Hunter or huntedHunter or hunted

Long haul travel

Winters in the Arctic are very cold and many polar birds and mammals migrate south to warmer places, returning again in the spring. Migrating birds are looking for places where they can find plenty of food, and breed. A combination of factors make good feeding grounds, it is a bit like ingredients for a recipe.

Come dine with me!

Here's a recipe for 'Arctic pie' - food for breeding birds

Take melted snow and ice, mix with sediments, pour into coastal waters, leave to create estuaries, deltas, salt-marshes and mud-flats, add crustaceans, molluscs, worms and small fish.

Arctic pie recipe


Barnacle Geese

Barnacle geese


Describe the presence of the geese at Caerlaverock in at least thirty words. Try to use the following words in your description:
raucous, flocks, skein, proud, intimidating, numerous, magnificent, squawking, scenic, rounded.

Many species of birds live in the Arctic; some live most of their lives at sea such as gulls, guillemots and eiders some migrate from one landfall to another across the Arctic Ocean, such as the geese. Of the sixteen species of geese living in the Arctic the barnacle goose is one which migrates to the UK.

Svalbard Barnacle geese are migratory birds shared by the Arctic and the UK.

Every autumn 28,000 birds travel from the High Arctic, to the Solway Firth in Scotland, where they feed all winter on the salt-flats and marshes. In late April they return to their summer breeding grounds on Spitsbergen, the largest island in the Svalbard archipelago.

The Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust reserve at Caerlaverock, on the south west coast of Scotland is one of the best places in the UK to see the geese.

More about barnacle geese - find out more about these long haul travellers.

The zoologist: Brian Morrell

Click on the mobile and listen to Brian Morrell, zoologist and Learning Manager at Caerlaverock Wetland Centre.

My name is Brian Morrell and I work as the Learning Manager at the WWT Wetlands centre at Caerlaverock on the Solway Firth. I am a zoologist and first started working there in 1991 as reserve warden and now have a great job enthusing all of our visitors, both young and old, about the amazing wildlife.

The barnacle geese are very close to my heart, the anticipation of the first birds arriving in late September is terrific. Watching the skies for the skeins of geese and listening for their characteristic yapping call. It is wonderful to see these old friends returning for the winter after a summer spent in the high Arctic, flying huge distances to reach the sanctuary of Caerlaverock. At the end of the second week of October we can have up to two thirds of the entire Svalbard breeding population on the reserve. They roost at night on the mudflats and flight in to feed for the day on the coastal fields and merses. When they take off en masse it is like the roar of an express train. Scanning the flocks for goslings and rare geese becomes infectious and reading the plastic leg rings an obsession.

The Solway is an ideal wintering site for Arctic breeding geese, especially the maritime barnacle geese which feed on the vast coastal salt-marshes. The mild winter climate is ideal for winter long feeding.

In spring as the days lengthen, the geese start to think of the journey home to Svalbard. Sometimes we actually see the birds rise high into the sky and head off to the north. It is sad to see them go but in a few short months they will be back again.

Brian Morrell, zoologist and Learning Manager at Caerlaverock Wetland Centre


Why do you think these geese make this journey?

These migrating birds link two contrasting environments. In the Arctic Barnacle Geese are found in Greenland, Russia and Svalbard, the High Arctic archipelago.

Population map for Barnacle Geese

Further information

Follow these links to find out more about Caerlaverock and the work of the Wildfowl Trust and Wetlands Trust:

Look at this site if you want to find out more about tracking geese during their yearly migration:

Svalbard Barnacle Goose Tracking Map

Running on Empty?

an Icebreaker
"Barney" - tracking number 78199

In spring the geese graze eagerly on the new grasses laying down fat reserves for the long journey ahead, to Svalbard. The fat is stored mainly in the rear abdomen. A waddling fat bottomed goose is ready for migration! A female goose, lays down more reserves of fat than a male bird as she will be laying and incubating eggs as soon as she arrives in Spitsbergen.

