Nature spoils us with its late autumn treats, but for me the arrival of our wild geese is head and shoulders above the rest. I say “our” because for almost half of the year, wild geese are very much UK birds, having swapped their Arctic homes for our comparitively mild, food-rich shores.
These are not the boisterous bread thieves that frequent your local park: these travellers raised their young in the far north in wild, remote locations such as Arctic Canada, Greenland, Iceland and northern Europe. They are wild in name and wild in behaviour, adding to the thrill of seeing, and hearing, them. Their calls are the soundtrack of the UK winter and the sight of a flock taking to the air in perfect “v” formation epitomises the magic of migration.
Brent geese on the move - one of autumn's finest sights (Paul Chesterfield - rspb-images.com)
Seeing the newly touched-down flocks just after their arrival in autumn is especially thrilling. There is a buzz of excitement that you can sense in the birds’ behaviour and the intensity of their calls when they first arrive. Maybe they are excited to reacquaint themselves with friends and family, as the flocks swell? Perhaps they are just excited to be here, or feel a sense of relief at having completed an epic journey? There is always something going on in the flocks too. Parents fending off others that stray too close to their young (goose families stay together all winter), or siblings squabbling over food.
The flocks are also a treasure chest of rarities. The vast flocks “carry” vagrants from their breeding grounds, such as the pure-white white snow and Ross’s geese from America and small vagrant Canada geese (some are tiny compared to our resident Canadas) that really have come all the way from Canada and joined up with pink-footed and greylag geese in Iceland or Greenland white-fronted and barnacle geese in Greenland.
360,000 pink-footed geese spend the winter in the UK and they are here now! (Andy Hay rspb-images.com)
Here’s our guide to 10 wild geese that you could be seeing this autumn and winter. Please meet the wild geese and make a date to see them!
Pink-feet This small, chunky goose with “wink-wink” calls provided me with my first unforgettable experience with wild geese. I was travelling along the North Norfolk coast in the back of my parent’s car when I noticed that the grey afternoon sky was full of straggly “v” formations stretching as far as the eye could see. There were more geese in the air than I had probably seen in my life. I shouted at my father to pull over. On getting out of the car, our senses were consumed by a cacophony of excited calls and thrum of wingbeats. It took three whole minutes for the masses to pass over and the sky to clear. This was one of nature’s finest sights: the afternoon roost flight of wild geese heading out to their safe overnight roost on offshore mudflats: a hostile, but safe stronghold. The other perfect way to enjoy pink-feet is to creep up to a field full of them, the birds a sea of grey in a never ending jostling, heaving mass of bodies.
Small, grey, compact and with pink legs and bill band - pink-footed geese are an easy one (Andy Hay rspb-images.com)
Brent Geese – dark-bellied and pale-bellied Brent geese come in four different subspecies: dark-bellied, pale-bellied and the rare black and grey-bellied brants. These are tiny birds by goose standards – not that much bigger than a mallard. They are charcoal grey and black with a neat white neck ring, a white stern and soothing “croaking” calls. These are coastal geese with saltmarshes and coastal fields rich feeding grounds for their dense flocks. Despite the dark-bellied being “my” local brent – they are a such a feature of coastal saltmarshes in south-east England, the pale-bellied of Ireland and north-east England is my favourite. Their creamy white bellies contrast beautifully against the dark breast.
Black and grey tones and a white neck ring are the signature fieldmarks of dark-bellied brent goose (Chris Gomershall rspb-images.com)
Greenland and Russian white-fronted geese Vying for top position in the best looking goose is the splendid white-fronted goose. Two distinct subspecies winter here and I believe they represent two different species due to differences in their breeding grounds, appearance and biology. Let’s see what the scientists think! Both have beautiful black bars crossing their bellies when adults and a neat little blaze of white at the base of their beaks. Greenland white-fronted geese can be found in western Scotland and Ireland, while the pink-billed Russian white-fronted geese favours England, especially the south-east. More of the latter arrive if the weather turns cold further east over the winter.
Greenland white-fronted goose is a real beauty (Andy Hay rspb-images.com)
Tundra bean and taiga bean gooseBean geese are rare in the UK, but they are a super-smart species pair. The taiga bean goose breeds in boggy forests in the taiga zone of Scandinavia. It is long necked and with a wedge-shaped head and beak - a bit like a whooper swan to my eye. Only two flocks of them are regular here: in Scotland and Norfolk. Tundra bean goose is in many ways a pink-footed goose with orange where the former has pink: its legs and feet and the band across its small black beak. It is a classic hard-weather goose: we usually see an influx at the end of the year as they flee freezing conditions in eastern Europe.
Barnacle gooseAnother strong contender for the title of our best looking goose. The barnacle goose's dapper black and white rivals provides a challenge to the subtle barring of the white-fronts. This smart, small goose with a white face winters in vast packs in Scotland and Ireland. Its “yapping” calls are pleasant on the ears and sound a little like a distant pack of dogs.
Can you think of a better looking goose than the barnacle goose? (Andy Hay rspb-images.com)
Greylag goose Feral greylag geese are a year round site in many parts of the UK, but Icelandic birds arrive in their thousands to Scotland and northern England in autumn. With their “carrot” beaks and ultra noisy calls, these geese are hard to miss.
Greylag geese are a familiar sight to everyone (Stanley Porter rspb-images.com)
Snow goose At number 10 is one of the rarities that occurs among the hordes each winter: a special visitor all the way from the other side of the Atlantic. Snow geese come in pure white forms with black wingtips and an attractive “blue” phase (they keep the white head). They breed in Arctic Canada but each winter a small number join up with flocks of greylag, pink-footed and Greenland white-fronted geese and accompany them to their UK wintering grounds.
See wild geese yourself this NovemberAs an RSPB member, you can enjoy free access to some of the very best places in the world to watch wild geese. All of the species listed above occur on RSPB reserves so why not wrap up, get yourself comfortable and enjoy, and welcome, some very special visitors this November? I guarantee you won’t be disappointed. Browse our list of reserves where you can see wild geese and plan your visit today. And if you're also a member, check your latest Nature's Home magazine for our wild goose celebration feature and fabulous photographs.