Nature spoils us with its late autumn treats, but for me the arrival of our wild geese is head and shoulders above the rest. I say “our” because for almost half of the year, wild geese are very much UK birds, having swapped their Arctic homes for our comparitively mild, food-rich shores.
These are not the boisterous bread thieves that frequent your local park: these travellers raised their young in the far north in wild, remote locations such as Arctic Canada, Greenland, Iceland and northern Europe. They are wild in name and wild in behaviour, adding to the thrill of seeing, and hearing, them. Their calls are the soundtrack of the UK winter and the sight of a flock taking to the air in perfect “v” formation epitomises the magic of migration.
Brent geese on the move - one of autumn's finest sights (Paul Chesterfield - rspb-images.com)
Seeing the newly touched-down flocks just after their arrival in autumn is especially thrilling. There is a buzz of excitement that you can sense in the birds’ behaviour and the intensity of their calls when they first arrive. Maybe they are excited to reacquaint themselves with friends and family, as the flocks swell? Perhaps they are just excited to be here, or feel a sense of relief at having completed an epic journey? There is always something going on in the flocks too. Parents fending off others that stray too close to their young (goose families stay together all winter), or siblings squabbling over food.
The flocks are also a treasure chest of rarities. The vast flocks “carry” vagrants from their breeding grounds, such as the pure-white white snow and Ross’s geese from America and small vagrant Canada geese (some are tiny compared to our resident Canadas) that really have come all the way from Canada and joined up with pink-footed and greylag geese in Iceland or Greenland white-fronted and barnacle geese in Greenland.
360,000 pink-footed geese spend the winter in the UK and they are here now! Find out where in your Winter 2017 issue of Nature's Home magazine (Andy Hay rspb-images.com)
Here’s our guide to 10 wild geese that you could be seeing this autumn and winter. Please meet the wild geese and make a date to see them! The Winter 2017 issue of Nature's Home is full of more great goose-watching advice and facts, so if you are an RSPB member, make sure you check it out to help you enjoy the best of our wonderful wild geese.
Pink-feet This small, chunky goose with “wink-wink” calls provided me with my first unforgettable experience with wild geese. I was travelling along the North Norfolk coast in the back of my parent’s car when I noticed that the grey afternoon sky was full of straggly “v” formations stretching as far as the eye could see. There were more geese in the air than I had probably seen in my life. I shouted at my father to pull over. On getting out of the car, our senses were consumed by a cacophony of excited calls and thrum of wingbeats. It took three whole minutes for the masses to pass over and the sky to clear. This was one of nature’s finest sights: the afternoon roost flight of wild geese heading out to their safe overnight roost on offshore mudflats: a hostile, but safe stronghold. The other perfect way to enjoy pink-feet is to creep up to a field full of them, the birds a sea of grey in a never ending jostling, heaving mass of bodies.
Small, grey, compact and with pink legs and bill band - pink-footed geese are an easy one. Check your latest issue of Nature's Home for my quickfire ID guide (Andy Hay rspb-images.com)
Brent Geese – dark-bellied and pale-bellied Brent geese come in four different subspecies: dark-bellied, pale-bellied and the rare black and grey-bellied brants. These are tiny birds by goose standards – not that much bigger than a mallard. They are charcoal grey and black with a neat white neck ring, a white stern and soothing “croaking” calls. These are coastal geese with saltmarshes and coastal fields rich feeding grounds for their dense flocks. Despite the dark-bellied being “my” local brent – they are a such a feature of coastal saltmarshes in south-east England, the pale-bellied of Ireland and north-east England is my favourite. Their creamy white bellies contrast beautifully against the dark breast.
Black and grey tones and a white neck ring are the signature fieldmarks of dark-bellied brent goose (Chris Gomershall rspb-images.com)
Greenland and Russian white-fronted geese Vying for top position in the best looking goose is the splendid white-fronted goose. Two distinct subspecies winter here and I believe they represent two different species due to differences in their breeding grounds, appearance and biology. Let’s see what the scientists think! Both have beautiful black bars crossing their bellies when adults and a neat little blaze of white at the base of their beaks. Greenland white-fronted geese can be found in western Scotland and Ireland, while the pink-billed Russian white-fronted geese favours England, especially the south-east. More of the latter arrive if the weather turns cold further east over the winter.
