Geese can handle a little drama in their day

Wexford has two claims to fame: A world-class opera festival and a renowned nature reserve. But is there a conflict of interest between these institutions? A paper in the current edition of Irish Birds examines the impact of the festival’s firework display on geese at the reserve. In enjoying two operas at the recent festival, was I supporting something that harmed the birds? Perish the thought.

As a famine-relief measure in the 1840s, ‘slob-lands’ were walled off from Wexford Harbour. The wet farmland, protected by Dutch-polder-style dykes, attracts birds. Over 250 species have been recorded, but pride of place goes to white-fronted geese from Greenland. The slobs are the winter home of a third of the world population of the sub-species. Up to 8,000 geese feed on grasslands by day and roost on banks at the mouth of the harbour at night.

In September 2017, geese were fitted with GPS neck-collars in Greenland. Five ‘wired’ ones travelled to Wexford, where their movements were monitored. On November 5 that year, a 10-minute firework display heralded the opening of the opera festival. The pyrotechnics were launched from the quayside, 6km to 7km west of the geese. During the two nights preceding the display, none of the five collared geese moved from their sleeping position, but, when the fireworks were launched, all five took wing and flew out over the Irish Sea. Maximum distances travelled varied from 750m to 1.75km. The birds’ agitation was short-lived; they returned to the roosting banks within 45 minutes.

“It seems likely,” the authors say.

That the entire roost of Greenland white-fronted geese was displaced into the air

One of the collared birds experienced a second fireworks display; it was back in Wexford on October 19, when last autumn’s festival got underway. The goose flew eastwards again on this occasion, reaching a point 1.3km from the roost. No other marked birds were at the reserve on that date.

Clearly, geese don’t like these shows. However, what the authors say was “a more modest and shorter duration firework display” took place on November 24, 2017, as part of the Wexford Winter Festival Parade.

This time, roosting geese showed no signs of agitation, nor were they upset by an air-sea rescue operation that took place 8km east of their roost on the night of November 26.

The authors draw no draconian conclusions from their observations. That the birds tolerated the Festival Parade event suggests that the intensity, duration, and footprint of displays are important.

“However,” they write.

These observations confirm the need to understand better the effects of increasing sources of light and noise pollution on the fauna of protected areas

Not having been in Wexford for the fireworks, I shouldn’t pontificate. However, a 6km-plus separation between the displays and the roosting geese seems adequate. Some thunderstorms I’ve experienced in warmer climes were more spectacular than firework displays. Yet, they didn’t seem to disturb the local wildlife. Thankfully, the Wexford celebrations take place in mid-autumn and not at a time when geese are laying on fat to fuel their migration back to Greenland.

This goose-and-fireworks operatic saga is unlikely to end in the customary tragedy.

Anthony Fox, Alyn Walsh & Mitch Weegmam. ‘Effects of the Wexford Opera fireworks display on roosting Greenland white-fronted geese’. Irish Birds, 41. 2019.

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