population breeding in Sweden.    

The major cause of the drastic population decline was detected as a high hunting pressure and environmental changes along the migration route and in the wintering areas in Western Asia and Eastern Europe. Having this in mind, the Project LWfG decided to use Barnacle geese as foster parents as they spend their winters mainly in western Europe. The young LWfG then learned to migrate to wintering areas in western Europe, primarily The Netherlands where no geese hunting was allowed, and the habitat offered a good quality of grasslands. LWfG has a strong philopatry, which means that they will return and breed in the area where they grew up and learnt to fly. So, in springtime the released LWfG returned to the mountains of Arjeplog, where they were released and learnt to fly, for breeding and moulting.   

In 1999, the work with breeding and releasing LWfG with Barnacle geese as foster parents went into a sudden freeze. A genetic study had discovered introgressive hybridisation from Greater White-fronted Goose among LWfG held in captivity in both Sweden and Finland. More testing was done and unfortunately some of the projects founder birds turned out to be carrying elements of Greater White- fronted Goose genes. Although none of the juveniles showed any hybrid genes. The result was that all the projects founder birds, including the juveniles, were put down.  

To be able to continue the work with breeding and releasing LWfG to strengthen the population, 59 young Russian LWfG was imported. In 2010 the releasing could continue but now with Russian descendent birds and without foster parents. Scientific studies have been made and they could not find any hybrid genes in the Swedish LWfG population.     

The release of young LWfG and the altering of migration route in combination worked out well and today the Swedish Lesser White-fronted Goose population is the only one in the world which is not decreasing. Sweden holds the only breeding population of LWfG within the European Union.

The Swedish Hunting Association has been the head of Project LWfG since the beginning. Today, Nordens Ark zoo and Norrbottens ornithological association is cooperators within the project, and it runs according to the Swedish Conservation plan for the species. The project has been running since 1975 and the focus has been on breeding and releasing LWfG. Today the project works widely with different actions, national and international, in the attempt of saving the Swedish population of LWfG.

Facts

Foto: Niklas Liljebäck

Exterior description

The Lesser White -fronted Goose is a small and delicate dark grey goose with a tall white facial blaze and a yellow eye ring. It has a short, pink beak and the belly is striated with black bars. Its hard to tell the difference between the sexes. In springtime however when the LWfG appears in couples its possible to tell who’s the male and who’s female by looking at their behavior. The characteristic appearance of a LWfG doesn’t show in a young bird but by the time it reaches 1 year of age both the eye ring and the belly spots usually has appeared.  

The Lesser White -fronted Goose is easily mistaken for the Greater White -fronted Goose. Although the GWfG is, as the name indicate, a much larger goose which lack the yellow eye ring and has more and thicker bars on the belly. At distance, also other relatives in the Anser family like Greylag goose, Pink-footed goose and Bean goose can be hard to tell from the LWfG especially in a hunting situation.

In early 20th century the LWfG population was spread throughout the most northern part of the palearctic area, so from Scandinavia to far east Russia. Today only three fragmented parts of the population exists.

  • The Fennoscandia population: Breeds in Sweden, Norway and the Kola peninsula in Russia.
  • The Western main Russian population: Breeds in the northwestern part of the Russian tundra.
  • The Eastern main Russian population: Breeds in the far northeast Russia.   

Ecology- Swedish population

The LWfG usually commit to their partner for life. When new couples are made it usually happens at the wintering area. Especially female LWfG is very committed to the place where they learnt to fly and returns there to breed in springtime. Male LWfG sometimes choose to follow a female from another breeding area.

In the end of March, the first reports of sighted LWfG in south of Sweden usually occurs. Depending on the weather they can then choose to stay in the south a couple of weeks before continuing their journey further north. In May a major part of the birds are located up in the mountain area but still below the breeding area. They then do flights to probe the breeding site until they find it ready. Like other arctic geese the LWfG puts all their energy into one “bag” of eggs and are therefore not able to start over with breeding if the first try would fail. A cold spring with a lot of sudden weather changes might affect the LWfG in such a way that they decide not to breed at all that year. This explains why the population of young LWfG sometimes fluctuate a lot between years.

It can take up until 4 years of age before a LWfG breed for the first time. The male LWfG guards the female and the nest while the female is incubating the eggs.

The breeding area of the LWfG in Sweden is located where the birch forest meets the lower alpine area. They prefer mountain lakes with a mosaic of islands and a lot of birch and willow for protection. The female and male LWfG both help their young throughout the mountain area after the eggs have hatched. In August/ September the whole family start their migration south together. The family will stick together until they migrate back to Sweden next spring. In this way the young geese will learn the migration route, places to rest and wintering areas from their parents.

Couples of Lesser White- fronted Goose that had a successful breeding, molt at the breeding area after the eggs been hatched. Those who has not bred usually gathers in big groups and travels to other sites to molt. Lately in Sweden we have seen big groups of LWfG molting in Lillfjärden Hudiksvall. Studies show that LWfG sometimes chose to fly long distances to find a good molting place. When geese molt, they lose all their wing pens at the same time and are therefore not able to fly. It takes a lot of energy to grow back all the feathers so a molting place with good forage and few predators are extremely important.

