Red-breasted goose

Red-breasted goose

At home north of the 70th parallel

The red-breasted goose is the smallest wild goose in Europe and Asia. It is also the most attractive with its beautiful brightly coloured plumage with contrasting chestnut-red chest, cheeks and neck. Red-breasted geese breed only in the tundra on Taymyr, Yamal and Gyda peninsulas in Arctic Russia, north of the 70th parallel. Typically, they build their nests close to those of big birds of prey, in particular those of the peregrine falcon. Thus the geese receive protection from land predators, for example Arctic foxes.
© Mladen Vasilev/Red-breasted goose
© Daniel Mitev/Red-breasted goose

A brave traveler

Until the early 1970s red-breasted geese spent the winters on the shores of the Caspian Sea. Due to a shift in the agricultural policies there winter wheat was replaced by cotton; the red-breasted geese had to move their wintering grounds and at present the entire global population spends the winter on the northern and north-western coasts of the Black Sea. To reach their wintering grounds the birds fly for over 6000 km along the valley of Ob River and by the Ural Mountains, passing through Northern Kazakhstan and Southern Russia.

© Daniel Mitev/Red-breasted goose

New wintering grounds

At the end of the 20th century Bulgaria provided some of the main wintering grounds for the red-breasted goose and until the mid-1990s the majority of the global population (about 100 000 birds) regularly spent the winter in our country.

Unfortunately, in the beginning of the new millennium the numbers of the red-breasted goose declined rapidly and at present its population is estimated at about 50 000 birds.
Today, red-breasted geese spend less time in Bulgaria, and in lower concentrations; however, the northeastern corner of the country still remains their stronghold for the winter. During exceptional cold spells about 87–94 per cent of the global population of the species can be observed in wetlands in Bulgaria.

The lakes in coastal Dobrudzha – Shabla and Durankulak Lakes, are the traditional wintering grounds of the species. For a short period in 2013 nearly all its population was concentrated in the area. In recent years larger flocks can be observed in the area of the Burgas Lakes too, and in October–November the species can also be seen in the Svishtov-Belene Plain and in Srebarna Nature Reserve.

© Mladen Vasilev/Red-breasted geese

Enough fields, lakes and peace for the beautiful geese

In their main wintering grounds on the territories of Bulgaria, Romania and Ukraine red-breasted geese forage in agricultural fields sown with winter wheat and barley and in corn stubble fields; they roost in nearby water bodies – coastal lakes and reservoirs, situated no farther than 50 km from the feeding grounds. During the day the birds fly regularly to the lakes to drink water.

In Bulgaria, red-breasted geese spend the night in the water, usually in the middle of the lake, but in times of high hunting pressure and in calm weather they roost in the sea too. When the lakes freeze, they spend the night on the ice.

Redbreasts spend about 4–5 months in their wintering grounds.

Their survival in winter depends on how peaceful the conditions are at the sites for resting and feeding – when the birds have to spend more time flying away from human disturbance, they lose energy and are exhausted. As with other species of geese, redbreasts also build up the energy stock that they need for the breeding season in their wintering grounds, as well as on rest stops along their spring migration flyway; therefore, peace and food availability in these areas has an impact on their yearly life cycle and their breeding success in the far-away Arctic.

© Nikolay Petkov/Red-breasted goose

Illegal hunting – a serious threat

During migration and in winter red-breasted geese form mixed flocks with white-fronted geese. As the latter are a game species, redbreasts often fall victim to hunters. Data collected through satellite tagging and colour ringing reveal that almost 40 per cent of the birds can fall victim to illegal hunting during migration.

Even when red-breasted geese are not the direct target of hunters, the pressure results in significant disturbance for the birds and compels them to spend more time in flight in an attempt to move away from the hunters; thus they lose energy and are easily exhausted.

