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Scenes from The University of Rhode Island

URI senior seeks clues to destruction of snow geese habitat on Arctic tundra

Media Contact: Todd McLeish, 401-874-7892

KINGSTON, R.I. -- October 4, 2004 -- A University of Rhode Island student spent his summer jumping out of helicopters, digging out of 10-foot snow drifts, and coming face to face with polar bears while learning how increasing numbers of snow geese in the Arctic are destroying their nesting habitat.

Kristopher Winiarski, a wildlife biology and conservation major from North Kingstown, worked for nearly three months at a research camp in Wapusk National Park on the Hudson Bay, 25 miles north of Churchill, Manitoba.

"When I first got there on May 27, the buildings were under 10 feet of snow," said Winiarski, whose research is being conducted in collaboration with URI Associate Professor Scott McWilliams. "The winter lasted so long that the plants and nesting geese were a month behind schedule all summer long."

Snow geese primarily spend their winters in the south central U.S. Expanding agriculture in the region over the last 50 years has provided plentiful grains for them to feed on, resulting in dramatic increases in their populations. Unfortunately, their nesting habitat on the Arctic tundra cannot sustain such a large number of birds, resulting in deteriorating habitat and decreasing food availability.

"It has always been believed that the goslings need to feed on several plants in salt marshes to grow fast enough to be ready for migration when the cold weather comes in the fall," said the URI senior. "But biologists have been finding that as the birds destroy their salt marsh habitat, they're moving to freshwater marshes further inland."

Winiarski's job was to identify isotopes in the plants the birds feed on and track those isotopes through the birds' tissues. This practice can be used to determine the importance of each species of plant to the birds' development and to identify when the birds move from salt marshes to freshwater marshes.

During a three-day period in late July, he also helped put identifying bands on the legs of 4,500 adult geese so they can be tracked and identified later in their lives.

"I was on the catch crew, so a helicopter would drop us into waist-deep water and we would herd large numbers of geese into holding pens when they were molting their feathers and couldn't fly," Winiarski said. "They're pretty nasty birds, always nipping and biting us. That's where I got this long scar on my hand."

While conducting his research, Winiarski saw arctic foxes, polar bears, beluga whales and dozens of species of birds. "The bears around our camp had fed well earlier in the season, so they were pretty fat and happy and not aggressive," he said.

Winiarski also helped build a shower building at the research camp.

"Early in the season, there was so much snow on the ground that we couldn't do any science," he said. "So we built the shower building and did a lot of camp maintenance."

Winiarski returned from Canada in mid-August, and has been analyzing the plants and tissue samples he collected ever since. He hopes to have results of his research by the end of the fall semester.

Funding for Winiarski's research was provided by the National Science Foundation and the URI Coastal Fellows Program, a unique program designed to involve undergraduate students in addressing current environmental problems. Now in its ninth year, the Coastal Fellows Program teams students with faculty, research staff and graduate students to help them gain skills that will ensure their future success.

After graduation in May, Winiarski plans to attend graduate school with the aim of continuing his Arctic research.

"It was a great experience," he said, "and I hope I can do it again."