The geese are on the move, it is that time of year. As we feel more like retreating indoors thanks to the nippy northerly blasts, blustery showers with perhaps the first icy tinge and darker evenings, the geese are arriving in the UK for their annual winter stay. Northern Ireland, SW Scotland or the Norfolk coast are, comparatively, more hospitable than the Arctic once autumn comes around.
In these restricted times, searching for activities and space through lockdown, nature has been wonderfully distracting. The British coastline with its estuaries, marshes and wetlands are great places to visit and now take a look. These geese have travelled thousands of miles, from the Canadian Arctic, Greenland, Norway, and Siberia. Other birds will be heading away from the UK, to winter in Africa but for the geese, the UK can be the location of choice and the weather plays a part in that.
The most distinctive signs are the honking mid-air and the flyby V-formation, the avian peloton. A group of flying geese are a skein ( 'a thread', like yarn) , in the yard a gaggle. The noise and then glimpses of the skein are such a sign of autumn as the geese return.
Their long journey leaves behind the quickly changing Arctic. The geese begin to migrate in autumn as the weather in the far north starts to turn. The ground will soon be frozen or covered in snow cutting off the food supply, the winds and precipitation will make life hard and once the winds strengthen, flying away will be hazardous.
It is all about the food with geese, as farmers well know. The main food might be grass but corn, seeds, berries, grains even Brussel sprouts get munched. They migrate to an area with better temperatures for wintering and then set up a daily feeding routine.
A tailwind will aid their travels rather than a side or worse a headwind. When migration begins the light is important – daylight, any moonlight or is it darkness? The wind direction, air pressure and also cloud cover can play a part.
Where are they coming from, well that depends on the type of goose.
Pink-footed geese – these arrive from Greenland and Iceland, also Svalbard.
The light bellied Brent Goose from eastern Canadian high Arctic with many heading to Northern Ireland, others from eastern Atlantic to Lindisfarne. The Dark-bellied Brent comes from Russia heading to eastern England and the French coast later in October and early November. Particularly the Wash and Thames Estuary.
Barnacle geese – Svalbard to the Solway Firth and from Greenland to more of Britain and Ireland
Iceland Greylag geese come to Scotland eager to search for cereals in stubble fields although there are Greylag geese that just remain in the UK all year. If there are struggles with grasslands then they will head for root crops, especially in times of snow.
A few Bean geese from Scandinavia and northern Russia make it to the UK causing excitement for watchers.
For these journeys, the geese follow familiar routes and travel in sociable, mostly family groups but can be affected by severe weather even climatic changes.
As we search out hats and jumper, perhaps already a winter coat and wondering' what on earth am I going to wear in February' with this outside visiting? Geese are insulated in winter by their desirable down feathers which they moult in the summer months further north. Whereas we will reach for woolly socks or thick gloves, goose feet appear unprotected but they have a special circulatory system that keeps the main heat near their core. They can still feed down on the ground with legs tucked away from cold winds. They also vary their diet, carb. loading as the weather turns colder.
Once here in the UK, their morning awakenings are quite a spectacular around sunrise. A windy morning may result in more circling before a direction for breakfast is decided upon. On the water, there will be wing flapping and noise before the geese take off to find feeding areas, moving about in flocks before returning to roost at dusk. In mid-winter, they feed less and huddle together more but can move location, sometimes even country.
The weather can interrupt migration seasonally or feeding plans just for a few days. There are even signs that climate change is playing a part with the University of St Andrews publishing research about young Barnacle geese adjusting their traditional feeding grounds, “fuelling up” further north. In a warming climate with less snow cover over more of Scandinavian Arctic, there is choice for the discerning goose.
Fro wintering, the Bean goose has been stopping off more regularly in Denmark with milder winters for northern Europe, rather than continuing a journey further west.
Severe cold or heavy snowfall, with a significant covering which stays for several days can cause geese to invade other areas although they would usually return once the bad weather abates. If the winter weather is severe in the UK or the Low Countries, the geese can relocate to France. In harsh conditions, birds will often follow or join others already on the ground. Which can be their downfall if it is a shooting decoy. Cold hungry birds also can’t focus on being cautious which makes them vulnerable.
Geese seem to be susceptible to changes in air pressure often setting off for migration when pressure is steady or rising, indicative of fair, settled weather. They have several air sacks in their body as well as their lungs which may detect subtle changes. For low pressures and storms, it will be difficult for the birds to fly with heavy rain or snow and gales possibly throwing them off course or causing exhaustion.
Also, geese rely on their sight for obstacles (such as wind farms) predators or other dangers. Feeding or resting in low light, clouds or fog are avoided. They can become disorientated so geese adjust their flying height to move over fog banks or North Sea fret.
If you want to spot some wild geese this autumn, do check the tide times and wrap up warm. Dawn or dusk can be the best times when the birds leave their roosts or return at the end of the day. Remember your camera or binoculars, warm hat and maybe a flask.