Red-breasted Geese


Now that the winter season is almost over and the last Red-breasted Geese have left the area of their traditional wintering grounds (the lakes of Shabla and Durankulak), here is the overview of our findings and activities in the past four months:

This winter we had a very peculiar situation – very mild weather with day temperatures reaching over 10 0C even in January.  The milder winter conditions and the lack of snow, which allowed good grazing for the birds further north-east in Ukraine and Russia, resulted in a very late arrival of the Red-breasted Geese in their wintering grounds along the western Black Sea coast and very low numbers compared to previous seasons. The first Red-breasted Geese arrived in their traditional wintering grounds in Bulgaria as late as mid-January. On 15 January 2018 we had the first 335 Red-breasted Geese roosting in Durankulak Lake in Bulgaria and later in the day – about 2000 Red-breasted Geese in the Romanian part of Dobroudzha just across the border.

A higher number of wintering Red-breasted geese was registered in the last days of January. At that time about 5000 Red-Breasted geese and only 2300 Greater White-fronted geese (which usually are much more numerous than the Redbreasts) were observed during our regular monitoring of the wintering birds in the region of Durankulak Lake and the Shabla Lake Complex. The birds stayed in the region for a couple of days only, then their number fluctuated between 600 and 1000 until mid-February until they eventually retreated north.

The variable weather in late February and early March – from very warm (about + 10oC) to very cold (down to about – 10oC) with thick snow cover and strong northern winds just at the time when the geese are ready  to depart north to their breeding grounds in the Siberian tundra – was obviously the reason for the constant divergent movement of the geese along the western Black Sea coast and their irregular number in the Bourgas Lakes and Shabla Lakes in the last 2-3 weeks.  On March 5, 2018 we held our last monitoring session for the season and established a mixed flock of about 2500 – 3000 Red-breasted Geese and about 7000 Greater White-fronted Geese in the wheat crops south of Durankulak Lake. Smaller flocks of about 60 to 90 Redbreasts were flying around during the whole day. On the next day about twice as many birds were counted by our colleagues at Shabla – Ezerets Lake, plus another big flock of about 5000 Redbreasts in the Bourgas Lakes further south. At the time being, all the geese have left the area.

Just for reference:

The highest total count of Red-breasted Geese from their wintering grounds came in January 2013 during the International Waterfowl Count, when around 56,000 birds were counted in Bulgaria, Romania and Ukraine. This is believed to be around the current population of the species (AEWA).

On February 15, 2017 we counted 23’780 Red-breasts, together with 47’000 White-fronted Geese and 160 Greylag Geese.

On the background of the unusual delay with which the Red-breasted Geese reached their traditional winter roosts this year and their short stay in the area, we conducted less monitoring and patrolling sessions than we had planned. We started our surveys already in December and we continued them till the beginning of March. During that period we established a much lower hunting pressure compared to previous years, due to the very low number of geese. Poaching usually occurs when hunters come organized from abroad or elsewhere in the country (which was not the case this winter), and out of the hunting season, which is why we continued our surveys till the beginning of March. The bigger problem this season, however,  was the illegal fishing with nets in the dark part of the day, which disturbs the geese at their roosts on the lake and chases them to seek safety in the sea waters. We reported about 20 such instances and managed to prevent about 30 more.

Our combined monitoring and patrolling surveys in the wintering grounds of the globally-threatened Red-Breasted Goose this winter were exclusively carried out with the support of the PUGET SOUND AMERICAN ASSOCIATION OF ZOO KEEPERS (PSAAZK), to whom we are extremely grateful! The PSAAZK are also supporting our public awareness raising activities during the rest of the year – participation in public events, such as Earth Day, Biodiversity Day, green festivals, exhibitions etc.








Field survey_Coastal Dobrudja2018 Wild geese_sunrise_Durankulak Lake



Our priority activities concerning the conservation of the Red-breasted Goose are:

-              Patrolling the wintering grounds of the Red-breasted Goose in North-eastern Bulgaria, where half of the global population of the species concentrates, especially in harsh winters; In the months November, December and January, when hunting of Greater White-fronted Geese is allowed, Redbreasts often are shot by mistake, or shooting distances from the roosts or feeding flocks are not observed, resulting in high levels of disturbance and dispersal of the flocks. Thus the birds spend the day moving around and covering greater distances in search of food, instead of feeding, and they lose the energy needed to survive the winter and undertake the long migration back to their breeding grounds 6000 km to the north.

