Pink footed geese, Image from RSPB images
It’s a noise that cuts through the conversation in the RSPB’s Snettisham reserve office, as each of us recognising the sound, automatically leaves our desks and moves to the windows to gaze into the cloudy grey sky.
For a moment we can’t see anything and then there they are, the first of the winter. High above us perhaps as many as 300 Pink Footed Geese in half a dozen wavering V shaped skeins flying towards the Wash which lies just a couple of miles to the West of where we are sitting.
For the next five months, the farmland and coastline of north and west Norfolk will be their home, providing them with the two things that every pink footed goose needs; food and somewhere safe to rest.
To reach us in Norfolk, these birds have completed an epic flight across the north Atlantic from their breeding ground in the interior of Iceland, making landfall in Scotland and then heading south for their winter refuge around The Wash, the UK’s most important estuary for wild birds
These geese are clever, not only have they just found their way across the north Atlantic, but they have come to Norfolk because of what ecologists call ‘cultural learning’. In Norfolk the geese have learnt that the aftermath of the sugar beet harvest, the bits of beet root left behind in the soil after the crop has been lifted, are a carbohydrate rich food source, perfect for powering a goose through the cold dark days of winter.
Their other need, a place to sleep where they will be safe from ground predators such as foxes, is provided by The Wash at the RSPB’s Snettisham nature reserve. Depending upon the state of the tide the 'Pinkies' roost here each night on the mudflats or open water. Then at day break they lift off into the dawn sky, at this time of year in flocks of a few hundred. As the weeks go by and their numbers build with birds freshly arrived from the far north and they depart the roost in their thousands and then in their tens of thousands. The wink, wink call that caused me and my colleagues to leave our computers and peer out of the office window grows into a cacophony of sound that becomes the soundtrack to a Norfolk winter.
Like so many birds, pink feet depend on farmers for their survival. Sugar beet growers tolerating large flocks of geese feeding in their fields on the remains of the beet harvest is of crucial importance to these birds, as is the wild and wonderful place which is The Wash.
And how do they repay us for letting them feed in our fields and protecting The Wash? Well for me at least I think there is something pretty special about a bird that has the unique ability from several hundred feet up in the air, to pull me away from my computer screen and gaze at the sky and tell me that the seasons are turning, autumn is beginning to merge into winter. And everyday in the darkness of a midwinter’s dusk, the soundtrack will play in wink, wink, wink, wink a timely reminder that the day is nearly over and I need to begin to think about heading home for tea.
To see the geese for yourself why not join one of our special guided walks visit the RSPB Snettisham reserve events page to find out more.
Steve Rowland, Public Affairs Manager