Foraging ecology, fluctuating food availability and energetics of wintering brent geese

Authors


  • Editor: Andrew Kitchener

Correspondence
R. W. Elwood, School of Biological Sciences, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Medical Biology Centre, Queen's University, Belfast, UK.
Email: r.elwood@qub.ac.uk

Abstract

Changing energy requirements and dramatic shifts in food availability are major factors driving behaviour and distribution of herbivores. We investigate this in wintering East Canadian High Arctic light-bellied brent geese Branta bernicla hrota in Northern Ireland. They followed a sequential pattern of habitat use, feeding on intertidal Zostera spp. in autumn and early winter before moving to predominantly saltmarsh and farmland in late winter and early spring. Night-time feeding occurred throughout and made a considerable contribution to the birds' daily energy budget, at times accounting for >50% of energy intake. Nocturnal feeding, however, is limited to the intertidal, possibly because of predation risk on terrestrial habitat, and increases with moonlight. The amount of Zostera spp., declined dramatically after the arrival of birds, predominantly, but not entirely, due to consumption by the birds. Birds gained fat reserves in the first 2 months but then this was dramatically lost as their major food source collapsed and their daily energy intake declined. Single birds consistently fared worse than paired birds and pairs with juveniles fared better than those without suggesting a benefit of having a family to compete for food. Many birds leave the Lough at this time of reduced Zostera spp. for other sea inlets in Ireland but some remain. Body condition of the latter gradually improved in early spring and reflected a heavy reliance on terrestrial habitats, particularly farmland, to meet the birds' daily energy requirements. However, even in the period immediately before migration to the breeding ground, the birds did not regain the amount of abdominal fatness observed in November. The dramatic changes in available food and requirements of the birds drive the major changes seen in foraging behaviour as the birds evade starvation in the wintering period.

Ancillary