During these three months we are trying to be present in the field as much as we can, especially on the hunting days, which are every Wednesday and every weekend. We send our volunteers to patrol, very often together with the official controlling bodies (environmental and forestry police). This winter alone we have prevented/ stopped over 100 poaching instances.

-              Another important activity we do is the monitoring of the geese that helps conservation and research. We do this kind of monitoring twice a month in the period November – March, to establish species number, distribution and composition, age ratio, abdominal profiles, etc. This information is necessary to identify threats and guide future conservation actions and strategies.

-              Community outreach activities, involving work with the local schools and organizing community events; A typical community outreach activity, which we organize together with the local municipality and Green Training Center – Shabla is the annual Kite Festival in September, dedicated to the conservation of birds and nature. It is a popular event that is growing and attracts thousands of visitors from all over the country.

-             Acquiring of land to set aside for conservation: Over the last 20 or so years that our members have dedicated to the conservation of the Red-breasted Goose we realized that this is the most sustainable way to help the species. However, the region around the main roosts of the RBG, the lakes of Shabla and Durankulak, is located by the Black Sea coast and is very attractive for tourism development. On the other hand, it is one of the most fertile wheat growing agricultural regions in Bulgaria. These two factors have recently increased the price of the land, which is currently between 10 000 and 40 000 USD per hectare. About 150 ha have already been acquired by different NGOs, but some of the plots are far away from the lakes. Our goal is to acquire at least 200 ha more in order to ensure a real refuge for the birds in the vicinity of the lakes. Because of the high price of the land, we will hardly manage to do so on our own, so our idea is to develop a multi-partner project and apply to a big international donor, such as the EU transborder or LIFE Nature programmes. To accomplish such a project, however, we need to provide our own funds in the form of co-funding.  Any donation we receive for land purchase is going now for setting such fund.

If you wish to contribute to any of our Red-breasted Goose Conservation activities, please contact us.



Poaching at the lakes of Shabla and Durakulak has always been one of the major problems for the wintering geese that significantly affect the numbers of the Red-breasted Geese and their behavior. In the winter of 2009/2010 we implemented the project “Stop the Poaching at Durankulak Lake”. This project targeted the problem with poaching and illegal fishing in the protected area and tried to implement proven techniques for fighting these problems. It involved thorough research on the levels and impact of poaching, especially concerning the globally threatened Red-breasted Goose. It also included the elaboration of a database to quantify the level and impact of poaching in the protected area and initialized environmental education activities for local children.  Main objective of the project was to set the foundations of a broad anti-poaching campaign both locally and nation-wide.

The project “Stop the Poaching at Durankulak Lake” was developed in the framework of the Nature Protection and Regional Development in South-East Europe (NatuRegio) Program.

Every year during the winter months when hunting is allowed, we are trying to be present in the field as much as we can, especially on the hunting days, which are every Wednesday, every weekend and the official holidays. We send our volunteers to patrol, very often together with the official controlling bodies (environmental and forestry police). This winter alone (2017), we have prevented or stopped over 100 poaching instances.



THE MAIN THREATS – poaching and disturbance

Hunting regulations in the lakes area are prescribed in the management plans of the protected areas, adopted in 2002. They prohibit hunting at a distance less than 100 meters from the banks of the lake and in the lake itself, which covers only 13% of the SPA. Even so, these regulations are often violated: hunting of protected species from the banks of the lake, from boats in the lake, with sound decoys, with magazine guns, without hunting permits, in non-hunting days, in low visibility, the limits of hunted birds are not observed (2 geese and 5 ducks per person). All these violations affect the numbers and the behavior of the wintering Red-breasted geese in Durankulak Lake. In the last 20 years the population of this species is decreasing dramatically and is already classified as Endangered due to the IUCN category list. The maximum numbers of the Red-breasted Goose in Shabla and Durankulak Lakes dropped from 67000 birds in 1990s to 23 780 in 2017. In December and January when hunting becomes more intense the geese move to overnight in the sea, where they are more exposed to natural dangers and bad weather conditions. Feeding, as well, takes place more inland (up to 30km) to avoid persecution. All these result in a greater energy losses and mortality; unsuccessful breeding and lower number of laid eggs. Illegal fishing is also a serious threat for the geese, which results in disturbance and net entangling.

