Wednesday, 8 February 2006

Norfolk home to grey geese

Norfolk has a reputation for its wintering geese. This winter, the reputation seems particularly well-deserved, with huge numbers of geese to be seen at sites across the county. Holkham, in particular, has exceptional numbers this year, with tens of thousands of pink-footed geese present. The sight of huge skeins of geese moving between their roosting and feeding grounds is one of the most sensational experiences for any birdwatcher. The numbers of pink-feet wintering here are internationally important. The entire breeding population of Iceland and eastern Greenland winters here, representing more than 85% of the World population. Favoured roosting and feeding areas have become established over the years, with the birds choosing to roost on secure sandbars and shingle ridges off the North Norfolk coast. Their principal diet during the winter months is sugar beet tops, a food they first began to utilise in 1966. At Holkham, the remaining sugar beet tops tend to be ploughed in during February and the geese switch to feed on permanent pasture and winter cereals.

Pink-feet are wary birds and favour sites where disturbance is minimal. They prefer large fields and avoid those with tall surrounding hedges. If undisturbed, feeding will continue throughout the day, with the birds returning to the roost at dusk. However, on moonlit nights they may remain in the fields, making the most of feeding opportunities and good visibility. Although the birds tend to use a small number of favoured roosts, the roosts themselves are not self-contained and individuals may shift between them. A very small number of individuals from the Svalbard breeding population, which winters in the Netherlands and Belgium, is known to join our wintering flocks.  These are not the only geese to mix with the pink-feet, since small numbers of white-fronted geese (of two distinct races) and genuine wild barnacle geese may also be present.

Norfolk is also fortunate in having wintering bean geese. Two different races, known as tundra bean goose and taiga bean goose, winter within the county. In recent winters, some 100-150 taiga bean geese have used the marshes on the northern side of the River Yare, typically at Cantley and Buckenham, and are the only regular wintering flock of these geese in England. Individuals of the tundra race were first recognised as wintering here in 1987 when up to seven individuals visited Buckenham Marshes, remaining separate from the local taiga flock. Small numbers are reported annually, often mixed in with the flocks of pink-feet at sites on the North Norfolk coast. The different ‘grey’ geese can represent something of an identification challenge but, even if you just view them as ‘grey’ geese, they make a spectacular sight.

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