Boost your tick list
A ‘Goose Fest’ gave Jonny Rankin’s year list a great boost – find out how it could do the same for you…
How concentrating your efforts on one family of birds can help you find more
TARGETING A FAMILY of birds, a particular avian spectacle, or even a single species, can get your #My200birdyear list ticking along much quicker than you’d think – whatever the reason for getting out into the field, you’ll suddenly start finding birds you didn’t know were there. The evening of Friday, 27 February, 2015 saw six ornithologists with a predisposition towards wildfowl converge on the Caerlaverock Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) reserve, Dumfries, for the inaugural Goose Fest!
It was the brainchild of friends Tristan Reid and Jonny Holliday, who devised it over a beer at the preceding year’s Birdfair. Thereafter, Jonny touted the idea round a few more people, and Tris contacted Caerlaverock WWT to arrange accommodation. Phil Cruttenden, Sven Wair, Sir Robert Yaxley and I completed the team. One of the great spectacles of the UK winter is the mass congregation of geese attracted to our shores. There are a great many reasons to celebrate this, from the beauty of the individual birds to the sight and sound of huge skeins of geese filling the air. The Solway Firth is the wintering ground of the entire Svalbard population of Barnacle Geese, numbering some 24,000 birds, of which we encountered an incredible 6,000, a quarter of the entire population! In addition to the Barnacle Geese feeding across the reserve and saltmarsh, more than 100 Whooper Swans frequented the swan feeds and roosted on site. Added to this was a stellar supporting cast; sea-ducks such as Scaup, a rare vagrant Green-winged Teal, confiding Water Rails and Peregrines patrolling the saltmarsh. An exhilarating mix! Having arrived mid-evening on the Friday, much merriment ensued well into the early hours as we discussed the days ahead. We had arrived in the dark and I had no idea of my surroundings. Waking up in our dorm, I immediately opened the skylight to peer out; I could instantly hear calling Whooper Swans! Poking my head out of the hatch I could see them milling around on the aptlynamed Whooper Pond. It’s not every Saturday you come-to serenaded by wild swans! I made my way downstairs to join the others sipping tea and looking out from the conservatory across the Folly Pond. As we drank, a female Peregrine flew across the horizon, Barnacle Geese flew overhead and we also picked out a couple of Pintail among the mass of Wigeon and Teal. We knew a drake Green-winged Teal had frequented the Folly Pond for some time and diligently searched the Teal flocks without success, and it was not until we were just about to go round the reserve that it flew into view. After this initial sighting it showed well across both days. Watching a rarity over the day’s first cup of tea is something to which I could become accustomed! From the Salcot Merse observatory we enjoyed better views of the Peregrines over the saltmarsh.
Entering the observatory on one occasion, Sir Rob and myself were met by Phil excitedly looking through his scope at a Peregrine atop a live Scaup! With more than 300 Scaup wintering out on the Solway Firth it is unsurprising one caught the attention of the marauding raptors. We observed the Scaup flapping around in the mud beneath its captor, only for the Peregrine to leave it floundering. After a few moments it would return to its quarry, pressing it downwards, before it ultimately succumbed. As it fed, pulling strands of sinewy flesh from its prey, a further two Peregrines perched nearby, presumably in hope of some titbits. I didn’t see if they were successful, but they did a good job keeping Carrion Crows away for their kin. Grisly as this may be, the Scaup kill exemplifies the Caerlaverock experience. You constantly gain insight into wild bird behaviour, often at close proximity. The multiple observation towers, swan feeds and conservatory see you face-to-face with lots of wild birds. The onset of darkness does not mean the experience stops either. As we sat in the conservatory with after-dinner drinks, we could hear the roosting swans and were joined by a Badger! A sow was just metres away, feeding on the provided peanuts and honey! While I have
seen Badgers before, it’s years since I had the pleasure of watching one so close. This was at arm’s length, busily over-turning logs and rocks – undoubtedly the non-avian highlight of our Goose Fest. The proximity to the birds gives the further benefit of being able to read rings. I noted down some 20 codes from Barnacle Geese, Mute and Whooper Swans. Of these, half were ringed on site only days before, and I submitted the rest to the BTO ring recovery website. The ringing of birds at Caerlaverock has produced some remarkable records, none more so than the longevity record for a Barnacle Goose, held by Orange-ringed ‘ANS’, spotted on the Solway in 2014. The original ringing date and previous sightings mean the bird is at least 30 years old! The implications of this are explained by the WWT: “The seasonal migration from Svalbard to the Solway and back is about 2,000 miles, so those 60 flights in spring and autumn would add up to some 120,000 miles, almost five times the circumference of the Earth, an amazing accumulation of air miles that doesn’t even take into account the daily flights made by the bird.” It is truly remarkable to observe a bird the same age as I am, and with such mileage on the clock! I think Orange-ringed ANS is a fitting way to end my reflections on the premier Goose Fest. The winning formula of friends, drinks and a worldclass nature reserve was unlikely to disappoint, but my expectations were more than met.
The Goose Fest crew woke up to the honking of Whoopers
Some 24,000 Barnacle Geese winter around the Solway Firth
The Goose Fest team saw perhaps 6,000 at Caerlaverock