Author: Carrie Carey

Over a thousand miles to the north of Britain lies a sparsely populated island in the north Atlantic Ocean. Forged from the Ice Age, the landscape is a mixture of jagged ravines, hot springs and roaring rivers. Glacial ridges contrast with black volcanic beaches and at first sight this formidable terrain might seem to have little to offer wildlife, but here amongst Iceland’s highlands and lowlands, nature is thriving.

Arctic foxes prosper on the freezing tundra, the ragged coastline is home to half the world’s population of Atlantic puffins and surrounding seas are rich in marine life. Deep in the heart of Iceland on lowland heath, a successful breeding population of heath-geese is flourishing.  As pre-winter temperatures drop and glaciers are swept by powerful Arctic winds, these geese head for slightly warmer climes arriving in north Norfolk in mid autumn. Here we know them better by their English name – pink-footed geese.

Photo Credit: Andy Hay

Their arrival is timed to coincide with the harvest of sugar beet crops, allowing tired and hungry bodies to refuel on this carbohydrate rich food. Early arrivals will be dependent on the remains of summer cereal crops and grains but it is the calorie packed sugar beet which enables the geese to bulk up in readiness for their journey home. These wintering birds are very sociable and family groups stay in close proximity to each other as they feast on post-harvest beet tops.

Like most geese, the pink-foot communicates with family members through a series of calls. On the ground their call is mellow and soft but in the air this becomes a high pitched ‘wink-wink’ which, unlike the weary honk of greylags or the intense cackle of Brent geese, can be strangely agreeable.

In flight, geese tend to trail slightly behind each other forming a V pattern or echelon in the sky. Evolution has taught them to fly wingtip to wingtip behind the bird in front. It’s a question of aerodynamics – air travelling around the apex of the wing establishes an upwash which gives the bird behind a bit of a lift and a V-shaped configuration allows the geese to take full advantage of this.

Photo Credit: Chris Gomersall

For these wildfowl, it’s all about teamwork. They constantly call to each other during flight and synchronise wingbeats to optimise that all important uplift. But it doesn’t end there. If you’ve ever walked in deep snow you will know that it is a lot easier to walk in the footprints left by the person in front of you. Using the same imprints means you are less likely to lose your way and it’s certainly less taxing if someone else has done all the hard work.  Similarly, the goose at the front of the V pattern is working the hardest so flying at the front is the worst place to be. Impressively, the flock works as a collective with birds taking turns in the lead position and falling back into the group as they tire.

Once established on their winter homeland, pink-footed geese maintain their natural feeding and flight behaviours. In Norfolk, large numbers roost on The Wash close to the shoreline of RSPB Snettisham. At first light they take to the skies in search of arable land to feast, only returning to the safety of The Wash as dusk falls. By late autumn, these migrant wildfowl have arrived in sufficient numbers to make their daily exodus from their roosting sites one of Norfolk’s most impressive wildlife events.


Event listing

Pink-footed geese breakfasts

RSPB Snettisham

Each year, hundreds of visitors make their way to Snettisham reserve to witness the ‘flight of the pinkies’. Even on the chilliest of mornings, the sight of thousands of geese silhouetted against an orange sky will stir people from their beds. Wingbeat and heartbeat synchronise and the melodic calls of the pink-footed geese echo over the wide expanse of the reserve. Far below them, hardly a sound is heard as people hold their breath in awe.

Event dates:

November 2016

Monday 21 at 6:30 am

Thursday 24 at 6:30 am

Saturday 26 at 6:30 am

Tuesday 29 at 6:30 am


December 2016

Thursday 1 at 6:45 am

Friday 2 at 6:45 am

Saturday 3 at 6:45 am

Monday 5 at 6:45 am

Tuesday 6 at 6:45 am

Friday 9 at 6:45 am

Wednesday 21 at 7:00 am

Thursday 22 at 7:00 am


January 2017

Thursday 5 at 6:45 am

Friday 6 at 6:45 am

Saturday 7 at 6:45 am


Walks will commence from the car park at RSPB Snettisham at the time stated.

The cost per person is £17 to include a full English breakfast. RSPB member price is £15 per person.

For more information, visit