At first it seemed as if it was a thin strip of cloud, a blot on an otherwise clear horizon. Far out above the sea, but still visible to the naked eye, this grey smudge was stretched, elongated along the horizon like a fuzzy line left by a soft-leaded pencil. Over the course of next forty minutes the shape changed, its strength of colour dissipating as it drew nearer towards me. Through my binoculars I could now see individual outlines within the great mass, a great skein of geese nearing the end of their autumn migration and their arrival on our coastal grazing marshes.
The flock was no longer heading straight towards me but would make landfall to my west, a mile or so along the coast. I was too far from the car to be able to make it to where these geese would cross the coast, perhaps then heading inland to one of the many fields they would use over the winter months that lay ahead. The flock itself was composed of a number of separate skeins, each containing several dozen birds. These were pink-feet, visitors from breeding grounds in the wilds of Iceland and eastern Greenland.
It is a tremendous journey that these birds undertake and it is humbling to think that so many arrive to winter here in eastern England. The importance of the Wash and the North Norfolk coast is underlined by survey figures published by the British Trust for Ornithology. These show that some 60% of the UK’s wintering population of Pink-footed Geese spend the winter along this bit of coast. Other concentrations can be found wintering in Scotland and Lancashire.
While I have missed the landfall of these particular birds, there will be other mornings on the coast when the geese will be seen. Later into the winter these will be birds not arriving, but moving between overnight roost sites and feeding areas inland. Then there will be the spectacle of a field of geese, hundreds strong, feeding on beet tops and waste potatoes. These grand flocks of pink-feet sometimes hold other geese, scarce visitors like Tundra Bean Goose, Greenland White-fronted Goose or Snow Goose. These days it is becoming increasingly difficult to know whether some of these birds (notably the Snow Geese) are genuine vagrants or part of an expanding feral population. Even if individuals are seen to arrive with the pink-foots, they may have joined them on some Scottish staging area.
There are some wildlife spectacles that are both a ‘must see’ and accessible. The sight of a large flock of pink-feet is certainly one of these. Make a trip to the coast one weekend soon and experience it for yourself.