Winking & Honking at 6am


Loch Lomond NNR

Paul Roberts, SNH Area Officer from the Stirling office came out to the Loch Lomond NNR to help with one of the goose roost counts on Monday and these are his thoughts on the work:

When the alarm goes off on a Monday morning it often feels like an early start after the weekend, but when my alarm went off at 5am this Monday morning I felt justified in feeling like I’d been woken up in the middle of the night. I’m not sure I was properly awake when we wandered down the muddy track in the pitch dark and drizzle at 6am. Even when we had arrived at our allocated place in a damp field I sat on a rock and dozed off; the soft rain drumming on the hood of my jacket as my bum froze on the cold rock…

We were on the shore of Loch Lomond on the Crom Mhin at the mouth of the River Endrick taking part in the Wetland Bird survey. The survey is carried out once a month from September to March all around the Loch Lomond National Nature Reserve by RSPB staff and volunteers and SNH staff. The aim is to count geese as they fly from their roosts on the shores of the loch and head inland to feed. Geese get up early so we needed to be in place before first light (although it didn’t really get light this morning)!

The key species we are interested in are Pink-footed geese, Greylag geese and Greenland White-fronted geese. These geese breed in the arctic from Iceland across Greenland and to Svalbard but in the winter they fly south in their thousands to the (relatively) warmer Scotland to bask in our (relatively) milder winters. They head back up north in the spring to lay their eggs. The loch is also home to Canada geese which are residents after being introduced to the UK.

Dave Pickett is clearly an expert at pre-dawn goose counting because 1) he was still awake and 2) he woke me up saying he’d heard some Pinkies. Even with binoculars and a telescope seeing geese across the fields in the pre-dawn gloom is challenging so by listening carefully you can tell which species they are before you can see them. So as they fly up from their roost you have a good idea what you’re looking before you start to count them.


I find a good way to remember something new is to associate it with or a rhyme or memorable phrase. Pink Footed Geese make a ‘wink-wink-wink’ call; so I remember this by saying: ‘Winky Pinkies’ (nb. I don’t necessarily say this out loud). Then we heard some Canada geese, their call is much deeper and more of a ‘honking’; so these are ‘Honking Canadas’. We also heard some Greylags off in the distance: these make more of a quacking, clanking call, so I remember this as ‘Clanking Greylags’. Luckily we didn’t hear any Greenland Whitefronts because I’d run out of imagination at this point.

As daybreak turned the grey skies a shade lighter (I think it actually got darker again at one point) we walked along the shore to get a closer look at the geese. We heard snipe, teal, curlew, mallard and lapwing all calling in the pre-dawn twilight. We saw some ‘Honking Canadas’ out on the water and a small flock of ‘Clanking Greylags’ take off and head east for their breakfast.

Overall the numbers of Greylags and Pinkfoots were much lower than usual. There are a number of explanations for this and it might be that the numbers are only down locally and the geese are just somewhere else. It’s only by doing simple, regular, repeatable counts like this that we can get basic, robust data that will help us understand how the numbers of our winter visitors change over time.

Photos taken by Paul Roberts

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2 Responses to Winking & Honking at 6am

  1. Pingback: Goose counting – who dares wins | 2 bogs, a swamp and some islands

  2. Pingback: Disappearing white-fronts | 2 bogs, a swamp and some islands

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