Wildlife Cameras Offer Insight on Geese for Industry and Researchers in the Arctic

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Direct encounters with humans can increase the likelihood that nesting geese will lose their eggs to predators, according to a recent study released Monday, July 17.

Greater White-fronted Goose on the North Slope of Alaska
Greater White-fronted Goose on the North Slope of Alaska, in the Chipp South area.(Credit: Ryan Askren, USGS, Alaska Science Center. Public domain.)

As part of a study to understand reasons for the rapid increase of geese across northern Alaska, researchers used photos from wildlife cameras placed at goose nests in an area of recent disturbance to assess the behavioral response to disturbance and provide suggestions for mitigating any effects.

The photos revealed that undisturbed geese took breaks from incubating eggs less than once per day, and only for about nine minutes at a time. Geese exposed to industrial disturbance took more breaks, but they were only absent from nests for about three additional minutes per day. When researchers directly approached the nests, incubation breaks averaged 30 minutes longer. This longer break time increased the chance that the eggs would be eaten by a predator.

“Over the course of the study, we collected over 1.5 million photos used to measure the response of geese to disturbance,” said Brandt Meixell, a research biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey and lead author of the study. “Many of the photos also portray what takes place in the daily life of a nesting goose in the Arctic, such as interactions with predators, caribou and other geese.”

Results of the study indicate that effects of both industrial and research activity can be minimized through practices that limit direct encounters with nests, such as minimizing travel on the tundra during the nesting season and sticking to established travel routes during the summer.

“Nesting geese were tolerant to most industrial disturbance in that they tended to hunker down in a hiding posture until the vehicle or aircraft passed by,” said Paul Flint, a research biologist with USGS and co-author of the study. “Our findings demonstrate a different response by geese to direct human encroachment versus indirect vehicle and aircraft traffic.”

An industrial clean-up effort to remove old buildings at Point Lonely in 2013 and 2014 provided an opportunity to compare how nesting birds respond to vehicles and aircraft versus USGS research activities.

Arctic-nesting geese are able to defend their eggs from most predators if they stay at the nest. But when geese leave the nest, eggs become much more vulnerable to predation.

To quantify what disturbed the geese, how long they were off their nests, and if predation occurred after the disturbance, researchers used digital cameras placed near goose nests in both a disturbed and undisturbed site. The cameras took pictures at one-minute intervals.

“This study is also a good example of how field research activities can influence what it is you’re trying to measure,” said Meixell, “but people should know that our activities influenced just a handful of nests, so the study didn’t have any population-level impacts.  We found that using nest cameras is an effective tool for limiting researcher effects and for reaching sound conclusions about goose biology.”

These findings of the study also are consistent with an earlier USGS study that investigated disturbance impacts to loons

The new study published in the Journal of Wildlife Management is entitled, “Effects of Industrial and Investigator Disturbance on Arctic-nesting Geese.”

Additional information about USGS research in the Arctic can be found at:

U.S. Geological Survey Alaska Science Center: