October 23, 2021

I ran across a post by Audubon that noted weird migratory patterns being recorded by GPS tagged geese beginning September 2020.  The tule is one of a protected population of Greater White-fronted Geese (Anser albifrons elgasi) that nests in Alaska and winters in California marshes.  The US Geological Survey has been keeping tabs on the bird as part of a waterfowl-tracking project since 2015.  The tags allowed researchers to track the bird’s location by computer.  Rather than stopping at Summer Lake in central Oregon, one bird was 300 miles off course in the Idaho Panhandle.  This was the first time anyone had ever confirmed the Tule Goose in Idaho.  The other three tagged Tule also following offbeat migration routes.  The team realized the unusual flight paths lined up with areas of dense wildfire smoke during one of the worst US fire seasons in history.

When I looked online, I found that according to Brian Wolfer of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, wildfires can be both destructive and beneficial to local wildlife.  Essentially, the fires create, “a disturbance on the landscape that changes habitat.”  Species like raptors who hunt rodents running from the flames benefit from wildfire, as do beetles that move into dead wood and lay eggs, and woodpeckers that feed on the beetles and nest in hollow trees.  Fire exposes new grass, shrubs, and vegetation that feed elk and deer and plentiful food means more milk and fawns grow faster.  The flip side is animals that depend on old growth forests can struggle for decades trying to find suitable habitat and if the sagebrush burns, the sage grouse won’t have food in winter or a place to hide from predators and raise their young.  The hotter and faster the fires burn, the harder it is for less mobile animals to find suitable habitat.  Those caught in the flames often die.

Corey Overton of the Western Ecological Research Center published an analysis last week of the Tule Geese’s response to wildfire smoke.  The findings add nuance to the story of last year’s fall migration bird die-off in the Southwest and clarify the risk birds face from wildfires.  The wayward geese tried to avoid the smoke, and in the process doubled their migration time and wasted precious energy, and other migratory birds face similar or worse consequences.  Things went wrong for the Tule as they encountered smoke off the coast of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula and all four birds began deviating from their previous migratory paths.  Three of the birds touched down separately on the Pacific Ocean looking to conserve energy but unable to eat.  The fourth goose continued south over land but turned around when it reached the Oregon border to escape the thickening smoke.  The birds generally fly just a few hundred feet above the ground, but three of the geese climbed to more than 13,000 feet at various points trying to rise above columns of smoke.  There were additional pauses in farm fields and more turnarounds before the birds finally reached their stopover destination.

Thoughts:  Overton explained, “There’s three main options to avoid air pollution (smoke).  Go around it, go over it, and decrease your energetic use.  And these birds tried to do all three.”  They did not always succeed.  While the trek from Alaska to Summer Lake usually takes about 9 days, it took more than twice as long trying to evade the smoke.  Since the Tule fly in large flocks, the four birds tracked each likely represents hundreds of flock mates.  Like the geese, humans devise ways to avoid the pollution and smoke caused by climate change.  Unlike the geese, we could do something to resolve it.  Follow the science.  Change is coming and it starts with you.

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