Any large-scale changes in the agricultural practices in the wintering grounds of red-breasted geese can lead to a new shift. Therefore, sustainable development of agriculture in the region of Dobrudzha is needed, taking into consideration both human, as well as red-breasted goose needs.

Infrastructure projects – a new threat

One of the most recent threats for red-breasted geese is associated with the greater number of infrastructural projects in the Bulgarian Northeastern Black Sea Coast in recent years. This includes wind parks and touristic venues – both existing, as well as planned. Such infrastructural projects threaten to significantly reduce the area of the available habitats used by red-breasted geese for feeding and resting.

The BSPB has been carrying out research and conservation activities for the red-breasted goose for nearly 25 years. It all started back in 1995 with the launch of the regular monitoring of the species in NE Bulgaria. The monitoring takes place every two weeks from the beginning of November till the end of February. The BSPB also initiated the establishment of an international working group for the red-breasted goose with participants from all the countries in the area of distribution of the species.

Monitoring of the wintering population

The monitoring of the wintering geese is one of the longest running monitoring programmes managed by the BSPB, starting in the 1990s.

Since 1994 a consistent methodology is applied for the area of Shabla and Durankulak Lakes. Every year from November to March a count is organized every two or three weeks. For several years now it includes the Burgas Lakes and the area around the town of Svishtov.

Every winter 3 or 4 international coordinated counts are organized too in cooperation with Romania and Ukraine. The data from these counts allow us to make an estimation of the global population of the species, and hence – of its conservation status too.

© Chavdar Nikolov/Red-breasted goose

Fight against poachers and illegal hunting


The main activities that have been carried out since the mid-1990s are associated with the monitoring of the wintering population of red-breasted geese in Bulgaria and the fight against poaching in the area of Shabla and Durankulak Lakes – key territories for the species in the winter.

In Bulgaria, red-breasted geese are exposed to stress and disturbance by illegal fisherman that enter the lakes in boats, by poachers and by chasing away from the fields where they feed. This has an impact on their survival, the success of their spring migration, and on their breeding success too.

The BSPB works with regional state structures for improving coordination between the institutions responsible for the implementation of nature conservation and hunting legislation, and for improving the efficiency and intensity of control and regulation during the hunting season too. Despite the occasional poaching incidents in the wintering grounds of the red-breasted goose, the attitude and the conscience of the majority of the hunters and hunting parties in the area of Shabla and Durankulak Lakes have undergone a substantial change over that long period. Unfortunately, problems still exist with visiting hunters from other regions of the country.

The introduction of a wider no-hunting area of 350 m around Shabla and Durankulak Lakes in the period December–January by order of the Bulgarian Minister of Environment and Water was a significant success. This wider area will contribute for a better protection and peace for the geese that winter in the area of the lakes.

The BSPB works actively for raising the awareness and the knowledge of hunters and law enforcement institutions by organizing specialized regional trainings with experienced lecturers from a variety of backgrounds related to hunting and nature conservation legislation, and with lecturers from the field of sustainable hunting and ways for its regulation.

Providing food resources for red-breasted geese

The first attempts of the BSPB to promote and introduce agri-environmental measures and sustainable agriculture practices in favour of red-breasted geese date back to the 1990s.

Within a project funded by the LIFE+ Programme of the EU and in cooperation with local agricultural producers we carried out a detailed survey of the preferred feeding grounds for the species and their use, as well as of the impact the geese have on the yield of winter wheat. Based on the results of the study we developed a regional agri-environmental measure under the Rural Development Programme that stimulates agriculture producers to grow and use cultures that are suitable for red-breasted geese, thus providing the necessary food resources in the areas that are key for it during the winter season.

© Chavdar Nikolov/Red-breasted goose
Durankulak lake

The measure also provides compensation for the losses on the yield of winter wheat that local agricultural producers suffer after intense pasture by wintering geese. Before the measure was approved and implemented, the BSPB launched a pilot testing on the territory of the Municipality of Shabla; we carried out an educational campaign among local farmers, providing assistance for the preparation of the documentation and its submission.

