RSPB Mersehead blog 24th September – 1st October 2021

Geese have been spotted in flight over the reserve this week with the first skeins of Pink-footed Geese arriving from their breeding grounds. This population breeds primarily in central Iceland with smaller numbers also occurring along the east coast of Greenland. The geese winter almost exclusively in Britain with the wintering population having risen from an estimated 280,990 in 2003 to 485,509 last winter. There is also a smaller population of pink-footed geese which breed in Svalbard, wintering in the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and Denmark.

Pink-footed geese. Photo Credit: Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)

Svalbard is a Norwegian archipelago between mainland Norway and the North Pole. One of the world’s northernmost inhabited areas, it's known for its rugged remote terrain of glaciers and frozen tundra, is the kingdom of the polar bear and the summer home of the barnacle geese which winter on the Solway. At the time of writing, satellite tagged barnacle geese amongst the population are still registering Svalbard as their current location. Once weather conditions are favourable they can complete their 2,000-mile migration in less than 65 hours, flying at speeds of up to 70mph.

Barnacle geese. Photo credit: David Andrews (rspb-images.com)

Their migration isn’t the only challenge this species faces. As a strategy against ground predation, barnacle geese build their nests on high cliffs. Within a few days of hatching goslings must jump off these cliff faces in order to meet their parents who are foraging on the grass below. Chicks a few days old have an incredible softness in their bones which allows them to survive falls which would otherwise be fatal. This jump into life was recorded on BBC Earth Life Stories.