Autumn moves in
The first barnacle geese have flown in, heralding the start of autumn.
On Sunday, September 17, the first 135 barnacle geese took advantage of a brief northerly weather system and flew in to spend the winter on the Solway.
It is amazing to think that these birds have just flown 1,800 miles from their breeding grounds on Spitsbergen, the largest of the islands in the Svalbard archipelago, some 78 degrees north in the High Arctic.
Only days ago they would have been flying over polar bears and walruses.
September is a month of big changes at Caerlaverock. The cattle that have been grazing the fields and merses all summer head back to the local farms for the winter. This summer grazing regime is vital to produce a good thick grass sward for the wintering geese – it is a bit like regularly mowing your lawn to create lush growth.
Our conservation management at Caerlaverock is actually a bit like farming for geese which we do with help from local farmers. We don’t keep our own livestock so they bring the cattle to spend the summer here.
I don’t think that the cows realise what an important job they are doing for the conservation of these amazing geese.
The barnacle geese are specialist grazing feeders and have a short bill, only 2cm long to nip off the tips of the grass shoots. Like all grazing animals, they need to spend a great deal of their time feeding and pretty much all of the daylight hours are spent doing just that.
At night they fly out to the safety of the Solway mudflats where they can see any danger from predators more easily.
Over the next month we expect to see thousands more barnacle geese arriving when the winds turn to come from the north. These small geese only weigh around 2kg and need the advantage of a tail wind to help them fly such big distances, fuelled only by the fat laid down in their abdomen from just bellyfuls of grass. The helpful wind is especially important for the goslings, newly hatched and making the journey for the first time with their parents at the age of only three months.
The barnacle geese are not the only geese that have arrived on the Solway this month. Pink-footed geese have arrived from Iceland. Hopefully we will hear and see them flying over Dumfries just after dawn to feed during the day then flying back to the estuary in the evening.
Our dawn and dusk goose flight events are coming up soon which can provide one of the most amazing wildlife spectacles as thousands of birds leave and return to their overnight roosts on the Solway.
Our first dawn flight is on Sunday, October 8 and we head out to the merse at 6.45 am. Along with your binoculars, bring warm waterproof clothing, boots and a torch. Hopefully we will be rewarded for an early rise with the sight of thousands of geese flying over.
Our coffee shop will open early to serve welcome hot drinks and bacon rolls on our return from the merse. Phone 01387 770200 to book a place, normal admission prices apply and it is free for WWT members, catering is not included in the admission.
The first dusk flight is on Sunday, October 22 starting from the visitor centre at 4.30pm.
As the wildfowl arrive from the north, we still have many birds that have spent the summer and bred here ready to go south. As I write, we still have house martins feeding young chicks in nests on our farmhouse tower and feeding with swallows over the Folly pond. Soon these birds will embark on a long flight to southern Africa for the winter. They feed on flying insects and have to follow them south as they cannot survive the cold in our winter.
The ospreys are all now heading south for the winter and thanks to FCS, our partners in the osprey project, we can follow the migration of two of the three chicks that hatched out from the nest we had been observing on our nest camera.
The two young ospreys with leg rings PY5 and PY7 have also got GPS satellite tags attached to a harness on their backs and we can see what route they take.
At the moment one is in Northern Portugal and the other has made it all the way to North Africa. More details and maps to follow in the next few weeks when we get more information from the satellites.
This summer a young whooper swan spent the summer here at Caerlaverock.
It seemed to have picked up a wing injury, possibly colliding with overhead power lines, which meant that it couldn’t fly back to Iceland in the spring.
It was a lonely summer with only the resident mallards and the rather grumpy family of mute swans for company. However, things are now looking up for this young swan which is now just over a year old. It has undergone the summer wing moult and has grown in a new set of primary wing feathers and has been flying around the reserve, building up strength in those underused wing muscles.
Hopefully we will continue to see improvements in its flying abilities over the winter and it will be able to migrate home to Iceland next spring.
It will be interesting to see if his family reunite over the winter. We have had observations of extended families associating with each other at their wintering grounds here at Caelaverock.
Our commentated swan feeds start this Sunday and continue daily at 11am and 2pm until the end of March next year. It is a great experience to see these amazing swans at close quarters and also to learn about them from the expert warden on hand at the heated observatory. Again we are looking at the weather systems to see when the whoopers will arrive. It tends to be from mid-October onwards but we could see some early birds arriving before that.
Morning flight Swans over the folly pond at dawn
Taking off Whooper swan captured by Steve Nicholls
Barnacle geese Captured by Alex Hillier