Loch Lomond NNR
We reached new records for layers this week – Ceris in a whopping twelve, and Bethia in seven plus a hot water bottle. Hats, scarves, gloves and warm drinks abundant – what for? Our third goose count of the winter!
With a not so unbearable early start, the wet and windy weekend yielded once again to a clear, frosty night. We arrived on site just as the stars were beginning to fade, and incredible noise filled the air – geese were everywhere! There is something very grounding about immersing yourself in nature at a time where most people are still asleep, and something very magical in knowing that you are the only observer to the wildlife that surrounds you. While geese chattering away to each other may not be what one immediately pictures for the dawn chorus, it was exactly what we were hoping for. Our knowledge gained from the previous two counts increased our ability to tell who we were listening to, and where they might be, honing in on water splashes and wing beats as, one by one, they took to the skies.
The sky transitioned from inky black, to deep blue, through turquoise and warm orange, finishing with brilliant yellow as the sunrise crept over the mountains. And with light, came the flight of thousands. Quite literally! Towards the border of the RSPB Loch Lomond reserve, which neighbours our NNR, we totalled over 3000 pink-footed geese, making their way from roosting shore to feeding fields. As our bags frosted over on the grass, we stamped our feet as we kept our binoculars aimed at the skyline, counting frantically and making note of numbers, species and direction of travel. But there was one bird in particular that we hoped to spy…
The Greenland white-fronted goose (Anser albifrons flavirostris) is not just rare to Scotland, it is rare to the world. With approximately 21,500 individuals left across limited locations in the UK and Greenland, they are considered an endangered sub-species under the IUCN’s global Red List. The name gives it away: they spend their summer in Greenland, migrate to the UK in the autumn seeking milder weather over winter, before returning to Greenland in the spring. Their UK conservation status is also classified as Red, and they are considered a priority species within the UK Biodiversity Action Plan alongside other, perhaps more well known species (such as the Capercaillie, Black Grouse and Hawfinch).
This sub-species is the core reason we conduct our goose counts, which are part of a collaborative national monitoring scheme across several organisations. Any and all sightings are recorded, and these are then sent to and collated by researchers of the Greenland White-fronted Goose Study, whose most recent report (released in November 2020) provides an insight into how this species numbers have changed over time, dating back to the 1980s.
This hopefully demonstrates why it is necessary that we found our teeth chattering and our bags frosted up on this cold winter morning, as well as the wider importance of events such as goose counts – how they feed in to something bigger than ourselves, and not just the national, but the international conservation value they hold.
And, just to top it all off, while visiting sites known to be feeding favourites of the white-fronts, we found ourselves with fantastic views of over a hundred. Warming in the sun, some even resting within the safety of their flock, they had hidden themselves in a little dipped field – away from the view of predators and people perhaps – quite contentedly munching away at the various roots, shoots and grains available.
It was a lifetime first for Ceris and myself.
The perfect way to end an already very special day.