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.

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