Return of remarkable influx?

LIVING around Montrose Basin we are all used to seeing Pink-footed Geese and the odd Greylag goose throughout the autumn and winter months.

But it was around this time last year that reports started to come in to the Wildlife Visitor Centre about other species of geese that we only ever see occasionally in small numbers using the Basin and surrounding fields. These sightings were of sizable groups of European White-fronted and Tundra Bean Geese of which normally we would only ever see one or two every few years.

But we were not alone; data gathered from goose surveying sites (like the Basin), has been collated for last winter and reported in the Wetlands and Wildfowl Trust’s ‘Goose News’ (yes there really is a journal called that!).

This report showed that these sightings started on 12 November 2011, when a flock of 38 whitefronts were seen near Kingussie. Initially these were thought to be Greenland whitefronts, since a small number of these had irregularly wintered in this area in recent years.

However it was this sighting that heralded the start of a remarkable influx of European White-fronted and Tundra Bean Geese into Britain. The days that followed saw a steady arrival of both species across many parts of the UK, and particularly on the east coast. The timing of the sightings suggests that the arrival was over a prolonged period rather than a spectacular ‘fall’ of birds driven by a particular weather event.

In Scotland alone, an estimated 3,220 European White-fronted Geese at 108 sites and 1,350 Tundra Bean Geese at 103 sites were counted.

The cause of the influx still remains a mystery. Weather conditions, particularly the strength and direction of wind did not reveal any indications of strong south easterlies or easterlies, which may have aided a rapid influx. Nor was the arrival related to a cold weather movement; weather charts for early November suggest a period of relative calm prior to the first arrivals. However, weather records from Terschelling (an island on the northwest coast of The Netherlands) reported fog on 8, 9 and 10 November. Could a combination of fog and light south easterlies be sufficient to have caused a drift of European White-fronted Geese to the north and west over the North Sea?

However, this does not explain the staggered arrival of the Tundra Bean Geese. Suggestions that the influx of these Geese into Norway comprised of birds from Scandinavia and Russia and that this influx could easily have continued into Britain, explaining early records from Shetland, Caithness and the Outer Hebrides.

So, perhaps Britain witnessed influxes on two fronts: a drift of European White-fronted Geese across the North Sea from The Netherlands/Germany and an unusual movement of Tundra Bean Geese from northern Scandinavia and northwest Russia, southwest into Norway and continuing on into Britain.

Unusually, many flocks of European White-fronted and Tundra Bean Geese remained until well into early spring. And it will be very interesting this year to see if any of these long-staying wintering birds will return to their ‘new’ British wintering areas.

Ecological change can often be slow; some goose populations may increase over time, others decrease; certain roosts become more important (i.e. Montrose Basin), whilst others slowly become abandoned, but every now and then, something like this happens out of the blue to keep us on our toes.

So if you’re out and about around the Montrose area and you spot a group of feeding geese that look a bit different to the normal ‘Pinkies’ it might be the return of our new visitors from the north!

Better still, if you want to see a lot of geese come along for the last Goose Breakfast of the year and enjoy the spectacle of thousands of Pink-footed geese leaving Montrose Basin at dawn. Then back to the Visitor Centre for a hot drink, porridge and toast. The People’s Postcode Lottery – Goose Breakfast is on Sunday, November 18, at 7 to 10am at a cost of £8 per person. Breakfast will be followed by an optional presentation by the SWT Ranger. Advanced booking is essential; please ‘phone 01674 676336.

Richard Averiss - Angus Council Countryside Ranger