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Seattle to Bulgaria: Animal Keeper Joanna works to protect threatened red-breasted geese

Posted by Elizabeth Bacher, Communications
with Joanna Klass, Lead Animal Keeper

Red-breasted goose at Woodland Park Zoo. Photo: Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo

You may already know that Woodland Park Zoo’s animal keepers are extraordinary! They’re passionate about what they do, they tend to the needs of all the different species in our care, and they have individual relationships with their animals based on a foundation of trust. But did you know that many of them are also deeply involved in conservation efforts for some of those animals’ wild cousins?

Such is the case for Lead Animal Keeper, Joanna Klass. Joanna has worked with a lot of the zoo’s waterfowl species (different types of ducks, geese and swans) and she has a particular interest in red-breasted geese—one of the most threatened goose species in the world. Red-breasted geese are a smaller species (relative to other geese) with very distinct red, black and white blocks of color.

Lead animal keeper Joanna Klass, seen here with Woodland Park Zoo's red-breasted geese. Photo: Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo

These highly migratory birds breed in Arctic Russia and travel nearly 3,700 miles to spend the winter in a few sites in Bulgaria, Romania and Ukraine along the Black Sea. Their populations have been declining over the last 20 years, but scientists aren’t exactly sure why. Threats to their survival include illegal poaching and loss of habitat (from things like wind farm development, agricultural changes and the expansion of oil and gas operations) but more research is needed to understand how these factors, in addition to climate change, are affecting red-breasted geese.

With support from a ZooBright scholarship for zoo staff made possible by the Birnbaum family, Joanna was able to travel to eastern Bulgaria last year to help conduct some of that important research. She worked with people from the Bulgarian Society for the Protection of Birds (BSPB)—a group affiliated with one of Woodland Park Zoo’s Wildlife Survival Program conservation partners.

BSPB is a partner with the European Union’s LIFE program—from the French name: L’Instrument Financier pour l’Environnement—which is the European Union’s funding arm for the environment and climate action. Together they operate the LIFE for Safe Flight program which focuses specifically on conservation of the red-breasted goose within the EU, and also within its global migration flyways. 

Here is more from Joanna on her experience...

Joanna worked in the field with researchers from the Bulgarian Society for the Protection of Birds. Photo: AEWA Red-breasted Goose International Working Group

In February (2020), I was awarded a ZooBright Scholarship which allowed me to travel to eastern Bulgaria to volunteer with the BSPB team that was coordinating and carrying out the activities of the EU LIFE for Safe Flight project. Dr. Nicky Petkov, the project manager and African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbird Agreement (AEWA) Red-breasted Goose International Working Group Coordinator, invited me to stay at the field station for two weeks. While at the station I learned how they are protecting the Black Sea wetlands of Bulgaria, including areas that serve as crucial wintering sites for red-breasted geese. The LIFE for Safe Flight project includes work in five key red-breasted goose range countries (Bulgaria, Romania, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, and Russia), and I was fortunate to also meet the crew from the Romanian Ornithological Society (SOR).

Photo: AEWA Red-breasted Goose International Working Group

The goal of February’s work was to equip male red-breasted geese with GPS harnesses. In order to accomplish this task, we needed to catch them first. Open fields with miles of visibility don’t make things easy. Bob Swann from the British Trust for Ornithology joined our group to set up and coordinate the cannon netting. This involved scoping out where the geese were foraging during the day and then mapping their patterns and habitat usage to determine the best place to install the nets. Once they left to roost at sea for the night, we strapped on headlamps and got to work. Digging trenches under a full moon while the cackles of jackals echoed across the field is not a scene one soon forgets!

After being weighed, measured and banded, these wild geese were released back into their habitat. Photo: AEWA Red-breasted Goose International Working Group

The next day the geese had flown back in with a large group of greater white-fronted geese, and they were foraging in a perfect arc just out of the net’s range. Finally, after hours of waiting, Nicky got his chance. Within minutes, the team from the field station came to the site to begin setting up the processing line. I assisted Bob with extracting and banding the birds while he and other team members took morphometric measurements. When all was said and done, we had successfully processed 42 red-breasted geese and about 20 greater white-fronted geese – an incredible catch! Nine males were fitted with GPS harnesses; females were not harnessed due to concerns about potential breeding interference.

Wild red-breasted geese in Bulgaria. Photo: AEWA Red-breasted Goose International Working Group

In addition to receiving a crash course in net-cannoning, I actively participated in monitoring efforts. The excitement I felt as I heard the first high-pitched honks fighting their way through the ripping wind made me forget about the toe-numbing cold. We had gotten up at daybreak to monitor the geese as they came from their roosting sites in and around the Black Sea to the rich cereal crop fields in Durankulak. Mihail Iliev, an ornithologist with the BSPB quietly pointed towards the steely gray horizon over the Black Sea. I raised my trembling hands to peer through my binoculars, eventually fixing them on a ribbon of red-breasted geese trailing through the sky. I smiled, teeth chattering, branding the image into my memory.

Photo: Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo

Thank you Joanna! Back home now, these memories and experiences have helped Joanna care for Woodland Park Zoo’s flock of red-breasted geese here in Seattle. She is the Program Leader for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums' (AZA) Species Survival Plan for this species—which means she maintains the book that tracks breeding recommendations to ensure that the all zoos within AZA that are caring for red-breasted geese, are maintaining a healthy and genetically diverse population.

A red-breasted goose youngster (a gosling) follows its parents at Woodland Park Zoo. Photo: Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo

Woodland Park Zoo is home to more than 25 of these birds, 14 of which just hatched this year! Having that many youngsters in one season is a wonderful success for a species whose population faces so many threats in the wild. It also speaks to the talent and dedication of our animal keepers who care for our red-breasted geese, day in and day out! (Shout-out to John and Tamlyn!) When you visit the zoo, you can find our geese in the Temperate Forest Marsh habitat between the Family Farm and the Conservation Aviary areas of the zoo.

Woodland Park Zoo supports the work of the AEWA (African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds Agreement) Red-breasted Goose International Working Group as one of our Wildlife Survival Plan partners. When you come visit our flock of red-breasted geese, or any of our animals, a part of your ticket or membership helps to support this important conservation effort. THANK you!