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…

Bird Watching (UK) - - Contents - WORDS: JONNY RANKIN

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.

WHOOPER SWANSThe Goose Fest crew woke up to the honk­ing of Whoop­ersBAR­NA­CLE GOOSESome 24,000 Bar­na­cle Geese win­ter around the Sol­way Firth

MORE BARNACLESThe Goose Fest team saw per­haps 6,000 at Caerlave­rock

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