Throughout the LWfG migration route they graze on beach meadows and other pastures with a low vegetation height. Closeness to water is a must. The Swedish population of LWfG winters mainly  in The Netherland and Germany. Primarily to Oudeland van Strijen (Oudeland van Strijen | Birdingplaces.eu) and Petten  in the Netherlands and Lippe area in Germany.

The wild population of Lesser White -fronted Goose today

The wild population of Lesser White- fronted Goose (LWfG) in Sweden today has been steadily increasing since the population declined in 2012-2013. When a population grows, which of course is satisfying, the birds spread out more and stage new areas. This, per se, is good but it makes it harder to estimate the population size and development.

What stands clear though is that the population is increasing and that it is due to the releases of captive bred LWfG that has been done over the years.

A major part of the LWfG population is counted and reported in the mountainous area of Västerbotten. An estimation of the population size is then made with the numbers counted in Västerbotten together with the readings of color rings in other places in Sweden and abroud. Svartåmynningens nature reserve is today counted as one of the most important resting places for LWfG during spring migration. Other important locations are Alnön outside Sundsvall and Hjälstaviken outside Uppsala. The Swedish population of LWfG is today estimated to 130-140 individuals.

It is a lot of work to do inventory of LWfG and the project is totally independent on our volunteers. They spend hours and hours of their free time to count and report LWfG appearing in their area. In 2021 no less than 1600 reports of LWfG were registered in Sweden and 898 in the Netherlands.

In 2019 the first breeding of two released birds with Russian heritage was documented. Breeding pairs with released birds until then had always included a wild partner.     

Threats and actions

Project LWfG wants to act against as many threats towards the LWfG population as possible. During the years that Project LWfG has been active some threats has been averted while others has increased.

Major population decrease during 20th century.

Project LWfG started their work with releasing captive bred birds when the population was nearly extinct. Through this hard work for many years the population went from decreasing rapidly to slowly increasing.

High mortality during migration

When the project started their work, the LWfG in Sweden migrated southeast through Russia towards western Asia and eastern Europe. During this migration route the mortality was high, mainly because of high hunting pressure and environmental changes. So, in the beginning of the project, captive bred LWfG was released with barnacle geese as foster parents. Barnacle geese migrates to The Netherlands and did then imprint this behavior on the LWfG nestlings. The result of this is that the population of LWfG today migrates mainly to The Netherlands and the mortality during migration and wintering is minimal.

Predation in the breeding area         

All land breeding bird species is vulnerable to predation and the LWfG is no exception. Even though this is a natural element, the Swedish population of LWfG is still so small so that every individual is important.

The advances of the red fox in the Swedish mountainous area have been a hard blow for both LWfG and other artic specialists as the Artic Fox. Project LWfG and the municipality has during the years put in a lot of effort in hunting red fox in the breeding area of LWfG.

Predation from white tailed eagle on molting adult geese is still a big problem at the breeding site. It is hard to solve since this individual eagle that has specialized on predating on LWfG also is a protected species.  

Public interference

Disturbance from fishers walking alongside mountain lakes where the LWfG is breeding can be a big problem. Sometimes it only takes one disturbance for a couple to abandon their nest. A problem with disturbance from motor driven vehicles connected with managing reindeers has also been detected. The project is keeping a dialog with the municipality to set up protection areas around the breeding sites.

Increasing hunting pressure at wintering sites

One of the reasons why the migration route for the Swedish LWfG was altered to The Netherlands to begin with was that geese hunting was almost nonexistent there. Although resent years the costs of damage caused by geese has increased enormously in The Netherlands and therefore they have started hunting geese again. The project is, through dialog with authorities, hunters and bird watchers’ organizations in The Netherlands acting for decisions that will make these hunting actions interfere with the LWfGs as little as possible. For example, to only allow hunting during periods of the year when LWfG do not appear in the Netherlands.  

Molting sites

A good molting site is extremely important for geese since they shed all their wing pens at the same time and therefore temporarily loses their ability to fly. A molting site needs to have high qualitative forage and a low number of predators. The project LWfG has started to map out the molting places of LWfG. One important molting site for the Swedish population of LWfG is in Lillfjärden in Hudiksvall. This place is very special since it consists of a lake and a city park which attracts a lot of wild birds. The pasturage is limited because of high grazing pressure from all the wild graylag geese choosing to molt here. Efforts have been made in trying to disturb the graylag geese. This, with the purpose of getting them to choose a different molting site, thus the efforts only had a limited effect. The project is having a dialog with the authorities on further actions to favor those LWfG whom choose this molting site.

Resting Sites

There are a few well-known staging sites in Sweden that are frequently used by LWfG on their spring- and autumn migration. These sites are already protected and managed in a way that favors LWfG. But still there are some staging sites that are unknown to the project. To find, protect and manage these sites are prioritized actions for project LWfG.