Durankulak lake

Satellite research of the local movements and the migration

So far, more than 30 geese were tagged with transmitters, and more than 300 were colour-ringed for individual identification within the research programme on the species run by the BSPB. The main goal of the programme is to collect data about the threats and the survival of red-breasted geese, as well as to facilitate the work of the teams that carry out the monitoring of the species during migration and in winter.

The transmitters are fitted on the geese in their wintering grounds in Bulgaria or in Kazakhstan, during their spring migration. For the moment, the BSPB uses mostly satellite GPS transmitters and GPS-GSM transmitters. The devices are fitted with a solar panel to ensure their prolonged operation. There are fitted chiefly on adult birds weighing above 1.3 kg; the transmitters themselves weigh just 19–22 g – less than 3 per cent of the bird’s weight.

Protecting the habitats of the red-breasted goose

In the last 10–15 years there is a serious increase in the number and intensity of infrastructural projects in NE Bulgaria – wind-parks, touristic venues, construction, both existing as well as planned new ones. These infrastructural projects would reduce significantly the area of the available habitats for feeding and resting for the red-breasted geese. The landscape of coastal Dobrudzha has undergone a substantial transformation; for more than 20 years, the BSPB works actively for the restriction of the chaotic construction process and of the transformation of wild areas and agricultural lands into infrastructural elements for renewable energy production and touristic complexes.

A success was the moratorium on the construction of new renewable energy projects in coastal Dobrudzha, chiefly due to the case of the EC against Bulgaria for violation of the nature conservation Directives in the construction of wind-parks in the region of Kaliakra. The BSPB prepared a specialized manual for assessment of the impact of individual investment projects, and a GIS model of the key habitats for the species that enables the assessment of projects and their cumulative effect in the area. These important instruments allow decision-makers to assess adequately and objectively future projects and their impact.

© Mladen Vasilev/Red-breasted goose

International working group in action

Since 2010, the BSPB is responsible for the coordination of the Red-breasted Goose International Working Group under the Secretariat of AEWA. The mission of the group is to monitor and contribute to the implementation of the International Action Plan for the species. It consists of representatives of the state institutions and agencies, responsible for the implementation of AEWA on the territory of the respective country, together with experts appointed by the respective country, and observers from international organizations working for the conservation of the species.

So far, the BSPB has organized two operative meetings of the group and actively supports the implementation of the international action plan for the conservation of the species and the coordination of the working group through its LIFE+ projects.

The BSPB shares its experience in fields such as monitoring, training and field conservation activities within the international working group. Thanks to the international partnerships we support the colour-ringing of the species, satellite tracking, autumn monitoring in Kazakhstan, the training and implementation of good practices in the field of sustainable hunting, hunting patrols and much more.

Since 2017, the BSPB coordinates an international project under the LIFE+ Programme of the EU that includes the entire migration flyway of the red-breasted goose in partnership with the five key countries from its area of distribution. In practice, it includes the entire global population of the red-breasted goose and supports its conservation, as well as the implementation of the international action plan.

Work with local communities and people

Thanks to the long-standing efforts of the BSPB in the areas where red-breasted geese spend the winter, the species is well-known to the general public, and people are aware of the troubles it faces and the necessity for its conservation. At the same time, the BSPB works actively with local communities with the aim of popularizing the red-breasted goose but also popularizing the area as an attractive destination for sustainable tourism. With the support of the LIFE+ Programme we launched the Kite Festival which attracts tourists and locals to an exciting event in the end of the summer season. Today the event is organized and managed by the Municipality of Shabla.

Educational activities in the region are important too, as they help students from the local schools not only to appreciate the need for nature conservation but also to get to know the nature around their home in a new, attractive manner.
With support from the Whitley Fund for Nature we organize educational activities and we popularize alternative, sustainable tourism in the area of coastal Dobrudzha.