We are eagerly awaiting the return of many of our special birds that come to Marshside to spend the winter and none more so than the pink-footed goose. The sight and sounds of vast skeins flying overhead is perhaps the most treasured aspect of winter on the Ribble Estuary. But where do "our birds" go to spend the rest of the year? Well yes, we know they go to Iceland to breed because we sometimes see birds with neck-collars that can reveal their movements to us. But I have always found myself wondering what it is really like where they go, and I'm sure I'm not the only one. So we are very grateful to Lancastrian and now resident of Iceland Edward Rickson who has very kindly provided us with this Postcard from Iceland:
The first Pink-footed Geese begin to arrive in Iceland in late March but the vast majority of birds don’t show up until well into April. Many of the new arrivals head straight to their breeding grounds, which at this time of the year are often under a thick covering of snow, but many also congregate in low-lying areas, mainly the southern lowlands. Here they graze on fields alongside Whooper Swans, Greylag Geese, Greenland White-fronted Geese and Barnacle Geese.
In early May those birds move on to their breeding grounds in Iceland and some go even further, migrating to the north-east coast of Greenland. Pink-footed Goose is the most common goose in Iceland and its numbers have increased dramatically in recent years. Traditionally the core breeding range was found in the central highlands of Iceland, an uninhabited area of icecaps, moorlands, broad valleys, rocky and sandy wastes and wetlands. The bird’s Icelandic name, heiðagæs, actually means “moorland goose”.
A pair at the nest - by Jóhann Óli Hilmarsson.
Pink-footed Goose breeding habitat at Þjórsárver, Central Iceland - by Jóhann Óli Hilmarsson.
The geese's range has expanded and it is now found breeding down to sea level in some areas. Because of the remoteness of the main nesting sites it wasn’t until the middle of the 20th century that it was firmly established where the majority of Pink-footed Geese bred, a discovery described memorably in Peter Scott and James Fisher’s book “A Thousand Geese”.
Pink-footed Goose on the nest at Þjórsárver, Central Iceland - by Jóhann Óli Hilmarsson.
Pink-footed Geese tend to nest close to water or on ledges in ravines and rocky outcrops which give them some protection from predators. The nest is lined with down and the geese lay 4-6 eggs. As you can see from the snow on the ground it is not warm by any stretch of the imagination so the eggs must be incubated. This takes around four weeks, during which time the parent geese have to keep a watchful eye for predators such as Arctic Fox or Raven.
I wish the view from my home was as half as good as this! Pink-footed Goose nest at Þjórsárver, Central Iceland - by Jóhann Óli Hilmarsson.
A pair of pink-footed geese with young goslings - by Jóhann Óli Hilmarsson.
On hatching the goslings follow their parents to the nearest river or lake and then spend the summer feeding on a variety of plants. In late summer adult birds moult their flight feathers and become flightless for a while and during this period are vulnerable to disturbance and predation. Remarkably some non-breeding Pink-footed Geese leave Iceland in late June and fly more than 1,000 km north to north-east Greenland to moult their flight feathers. Approximately eight weeks after hatching the young Pink-footed Geese fledge but the geese remain in Iceland for a few more weeks before the exodus to the south begins.
Pink-footed Geese making an additional long flight north to moult their flight feathers at Zackenberg, 74°N, NE Greenland - by Edward Rickson.
By September, autumn colours are spreading across the highlands and the first snow begins to fall. The sky fills with skeins of southbound geese and by mid-October nearly all have left. The central highlands are quiet again with only hardy Ravens, Ptarmigan, Gyr Falcons and Snow Buntings remaining over the winter months.
Thanks again to Edward and Jóhann for their fantastic and inspiring photos. That's certainly another holiday destination added to the wish list for me! It is amazing to think that the places where these birds breed are so remote that apparently no-one has been able to visit them this year. We won't actually find out how the breeding season went until they arrive in Britain. Myself and other intrepid volunteers will brave the cold early winter mornings to count how many have returned and also how many young there are. But for now we are turning our eyes to the skies and hopefully we will see the first geese returning any day soon.
There has been lots to see over the last couple of weeks at Marshside. It is so exciting to see many of our favourite summer visitors back after almost 9 months. For many there is none more exciting than the swift, which arrived back in force about a week ago. Now you can see at least a hundred birds catching insects and making their fantastic screeching calls high over the marshes.
Swift by Richard Brooks (rspb-images.com)
May is always an exciting time for migrant birds and this year has been no different. A real feature of Marshside in spring is the large mixed flocks of dunlin and ringed plover that can be seen from Nel’s Hide. These in turn attract their rarer cousins and we have been lucky enough to host a pectoral sandpiper for a week or so. Up to four curlew sandpipers have added a splash of colour as a couple of them are moulting into their stunning reddish breeding plumage. Finally there have been 3 male and one female garganey – this is a rare breeding bird here so we are keeping our fingers crossed that they decide to stay! Both the curlew sandpipers and garganey are still about so head down to Nel’s Hide if you would like a chance to see them.
Male garganey by Mark Sisson (rspb-images.com)
You don’t have to be in one of the hides to see great wildlife! Several visitors have been lucky enough to see both stoats and weasels while walking along the reserve trails. One of the best places to see them is near Polly’s Bench, where you can also come across a variety of butterflies. It’s amazing what you can see when you sit and wait for the wildlife to come to you!
Weasel by David Tipling (rspb-images.com)
Exciting news! I was lucky enough to witness our first avocet egg of the year actually being laid on Saturday afternoon. There are now avocet nests in front of both Sandgrounders and Nel's Hides so why not come to have a look!
Avocet with a newly laid egg by Caroline Clay
We will be attempting to finish off the new Sutton's Marsh electric fence tomorrow (Tuesday 14th April) and this includes working in the area around Sandgrounders hide. We will aim to keep disturbance to a minimum and for as short a period as possible but it is inevitable that there will probably be less to see there than usual. We apologise for any disruption caused but in the long term we are confident that we will see a real improvement in the productivity of our various breeding birds thanks to the new fence.
Instead, why not head down to Nels hide where there are more avocets nesting as well as plentiful wildfowl and ruff, golden plover and black tailed godwit all coming in to breeding plumage.
Following the horrible windy weather last week it has felt almost summery here at Marshside this week! And there can be no doubt that much of our wildlife feels the same way as we have seen a mass of activity of both birds and insects. On recent sunny days you could not fail to notice the stunning small tortoiseshell and peacock butterflies. Here's a fresh small tortoiseshell looking fantastic - but in only a few weeks after flying around plants like this bramble and being attacked by birds it will no doubt have ripped wings and start to look very sorry for itself.
Small tortoiseshell by Caroline Clay.
It has been all go on the bird migration front. The bad weather last week held back everything trying to migrate northwards so we saw a real influx of many of our early spring migrants as the weather changed for the better. This is a typical feature of spring migration as birds will wait during periods of rain, poor visibility or strong winds to reduce the risk of getting lost. They can then take advantage of nice weather and a favourable tail wind to continue their journey. Sand martins, swallows and wheatears have been seen regularly and there is currently a little gull at Junction Pool. The first week in April usually sees the bulk of migrant ospreys heading north and a few visitors were lucky enough to see one fly over Marshside on Monday.