Greenland white-fronted goose is a real beauty (Andy Hay rspb-images.com)
Tundra bean and taiga bean gooseBean geese are rare in the UK, but they are a super-smart species pair. The taiga bean goose breeds in boggy forests in the taiga zone of Scandinavia. It is long necked and with a wedge-shaped head and beak - a bit like a whooper swan to my eye. Only two flocks of them are regular here: in Scotland and Norfolk. Tundra bean goose is in many ways a pink-footed goose with orange where the former has pink: its legs and feet and the band across its small black beak. It is a classic hard-weather goose: we usually see an influx at the end of the year as they flee freezing conditions in eastern Europe.
Barnacle gooseAnother strong contender for the title of our best looking goose. The barnacle goose's dapper black and white rivals provides a challenge to the subtle barring of the white-fronts. This smart, small goose with a white face winters in vast packs in Scotland and Ireland. Its “yapping” calls are pleasant on the ears and sound a little like a distant pack of dogs.
Can you think of a better looking goose than the barnacle goose? (Andy Hay rspb-images.com)
Greylag goose Feral greylag geese are a year round site in many parts of the UK, but Icelandic birds arrive in their thousands to Scotland and northern England in autumn. With their “carrot” beaks and ultra noisy calls, these geese are hard to miss.
Greylag geese are a familiar sight to everyone (Stanley Porter rspb-images.com)
Snow goose At number 10 is one of the rarities that occurs among the hordes each winter: a special visitor all the way from the other side of the Atlantic. Snow geese come in pure white forms with black wingtips and an attractive “blue” phase (they keep the white head). They breed in Arctic Canada but each winter a small number join up with flocks of greylag, pink-footed and Greenland white-fronted geese and accompany them to their UK wintering grounds.
See wild geese yourself this NovemberAs an RSPB member, you can enjoy free access to some of the very best places in the world to watch wild geese. All of the species listed above occur on RSPB reserves so why not wrap up, get yourself comfortable and enjoy, and welcome, some very special visitors this November? I guarantee you won’t be disappointed. Browse our list of reserves where you can see wild geese and plan your visit today. And if you're also a member, check your latest Nature's Home magazine for our wild goose celebration feature and fabulous photographs.
As the nights draw in and the golden leaves flutter to the ground, one question regularly flies around the office where we make the RSPB magazines. Not “are you doing the pumpkin carving competition this year?” but “did you watch Autumnwatch last night?” And, of course, the answer is always “yes”, (to both).
The first episode of Autumnwatch 2017 featured some spectacular bee-eaters at East Leake quarry in Nottinghamshire (you can read Jenny Shelton’s post about her day at the quarry with Michaela Strachan here). In their discussions about these amazing birds, Chris Packham mentioned that, amazingly, bee-eaters weigh only 50 g, about as much as eight 2p coins.
Coincidently, we’ve been talking a lot about bird weights recently, as Jack has masterminded a fascinating feature for the next issue of our kids’ mags, testing youngsters' knowledge on how much birds weigh. And there are some surprising stats. Did you know that a blue tit weighs the same amount as a £1 coin? That’s just 10 g. Willow warblers, a bird that flies over 8,000 km to the UK every summer, weighs even less.
And that’s not the only bird meeting some incredible physical challenges. The kestrel, which weighs in at around 200 g, has been known to prey on starlings and even blackbirds. Consider then that those birds weigh around 75 g and 100 g respectively, and that means the kestrel is hunting birds almost half its body weight, no mean feat.
Looking abroad, tiny hummingbirds can weigh as little as a few grams, that’s less than a 1 p coin. At the other end of the spectrum, the mighty ostrich weighs 150 kg. That’s 23.6 stone, probably roughly the combined weight of half the magazine team.
Despite weighing less than a 2 pence piece, the goldcrest migrates incredible distances. Photo: iStock
The tiny goldcrest, which weighs about the same a 2 p, migrates to the UK from Scandinavia in autumn. Holding a 2 pence coin in my hand, it’s incredible to think that something so small could cross hundreds of kilometres of open ocean, facing gale force winds, traveling in darkness, and with no opportunity for rest. (Read more about the goldcrest on page 16 of the current Winter 2017 issue of Nature’s Home.)
