It’s been a notably good week at Forvie for birds from the far north: Arctic visitors to our comparatively balmy shores. Probably most obvious among these are the Pink-footed Geese, winter refugees from Iceland and beyond, whose constant babble is the soundtrack to our autumn and winter, and whose numbers are at their highest just now. And as any bird-brain will tell you, taking time out to sit, observe and pick through a goose flock is one of life’s pleasures.
It’s great to watch the geese themselves, to see the size differences between the big ganders, the much smaller females and this year’s offspring, and to watch all their social interaction. Family parties stick together on migration and throughout the winter, and the casual observer can often quite easily discern a family unit comprising mum, dad and their youngsters.
Arguments between family parties are commonplace within the flock, and even the young get involved, as they literally sort out the pecking order. They posture at one another in exaggerated fashion, stretching their necks and swearing copiously in goose-speak; if this doesn’t settle the debate, they may recourse to a bit of lightweight physical combat, pecking and chasing. For a highly sociable species, they seem to spend a lot of time falling out with one another. Perhaps that’s why we enjoy their antics – we’re not so very different ourselves!
When faced with a substantial flock of geese, the keen naturalist is always on the lookout for something rare or unusual among the masses – a sort of Where’s Wally? with geese. Maybe there will be a White-fronted or Tundra Bean Goose from the east, or a massive prize like a Ross’s Goose from North America. And while this week didn’t produce one of those (you’d have heard the Reserve staff yelling if it had), we did have our fair share of more unusual geese.
In recent days we’ve been graced by unusually high numbers of Barnacle Geese alongside the usual Pink-feet. These are more usually associated with more westerly locations, such as Islay and the Solway Firth, where tens of thousands of them may congregate in winter. Here at Forvie we most often see them passing through in late spring and autumn, en-route to and from their breeding grounds in Svalbard, with just the odd one or two spending the winter here with their Pink-footed cousins. They’re easily picked out among the Pinks, with their attractive black-and-white barred plumage and little white faces standing out from the crowd.
This week, we’ve hosted around 200 Barnacle Geese on and around the Reserve, and among their number we happened upon a couple of Wallies, so to speak. First up, a Canada Goose – but not one of the big, brash, feral ones you might find eating handouts of bread at a city park. Canada Geese come in all shapes and sizes, with numerous sub-species whose appearances differ considerably; the feral ones that have naturalised so successfully in Europe are one of the largest and palest subspecies. This individual, however, was smaller, slenderer and swarthier, and was likely a ‘Todd’s Canada Goose’, a genuine vagrant from North America. Blimey!
The second Wally took a lot less finding among the flock, and in fact stuck out like the proverbial sore thumb. At first glance, its white plumage could have been taken for that of a Ross’s or Snow Goose, but closer inspection revealed that it was actually a white Barnacle Goose! This remarkable and beautiful individual lacked most of the dark pigments normally present in the plumage, an aberration known as ‘leucism’. For many decades now, a dynasty of leucistic white Barnacle Geese has overwintered annually at Caerlaverock, in south-west Scotland, and it’s highly likely that our special visitor was one of these, stopping off on its way down to the Solway.
Towards the end of the week, the excitement came in the form of winter thrushes. From Wednesday onwards, it was apparent there was a mass arrival of Redwings and Fieldfares happening. These birds come here from Scandinavia, but the constant westerly winds of the last few weeks will have stacked them up on the other side of the North Sea, waiting for easier winds to make the journey. As soon as the winds switched round to the north and east, the thrushes seized their opportunity, made the jump and arrived on our coast in their thousands.
There are few things more exciting than being out in a ‘fall’ of birds, especially thrushes. They arrive in big, vocal flocks, wild and wary, dropping out of the sky into the first bit of cover they find, raiding any fruit they find in order to refuel after the sea crossing. The air is electrified by the sound of their contact-calls – the fizzing notes of Redwings, the staccato chatter of Fieldfares, and the deep chuckling of Blackbirds. There’s a real sense of urgency about the whole affair, and rightly so, as these – like the geese – are fleeing the hard northern winter in their native lands. It’s the stuff of life and death, and perhaps this is one of the reasons we find such arrivals so moving and compelling.
Redwings were far the most plentiful of the arrivals this week, with over 4,000 recorded on Friday alone. However, there have been good numbers of Fieldfare as well (upwards of 1,500 on Friday), with the odd Song Thrush and Ring Ouzel mixed in for good measure. We have also seen several hundred Blackbirds as they, too, make the crossing from the Continent to the UK, supplementing ‘our’ resident population each winter. These are usually more confiding and easier to see than the wary Redwings and Fieldfares, which are seldom easily approachable.
Friday morning, when the ‘thrush fall’ was in progress, was notable (by Forvie standards) for being remarkably calm and still. Indeed, there was a touch of mist through the air, and with the voices of thousands of thrushes overhead, and the distant babble of geese, it made for an extremely atmospheric morning. It also produced a wonderful display of water droplets on all the grass heads and spiders’ webs, like millions of tiny glass beads.
When the mist and drizzle cleared for a while on Friday afternoon, it briefly turned into a fine autumn’s day, offering the opportunity to appreciate the colours of the heath and its willows, while they still retained some leaves.
Autumn colours and an awesome migration spectacle, as well as some excellent Where’s Wallying – it’s been a super week to be out on the Reserve. October is such an enjoyable month at Forvie that I reckon we ought to have two Octobers a year. Still, I don’t make the rules.