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The Complete Guide to British Birds: Swans And Geese
Both the whooper swan and Bewick’s swan are much noisier birds than the more familiar mute swan; but the whooper has a loud trumpeting call more assertive than that of the Bewick’s swan, which accounts for its name. In flight, on the other hand, both the whooper and Bewick’s swan are relatively quiet; their wing beats make a swishing sound, rather than the loud twanging buzz of the mute swan.
Most whooper swans, in company with all the Bewick’s swans, return to the Arctic tundra to breed, but a few may stay behind to nest beside moorland tarns and desolate lochs in Northern Britain, including Orkney, which they deserted for a time from about the middle of the 19th century.
In late May or early June a clutch of three to five eggs is laid, and incubated for four to five weeks exclusively by the female. The cygnets, silver grey and white at first, develop greyish-brown head plumage and white, grey-tipped feathers on the body. They normally fly after about eight weeks. In the height of summer, the whooper swan finds plentiful underwater plants, mollusks and insects on which to feed. As the cold closes in, it, along with the rest of its family group will forage on stubble fields, unlike the fussier Bewick’s swan.
Adult and Juvenile
Bewick's Swans at Slimbridge
This wild, lovely migrant from Arctic Siberia, may take the corn put out for it by the Wildfowl Trust at Slimbridge in Gloucestershire, but in no other way does it acknowledge the presence, let alone the influence of man. Best of all it likes the seeds and water plants of the lakes and pools that are its natural environment. The perfect V-shaped formations that stream across the winter sky are a beautiful sight to behold. Each winter, they wing across Britain in great flocks that may be hundreds strong. A distant high pitched honking and crooning with less trumpeting than the larger whooper swan is enough to alert any human watcher to their presence.
The Bewick’s swan is rather goose like, with its short neck and rounded head, these serve to help one distinguish it from its very close relative, the whooper swan. Closer observation reveals yet another difference; the yellow patch on the Bewick’s bill is generally smaller and more rounded than that of the whooper.
Any Bewick’s swan, named after the celebrated bird illustrator Thomas Bewick (1753-1828) can be identified by the pattern of yellow and black on its bill, which is unique to each bird. Ornithologists can therefore build up a picture of the life of an individual bird year after year.
Elegance and Grace
This graceful bird’s nature belies its placid, decorative appearance, as it is in fact extremely quarrelsome and often bullies smaller species. In the breeding season the male stakes out a large area of water and defends this territory aggressively against all comers. The bird’s name, too, is deceptive, for although quieter than both the whooper and Bewick’s swan, it will hiss and snort when angry, and occasionally trumpets, albeit feebly.
All mute swans on the River Thames belong either to the Crown or to one of two London livery companies: the Vintners’ Company and the Dyers’ Company. In the third week of July, cygnets as far upstream as Henley on Thames are rounded up when they are flightless during the moult. Those that are owned by the livery companies are marked by having their bills notched; those left unmarked belong to the Crown. This ‘swan-upping’ ceremony dates back to the Middle Ages, when swans were highly valued as a table delicacy.
The nest is an enormous mound of water plants up to 13 feet across and 30 inches high. Normally four to seven eggs are laid and they are incubated for 34-38 days, mainly by the female, or pen. The young fly in four and a half months.
White Snow Goose
Snow Goose And Red-Breasted Goose
Sometimes in a flock of geese one bird will need to stand out because of the contrast between its snow white plumage and the greys and browns of its companions. It’s likely to be a rare visitor to the British Isles, the snow goose. Its visits may occur more by accident than design, perhaps as a result of cross winds that blow the bird off course while making its autumn migration from the Arctic down the east coast of North America.
There are two distinct races of snow goose, the greater and lesser, with the lesser dividing into two different forms, white and blue. Both birds are readily identifiable by their red bills which have black cutting edges on each side, giving the appearance of a supercilious grin.
The red-breasted goose is another rare vagrant in winter, a visitor from Siberia whose main wintering area is in Romania. Its markings are distinctive and its call unusually high pitched- a varied and musical two syllable sound of ‘kee-kwa’ or ‘kee-kwit’. Both the red-breasted goose and the snow goose are kept in wildfowl collections such as Slimbridge; as a result it is usually impossible to tell whether those seen are genuine visitors or birds that have escaped from captivity.
Blue Snow Goose
On marshy grassland in the East of England, known as East Anglia or South-Western Scotland in winter, a scattered flock of large geese, all grazing, may sometimes appear. At first sight they resemble grayish brown farmyard geese, but a closer inspection reveals the much browner plumage, longer necks and black and yellow bills of bean geese, scarce visitors from Northern Scandinavia and Russia. Only 100-200 birds spend their winter regularly in Britain.
The type of bean goose that occurs in Northern Europe is unique among the geese that visit Britain, as it frequently chooses to nest in birch or conifer regions instead of on open ground. The four to six eggs in a clutch are an off white colour when laid, but they quickly become stained as incubation proceeds. As with most waterfowl and waders, the female begins incubating only when all, or nearly all of the eggs have been laid, covering them with down whenever she leaves to feed. This means that after about four weeks, they all hatch together.