The map below shows in detail the progress of one goose in 2008.

Migration map for Barnacle Geese
The progress of one goose in 2008 (Dr Larry Griffin WWT)

DOWNLOAD an excel file recording Barney's progress.

Using the information create a graph showing the relation between the distance covered by the goose and its body weight.

What is the percentage of body weight lost during the flight?


Studying Barnacle Geese on Spitsbergen

Maarten Loonen is a biologist/ecologist, and Assistant Professor at the Arctic Centre of the University of Groningen in the Netherlands He has been studying Barnacle Geese on Spitsbergen for nearly twenty years.

Take a look at these video blogs shot by Maarten on Spitsbergen.

Click on the mobile and hear biologist Maarten Loonen talking about his work with Barnacle Geese.

Every summer since 1990, I have studied the Barnacle Geese on Spitsbergen. I arrive in mid June. The barnies have arrived a month earlier. The females are half way through incubation.

I visit all the nesting sites, which are mainly found on small islands, by boat. On these islands there are usually ten nests of eider ducks to every barnacle geese nest. We have to move slowly and carefully to minimize disturbance. For every goose nest, we check the ring codes of the nesting birds and the number of eggs. Although the males and females have a similar plumage, in summer it is easy to recognize the sexes. The female is the only one incubating. The male stands guard next to the nest. Some of the males know me and try to chase me away from the nest. Some of the females don't want to leave the nest and I have to lift them gently.

When the young hatch in the beginning of July, the families move off the islands to small lakes, where they graze the grasses among the moss banks. Again the male is easily recognizable, because he stands guard: head high in the air. The female is very lean after using all her body reserves for producing the eggs and for incubation. She has to feed together with the gosling. Her head is down, while grazing. The goslings sleep under her wing in an alternation of 1.5 hour feeding and half an hour resting.

Two weeks after hatching, the adult geese start replacing their flight feathers. During this moult, they cannot fly. The mother goose does not allow the goslings under her wing anymore. They have to pile together to keep warm.

During this period, food is often limited and predators are close by. I observe the geese through my telescope and check their behaviour and keep track of the family size. Will the parents raise the young successfully?

Over a period of seven weeks the goslings develop from a downy fluffy grey to a full feathered goose. Just before the families regain their flight, we catch them by herding them into a small catching pen. Ringing the geese gives us an opportunity to measure their body condition. After ringing, we can recognize the whole family by their new rings.

In the last weeks of August, the geese begin to fly again. This moment is impressive. For a month, the birds have been flightless, bound to the earth. These migratory birds are masters of flight. Suddenly you realize that the geese did not make any loud sounds during their moulting period. But now the quacking starts again. They fly low over our heads with still rounded wings and growing feathers. Sometimes you hear a sudden peep from the group. That's a gosling, still recognizable by the sound. These young have survived the flightless period and are now able to escape predators. They will leave our study area soon and forage on rich tundra before starting their autumn migration. When they manage to survive their first migration, they will become the next generation.

Maarten Loonen

Find out more by visiting

What's in a name?

In the past, when the geese returned to Northern Europe every autumn, the local people didn't understand where they came from, so a legend grew that they must have hatched from barnacles, washed ashore on drift wood.

To hear more, click on the controls of the mobile below:

The name barnacle is thought to have come from the 17th century when the lack of nesting birds prompted the local population to think that the geese flew into the sea in the spring to spend the summer as shellfish. The striped bivalve mollusc, known as the goose barnacle, has a surprisingly similar shape and colour to the body of the geese and a black foot which when submerged, appears like the neck of the bird. Locally they were also known as the 'Rood Goose' thought to have come from an old norse word 'hrota' which means black geese. There is still a traditional fun fair in Dumfries in the first week of October which goes back hundreds of years and may have originated as a goose fair in Viking times celebrating the arrival of the bounty of the geese.

Brian Morrell

Barnacle geese are not the only geese to migrate long distances. Watch the start of their migration from Hudson Bay (BBC i-player).


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