Legal protection of the lake is accomplished by several governmental institutions: Regional Inspectorate for Environment and Waters (RIEW) – Varna and Regional Forestry Board (RFB) – Varna.  Varna is 100 km from the lake’s area, and it takes between 2 and 3 hours for the agency’s staff to come at the lake and register a poaching signal. Working hours of these institutions also doesn’t allow effective reactions against poachers. The only effective measures that proved to be successful so far are the anti-poaching actions carried out jointly by the teams of the state authorities and local NGOs.

RBG_Mladen Vasilev1


The Red-breasted Goose is the smallest and one of the most beautiful geese, due to its striking colours – chestnut-red neck, breast and cheek patch, separated from black upper and underparts with conspicuous white lines.

Breeding: The species breeds on the Taimyr, Gydan and Yamal peninsulas, in the Russian tundra. It nests in loose groups, where breeding success may depend on nesting Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus) and Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiaca) providing protection from terrestrial predators. Successful breeding seasons are also associated with good lemming years, when predators are sated by the lemming population and therefore predation of geese is much lower.

Migration: Autumn migration starts in mid–September, with birds reaching Kazakhstan by the end of September. The spring migration starts in March. In early May, the birds reach the Kazakh uplands and by early June have reached the breeding grounds.

During the autumn migration the majority of the population, travel on to the western Black Sea coast, principally in the Dobrudzha region of Romania and Bulgaria, but increasingly in the Ukraine and even Southern Russia during mild winters. They arrive in small flocks in November-December, while larger numbers are recorded later in the winter, depending on the weather conditions. A few may continue south to the Aral Sea, while the majority travel south-west towards the Caspian. Small flocks may remain to winter on the Caspian Sea coast in Azerbaijan while others may visit Greece and occasionally very small numbers reach Hungary, Turkey, Iraq and Iran. The Red-breasted Geese are usually mixed with greater white-fronted geese (Anser albifrons) flocks.

Although three or four key staging areas are known, there are probably several undiscovered sites along the flyway.

Wintering grounds: On the main wintering sites in Romania and Bulgaria the geese now feed on agricultural land dominated by winter wheat and barley, maize stubble, some pasture grasses, rape and spilled grain. The birds periodically fly to coastal lakes to drink. These lakes, situated up to 50 km from the feeding areas, are also used as night-roosts. The proximity of drinking and roosting sites to feeding areas may influence winter distribution. In Bulgaria, Red-breasted Geese roost on water; usually in the middle of lakes, but occasionally, or in times of high hunting pressure and calm conditions, on the sea. When the lakes freeze they roost on the ice.

According to the most recent estimates (AEWA Kazakhstan expedition, 2017), the species population size is estimated at about 50 000 birds.  The maximum count in the winter of 2017 – 23 780 Red-breasted Geese at the lakes of Shabla and Durankulak, indicates that almost half the species global population is wintering in the area.



With its beautiful and unspoiled nature, Shabla Lake Complex is among the most representative places of the Natura 2000 network in Europe. It is also an Important Bird Area (IBA) and Ramsar site, designated for the conservation of rare and endangered species and habitats – coastal freshwater and brackish lakes, sandy beaches and reedbeds that thousands of birds use as roosts during migration or while wintering. This lake complex provides opportunities for developing year-round eco-tourism, but particularly popular are the bird watching tours.

Another coastal lake, Durankulak Lake, is located 20 km to the north. It is one of the most important wetlands in Bulgaria from an ornithological point of view and regularly hosts globally significant numbers of breeding, migratory and wintering birds. It is designated as an Important Bird Area, Natura 2000 Special Protected Area, and a Ramsar Site. The wetland consists of a coastal lake with associated marshland and sand dunes, and is surrounded by steppe grasslands and arable lands used for intensive crop production. It is also a site of high historical and archeological importance, with evidence of some of the oldest civilizations in Europe.