Look out for more amazing bird weights, plus some testing bird maths in the January-February 2018 issue of Wild Explorer magazine!
Guest blog by Jenny Shelton, RSPB Investigations
When you see a bee-eater for the first time, darting from a treetop to swipe a bee out of the blue sky, in a flash of rainbow wingbeats, it’s easy to see why these birds are a treasure worth seeking out.
This summer a Nottinghamshire quarry was unexpectedly brightened by the arrival of seven of these southern European stunners. We think around 10,000 people flocked to see them, aged from four to 94 years old, and from as far afield as Durham and Devon.
Bee-eaters have turned up on our shores a handful of times before – but never successfully nested. It was a real ‘birding’ event and watching people break into smiles was a joy: after all, enthusing people about nature is what the RSPB is all about!
Then, at the end of July, I received an email from the Autumnwatch production team saying they’d like to come and film the bee-eaters. What's more, they wanted to bring Michaela Strachan! We were delighted at the prospect of millions of viewers learning about bee-eaters and how the RSPB protects rare species. Besides, who could turn down the chance to go birding with Michaela Strachan?
I’m not sure what you were doing on 1 August this year, but I spent the day sitting in a quarry car park drinking cups of coffee with the film crew, waiting for seven now-famous bee-eaters to show up. The early summer heatwave felt like a distant memory as we huddled in rain macs against the drizzle, Michaela entertaining us with tales of her time on Splash! and how she’d much rather do Strictly (seriously, how have they never asked her?!).
The birds had been obliging the crowds with stunning views all summer, but now the TV cameras were here, they’d come over all camera shy. Typical.
Finally, several cups of coffee and Co-op sandwiches later, my boss Mark Thomas’s voice crackled out over the radio: "They’re here!". We dashed outside in time to see a flurry of bee-eaters flying overhead and alighting on a row of nearby trees. It was time to get the cameras rolling.
The RSPB's Mark Thomas with Michaela Strachan
I also managed to do a little filming with Michaela myself, just as the birds turned up...
Sadly the cold spell meant more than just us feeling a little bit gloomy and getting cold fingers. The odd and absent behaviour of the bee-eaters that day had set alarm bells ringing for bee-eater mastermind Mark and, sure enough, shortly after filming, it was confirmed that the bad weather had caused the bee-eater chicks to perish. There’s really nothing more we could have done – the birds were carefully and diligently protected from predators and from disturbance, but we just couldn’t do anything about the weather.
Still, it was a big disappointment, especially for the volunteers and wardens who had spent hundreds of hours guarding the birds.
Says Mark: “I’ve been involved in five bee-eater summers since 2002 and it’s the public’s reactions that really gets us excited. I love seeing people experiencing the wonder of birds for the very first time, and if seven misplaced, wandering rainbows can ignite a passion for the natural world in a few more souls, then that’s got to be a good thing. My own two children will remember the bee-eaters forever. We’ll also remember the humble juvenile robin that was literally running between the legs of the hundreds of visitors at the view point each day, as if to say ‘look at me! I’m worth watching too!’.”
Three generations of Smiths on a family outing to see the bee-eaters
I myself spent a lot of time at the quarry, talking to the people who’d come to see the birds. It was great to see families and friends getting out in the fresh air to share in the bee-eater ‘buzz’. People were painting them and doing school projects on them. I ran into three generations of Smiths (Dad Phil, his teenage son James and his father Bernard) who’d made a special trip to see the birds together. Look how happy they are! Birdwatching – that great bridger of generations.
Another big fan was Sheila, from Derbyshire, who told me “I’ve never seen anything so beautiful flying free in the countryside.”
So the bee-eaters' appearance was as fleeting as it was beautiful, painting a grey sky with colour then vanishing as quickly as it came. It’s expected that climate change will deliver more bee-eaters, though it’s almost impossible to predict exactly where they’ll turn up next time. But the call will come, and when it does, we will dust off the manual and leap into action again, such is the pull of a rainbow and the gold we are trying to secure at its end.