RSPB Scotland’s Julia Gallagher tells us about her favourite winter visitors, the Greenland white-fronted geese, as she follows their journey and much anticipated arrival at Loch Ken.

Following a summer breeding on Greenland, migrating Greenland white-fronted geese have embarked on their epic journey to spend the winter in Scotland via the shores of Iceland.

Greenland white-fronted geese (Anser albifrons) are a distinct and relatively rare type of white-fronted geese, which breed in Greenland and over-winter in Britain and Ireland. The name refers to the white between the eye and the beak, the 'front' of the face. They are quite a small goose, notably smaller than the more familiar greylag, and there are only two wintering flocks in southern mainland Scotland. One of these flocks is found right here in Galloway, overwintering in the Ken/Dee Valley around Loch Ken! The other flock is further west, at West Freugh near Stranraer, and both sites have been designated as Special Protection Areas. Sadly, these birds are now near globally-threatened. Wintering numbers declined by up to 60% between the 1950s to the mid-1970s, to just 14,300 – 16,600. 

The first signs of birds departing Greenland this autumn were confirmed on the Wildfowl and Wetland’s Trust (WWT) tracking website at the beginning of this month, and it was with much excitement that we saw one of our own birds, Grey XU AKA ‘Elsie’ arriving in Iceland on Wednesday 9 September at 10am! Elsie was tagged with a collar funded by the Galloway Glens HLF project by WWT at Loch Ken in the winter of 2018Another goose tagged alongside Elsie was spotted last year on Tiree with a mate and at least one gosling in tow! We will be eagerly keeping an eye on Elsie this autumn, and we are hoping to fit the final collars to a few more birds this winter at Loch Ken.

The morning check on the website for their movements will become a daily ritual- I for one, will be hooked! The data gives us a fascinating window into their world in Iceland, and as they start to return to their wintering grounds here in October. Elsie made a confident move to Iceland and data has shown her foraging and roosting in the south of the island, along with other birds that have been tagged by WWT which winter at West Freugh.

The story of our Loch Ken birds is being shared with local schools, and some of their fantastic artwork will decorate the goose viewing platform at our Ken Dee Marshes reserve. Meanwhile, we watch and wait to see who will be the first to depart Iceland for our shores in October… The race is on and our money’s on Elsie! 

If you'd like to keep an eye on the progress Elsie (Grey XU) is making on her journey visit WWT tracking . You'll also be able to track progress of birds tagged as part of a broader collaboration between WWT, University of Missouri, Aarhus University and Chinese Academy of Sciences and WWT projects with some tags functioning for nearly four years now.