Thursday, 2 February 2012

Pink-footed Goose will have a tale to tell

It is amazing to see so many Pink-footed Geese out on the marsh. The numbers here today are significantly greater than I have seen on the site before and are more reminiscent of the North Norfolk coast. I am, instead, far inland, walking the marshes that border the River Yare not far from Norwich. Admittedly, the numbers of winter pink-feet on these marshes have increased over recent winters, so the presence of such a large flock should not be that unexpected.

As I have remarked before, the ‘grey’ geese can represent something of an identification challenge for the birdwatcher, testing skills on dull, late-winter afternoons. It doesn’t help that this particular site often holds several different goose species, individuals of which may mix together. This flock of pink-feet is straightforward enough though. With the sun behind me, and the advantage of a flood bank from which to scan, I steadily work my way through the flock, tally counter clicking away in my hand as the numbers steadily increase.

There is one particular individual that catches my attention, however, because it is sporting a silver-grey neck collar on which are written three large letters. This is a bird that has been caught by researchers, either somewhere within Britain or elsewhere in Europe, perhaps even in Iceland. While the use of these neck collars does not do the birds any harm, it is carefully regulated, remaining a tool for those studying the movements of these birds between different sites, or indeed different countries. I know that I will be able to send this record off and, by doing so, add another piece of the jigsaw to help researchers understand which wintering sites are important to which breeding populations. If we are to protect and conserve these geese then we need to know as much as possible about where they go and when.

Britain is a particularly important wintering destination for these geese, with virtually the entire Icelandic breeding population, and most of the east Greenland population, spending the winter here. While many favour coastal saltmarshes, many more now move onto arable land, where they can feed on sugar beet, waste potatoes and barley stubble. The switch to these new food sources highlights the adaptable nature of these geese, something that can also be seen in their wintering strategy. Individual birds have large feeding ranges but still have a favoured core area within this. The geese will move between sites, especially as the winter progresses and they disperse away from the places at which they initially staged upon arrival. This approach means that they can respond to local food availability and, by doing so, presumably increase their chances of getting through the winter in good condition.

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