Located on a major bird migration route in Europe – the Via Pontica – the two wetlands attract a huge number of migratory waterbirds each year. Their fame, however, is due to the huge concentrations of Red-breasted geese (Branta ruficollis) and Greater White-fronted Geese (Anser albifrons) that come from the tundra of Europe and Asia to overwinter in the area, attracted by the calm, milder winters and the large arable areas where they can feed. Since the 1950s, about three – quarters of the global population of the Red-breasted Goose spend the winter near Shabla Lake Complex and the nearby Durankulak Lake.



The Red-breasted Geese (Branta ruficollis) are still numerous at the lakes of Shabla and Durankulak, North-eastern Bulgaria. On February 15, 2017 we counted 23’780 Red-breasts, together with 47’000 White-fronted Geese and 160 Greylag Geese. In one of the flocks we also spotted a Lesser White-fronted Goose. The geese are actively feeding in the winter crops by the lakes to accumulate energy for their 6000 km long flight back to Siberian tundra.

Although the number of the wintering geese in Coastal Dobrudzha is stable this year, it is still important to ensure their survival and reduce the threats they are facing. The main one is the hunting disturbance in November, December and January, which we target by patrolling and working jointly with the regional forestry and environment authorities. This winter alone we have prevented or stopped over 100 poaching cases.

Compared to the situation in the region during the second half of January, when the cold weather and the intense hunting at the lakes drove most of the geese south to the Bourgas wetlands, now the flocks are concentrated again in their traditional wintering grounds around Shabla and Durankulak. Since the beginning of February, when the hunting season ended, the birds are less restless and enjoy greater peace when grazing around and roosting on the lakes. The Red-breasted geese have already started to form pure flocks and now we have about two weeks more to enjoy these magnificent birds before they leave north to their breeding grounds.



Red-breasted geese by Dimiter Georgiev


On January 2, 2017 a joint team of the Wildlife Conservation Society and Neophron Tours carried out the scheduled monitoring of waterfowl in the northern Bulgarian Black Sea lakes Durankulak and Shabla, traditionally hosting almost the whole population of the Red-breasted Goose in winter.

During the survey we established 6’390  Red-breasted Geese and 16’400 Greater White-fronted Geese. We also watched 90 Graylag geese in Durankulak Lake. Compared with the survey which we conducted on December 17, 2016 the number of wintering geese in Coastal Dobrudzha has grown considerably, although it is still far from the numbers that accumulate here in the last 20-25 years. With the new cold spell coming this weekend, we expect even bigger numbers of geese at their traditional winter roosts.

In Durankulak again we found a small flock of White-headed ducks (this time 7 birds) – an extremely rare duck, with alarmingly decreasing numbers worldwide.


RBG_2 Jan 2016 [2]


After the unusually warm weather at the end of 2015, the cold spells finally reached Bulgaria with the New Year. A large number of waterfowl and other birds arrived from the north to find refuge in the northern Bulgarian Black Sea lakes Durankulak and Shabla.

During the bird census carried out by a team of the Wildlife Conservation Society on January 2, 2016, we established 6980 Red-breasted Geese (of which 5830 in Durankulak and 1150 in Shabla lake) and 2025 White-fronted geese ( 1205 in the Shabla lakes and 820 in Durankulak). We also observed 11 Greylag geese, traditionally wintering in small numbers in the two lakes. All of the observed geese had roosted on the lakes.

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Red-breasted Geese by Chavdar Nikolov


After a severe cold spell in late December 2014, the monitoring of wintering geese conducted by a team of the Wildlife Conservation Society on January 3, 2015, revealed the following situation:
Red-breasted Geese – 16 290, of which 13440 in Shabla Lake Complex (Shabla – Ezerets lakes and Shabla Tuzla) and 2850 in Durankulak Lake and the sea front.
Greater White-fronted Geese – 54 905, of which 38 405 in the Shabla Lake Complex and 16 500 in Durankulak Lake and the sea front.
Graylag Geese – 32 birds were observed in the two wetlands.

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