The red-breasted goose (Branta ruficollis) is an unmistakable little goose related to the barnacle goose (Branta leucopsis) and the brant (or brent goose) (Branta bernicla). It is found in Eurasia, where it is a migratory species. It breeds in Arctic Siberia and winters in southeast Europe around the Black Sea. It is an occasional vagrant to western European countries. It is an easily recognizable species, with its black and white plumage and red beast and cheeks. It reaches lengths of 53-56 cm (21-22 in). Males are larger than females and can weigh between 1.2-1.6 kg (2.6-3.5 lb.).
Diet & habitat
The red-breasted goose is usually found close to water, both near the ocean and at wetlands inland. It can also be found on grasslands, where it feeds on green grass. They will also eat leaves, shoots, stems, and aquatic plants, especially in winter.
The red-breasted goose tends to live in flocks, and when separated from others it often stays with closely related species, such as the barnacle goose and brant. During breeding season, which starts early June, they form colonies numbering around four pairs, depending on the availability of food, location, and the number of birds of prey nearby. Breeding pairs of red-breasted geese nests close to cliffs where birds of prey (such as peregrine falcon, snowy owl, and rough-legged buzzard) have their nests. Having their nests close to birds of prey adds protection against mammals such as the Arctic fox. The closer the nests are to birds of prey, the safer the nests are. Sometimes they have nests on riverine islands, but they are more vulnerable to predation from species such as the Heuglin’s gull.
The red-breasted goose has their first brood when 3 years old. An average clutch is about 3-8 eggs, which hatch after about 25 days. Most clutches hatch around mid-July, and the chicks fledge late August or early September.
The red-breasted goose is a threatened species in decline. More than 80% of the currently known population is breeding at just five sites. It is likely that there are other breeding sites which are yet to be found. It is a protected species in most countries, but hunting is still continued some places. It is a heavily monitored species, as there is continued interest in learning more about its ecology, migration routes and habitat. In recent times it seems it has been changing its wintering grounds further west, with more individuals seen in Hungary than before. It is listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List.
I have only seen a red-breasted goose once in my life so far, and it was indeed a special observation. It was the annual Easter Day birding trip to Fornebu in Norway, April 22nd 2019, hosted by birdlife.no. I did not know this before going, but a red-breasted goose had been seen with a flock of barnacle geese the day before. As you know from reading the above, Norway is not within the distribution range of the red-breasted goose, so seeing one here would be quite something! As luck would have it, we found it!
To take away some of the excitement, most experts seemed to be quite clear that this was an escapee (even though it wasn’t ringed). However, they caught the bird, ringed it, and took a few DNA-samples. Fast track to seven months later, and the results came in. It really was a vagrant from Siberia, making it the 5th record in Norway (i think). Very special indeed, and probably my favorite observation of 2019.