There is no doubt that these days large aggregations of birds are becoming harder and harder to find, this is certainly a sad state of affairs as people gradually forget what should be here in a healthy countryside.
But recently one bird on the Humber that has bucked this downward spiral is the pink-footed goose, currently there are over 27,000 (An all time Humber record) of these perfect little geese roosting on the estuary and feeding out across the farmland in the daytime or on moonlit nights. But it has been during the day these last two weeks that we've been able to appreciate the amazing spectacle of at times over 12,000 geese flying over our heads or feeding in the fields as we drive to and from home.
You can fit a lot of geese into the large arable fields
And they can be pretty spectacular, you can even see the down floating through the air on this photo, the birds were disturbed by a tractor going down the road. When watching them you need to be very careful not to disturb them and stop them feeding.
Take Tuesday for example when I was on my way towards Goole and discovered over 7000 birds feeding greedily on a farmer friendly stubble field, what a perfect example of what should be in the Estuaries surrounding hinterland (thats the farmland), wildfowl being able to feed on waste grain and weeds. I must admit seeing these birds and seeing them pushing and shoving each other as they hoovered up as much food as they could really lifted my spirits and left me with a big smile on my face.
But the question has to be why has this increase happened over the last ten years? Well I'll try to explain as much as I know; for starters Iceland where most of them breed has become much milder in the summer and this seems to be benefiting many breeding species such as pinkfeet and black-tailed godwits, and with few ground predators in good weather the birds can have plenty of young.
Pink footed goose counts from the Humber Wildfowl refuge 1950's to 1990's
And for the refuge and Reads Island 1960's to 1990's - you can see how the populations declined considerably
The pink-footed geese though on the Humber have had a checkered history with a good population maybe even as high as today back in the 1930's. However, during the 1950's they started to abandon the Humber and move to roost and feed on different estuaries. There were probably a few reasons, hunting pressure which was particularly high in the 50's (one lincolnshire wildfowler claiming to have shot 1753 geese in 14 years alone), changes in farming practice, and cold winters which certainly took their toll, I remember a local poacher who Iived near to me but who is sadly dead now recalling how in 1948 after the cold winter he saw starving geese being ploughed into the soil by the steam ploughs that were being used. He said that he went and rescued as many as he could from a terrible fate.
There was also a case in 1975 when 1000 geese at least died after eating treated (with a pesticide) wheat seed highlighting the problems the geese have faced over the years.
Pink-feet will feed in a variety different types of field, these were next to the reserve yesterday, they can be very good at clearing up weeds and spilt grain that will germinate.
While these were in older stubble where the old wheat had re-grown - I'm unsure if its undersown with rape? One thing for sure was that they didn't seem bothered with eating the rape
In recent years though it seems that less intensive hunting and then changes in agricultural practice have started to bring back the pink footed goose to the Humber area. And there is no doubt that in the last few years two things seem to be attracting back the geese, firstly there are more potatoes being grown and these when frosted provide very nutritious food for the geese, and then more recently there has been a change in approach to controlling black grass that is becoming resistant to glyphosphate herbicides. This has brought about a turn towards more spring grown crops and also a later ploughing of the land, therefore leaving more stubble with spilt grain and weed seed.
The late stubble's are excellent feeding areas particularly when the farmer is goose friendly.
The geese tend to peak in numbers during October and this seems not to have changed that significantly over the years, after October numbers tend to fluctuate but decline down considerably to a few thousand depending on weather and food availability on the Humber or elsewhere. In some years many birds will go down towards Norfolk and the Wash although recent radio tagging has indicated that birds can be highly mobile and fly quite quickly between Lancashire where there are often good wintering numbers and the Wash.
Pink-feet monthly peaks 1960's to 1990 showing that things haven't changed that much in timing of peak numbers, the late winter peaks are often birds flying over on their way back from the Wash Northwards
There's no doubt that the pinkfeet love these stubble fields and happily spend most of their time feeding harmlessly on them, if left alone they will therefore do little damage to growing crops which this year I can't say I've seen any birds on.
What has really been heartwarming to see is the Pinks returning to roost on both Whitton Island and Reads Island both of which are RSPB Humber wetland refuge reserves, Whitton is also part of the Humber Wildfowl refuge which was originally created way back in the 1950's to help protect the geese from overshooting, very fitting that once again they have returned to use a traditional site with 18,000 birds roosting on it last night! Conservation coming home maybe and a spectacular sight to make even the most ardent sceptic take note.
Lets hope that with continued work along the Humber we continue to see more Pink-feet using the estuary along with more ducks and waders, just as it should be on such a large estuary.
For anyone wanting to see where the pink-footed geese are moving to and from please follow the following link and have a look at the tagged pink footed geese for 2017, Interestingly two of them were already on the Humber at Reads Island by the end of September. The maps show exactly where they were ringed in Iceland with one bird summering within 400km of the North Pole at one point!
and for the tracking here
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