Few events in the UK wildlife year combine sight and sound quite so impressively as wild geese leaving their overnight roost - and returning in the evenings. Standing beneath thousands, sometimes tens of thousands, of these Arctic visitors filling the sky as far as the eye can see, their conversational calls blocking out everything else, is a special moment and one of my absolute favourites. For a few seconds, you are part of the wild goose's world, a member of the flock, and all your troubles and strife are gone as the magic of flight and wild calls consume your senses.
Pink-footed geese come to the UK from Iceland to spend the next five months on our shores. A single pink-foot is easy to overlook, but put them together in the Internationally-important numbers that occur in Scotland (such as Aberdeenshire) and England (Lancashire and Norfolk) and this species will provide one of the most memorable experiences of the UK winter. RSPB Snettisham nature reserve on The Wash in north-west Norfolk, is a superb place to see the geese, but you'll need to be there at dusk or dawn to witness the best of the action, so it's the perfect way to start, or finish, your day.
Step 1 - Slumber partyAs the short daylight hours come to a rapid close in the afternoon, listen for tthe distant "wink-wink" of these super sociable birds coming from the north and west as flocks start to arrive from their daytime feeding grounds on farmland and marshland - they love to eat sugar beet tops. Wait patiently and little grey lines start to sketch themselves on the grey sky (or pink if you're lucky and get a great sunset).
The noise builds and suddenly, the sky is full of straggly "vs" that circle briefly above their bed for the night, in a cacophony of calls, before the geese "whiffle" down: this is process of expelling air from beneath their wings, so they can lose height rapidly.
The October sun sets over RSPB Snettisham with the calls of curlews and pink-footed geese drifting across the mudflats (image cMark Ward)
Step 2 - Wake up callThe evening show is wonderful, but it is well worth getting up early because the birds are extra excited at dawn as they prepare to leave their roost out on the safe mudflats and fly off for a day in the fields. You might not know the birds are there at first, packed together looking like dark smudges in the half light. A single "wink-wink" gives the game away, followed by more and as the sun rises, the extent of geese is revealed, stretching in all directions.
Sunrise and the geese begin to stir on the mudflats after their night time slumber (image cMark Ward)
Step 3 - Pre-flight entertainmentSometimes the birds can't wait to get going and they'll head out before it is truly light, but if it is foggy, they will linger adding to the anticipation. There is a definite conversation going on aming the birds. Are they deciding when the best moment to fly is, or
Excited calls build among the flocks and once one bird takes off, more follow (Andy Hay rspb-images.com)
Step 4 - Time to flyThey don't all leave at once though. A "domino effect" can be seen as one bird lifts off after a little run across the slippery, slurpy mudflats and takes the rest of its flock with it into the air as a section of the roosting mass peels off from the rest of the standing and sitting birds.
And they're off! 1,000 pink-feet leave their roost and head inland to feed on fields for the day (image cMark Ward)
Step 5 - Calm descendsEventually every single bird has gone and the distant "wink-wink" calls fade to nothing as the birds head for the best feeding sites for the rest of the day, fattening up before it's time for the evening flight and a chance to discuss the day's events and the best feeding areas.
The geese fill the skies in the morning half-light - not a bad sight and sound to watch from the comfort of your chalet (image cMark Ward)
See wild geese this winterIf you'd like to see wild geese this winter - pink-feet, barnacle, Greenland white-fronted and brents - read Emma's blog on the best sites to see them and make sure you put a date in your diary this winter. These Arctic migrants will not dissapoint.
And if you'd like to find out more about wild geese and other Arctic migrants, check out your Winter 12018 issue of Nature's Home magazine.
We spend 90% of net income on conservation, public education and advocacy
The RSPB is a member of BirdLife International. Find out more about the partnership
© The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) is a registered charity: England and Wales no. 207076, Scotland no. SC037654