The gander, which guards the nest throughout incubation, accompanies the brood when it leaves. The goslings feed themselves and can fly after about six or seven weeks, but remain with their parents until the following spring.
Bean Geese Feeding Near Southport, England
To the wildfowl enthusiast, the sound of an approaching flock of these large, wild and wary creatures is thrilling music. The cries of individual pink-footed goose vary widely in pitch between ‘ang-ang’ and ‘wink-wink’, creating a chorus that leads some experts to call them the most musical of all geese.
There are two distinct populations of these birds. One breeds in Iceland and Greenland and winters in Scotland and England. The other population breeds in Spitsbergen and winters in Denmark, Western Germany and the Low Countries. The number of geese wintering in England has declined in recent decades, probably because their food- grain, potatoes, wild shoots and roots has become more plentiful in Scotland. But the total number coming to Britain has increased over the years from about 30,000 in 1950 to 70,000-90,000 in the early part of this century.
The goose breeds in June in spots where the snow has thawed, and where ground predators such as Arctic foxes are unlikely to reach. The nest is a low mound of vegetation lined with down. Three to five eggs are laid, and are incubated by the female for about a month. Like the bean goose, the goslings fly after about six weeks and remain with their parents until the following spring.
Pink-Footed Geese Flying in Perfect Formation
The Ancestor of the Farmyard Goose
Greylag geese mate for life, and give their partners no chance to forget it. Every time they meet after any loss of contact, goose and gander go through a rather complicated ritual of posturing and calling that re-enacts their original courtship.
The greylag was once the only goose that bred in Britain and may have earned its name by lagging behind when other species migrated. It is the ancestor of the familiar white farmyard goose, and its cackles and honks in flight are similar to the sounds of the domestic bird. The greylag was once found as far south as the Fens in Norfolk, but was driven back to the more remote parts of Scotland when agricultural development destroyed its breeding grounds. In recent times, however, the bird has been reintroduced to many of its old areas, and new ones as far south as Kent.
Hilly Scottish heather moors, with a scattering of lochs provide the greylag’s most natural breeding ground. Unusually for a goose it also inhabits sea islets. The descendants of reintroduced birds take readily to manmade freshwater habitats. The goslings hatch after about a month of incubation and fly after two months. Like other grey geese, they remain within the family until the following spring.
Greylag Geese in Flight
Walking on Ice
The white-fronted goose or ‘white front’, is perhaps the most easily recognised of the grey geese, with its white forehead ‘blaze’ and its transverse black belly markings. White-fronted geese form flocks in their Arctic breeding grounds in late September or early October. Those that come to Western Scotland or Ireland are from Greenland, and have orange yellow bills. Visitors to England breed in the far north of Russia; they have pinkish bills. Like greylags, white-fronts mate for life, and reinforce their bond by repeating a similar courtship ‘triumph ceremony’ whenever they meet.
In flight, white-fronted geese can be distinguished by their call, which is higher pitched than that of other common geese. Even shriller in its call is the lesser white-fronted goose, which is classed as an ‘accidental’, as flocks do not habitually migrate to Britain, but a few arrive among other species almost every year. It breeds in Arctic Scandinavia and Russia, and normally winters in the Balkans and South-West Asia.
The nest of both white-fronted geese is little more than a depression in the ground, lined with grass and down. Incubation takes up to four weeks, and the young fledge after five to six weeks.
In the air or on the ground, family groups of barnacle geese bicker continually with a noise like yapping, yelping small dogs. They are rarely silent for long, producing the loudest clamour of all when taking flight. Coastal grass that is periodically flooded by high tides is their favourite food, but if none is available they will graze on pasture-land, leading to occasional complaints from farmers that they foul it with their droppings.
Family bonds are strong, although goslings can soon look after themselves; they stay with their parents until the next breeding season. For their annual migrations, family groups join together in large travelling parties.
Wintering flocks come to the British Isles from two separate homelands and they stay apart. Those that visit the Solway Firth area breed on the Arctic island of Spitsbergen. The birds seen in Western Scotland and Ireland are from Greenland. Before the Arctic was explored by Europeans, people thought that the birds grew on trees. They also believed that the barnacles seen on floating timber were the embryos of the birds, and so came to apply the same name to both the bird and the crustacean.
Barnacle Geese Taking Off
Small, dark Brent geese, winter visitors to Britain from the Arctic tundra, all but died out in the 1930s. One reason for this decline was that disease struck their main winter food plant, the eel grass that grows on tidal flats and in estuaries around the North Sea. The number dropped by around 75 per cent, but now under strict protection, the species is recovering. Flocks, flying low in straggly but disciplined formations or roosting on the water are no longer a rare sight off the East and South coasts. The eel grass is apparently recovering also, but the Brent goose now also raids winter cereals to supplement its diet.
There are two races of Brent geese that winter in England. The dark-bellied geese visit the South-East from Arctic Russia, and the pale-bellied geese visit North-East England and Denmark from Spitsbergen, while others of the same race, from Greenland and even in Canada, spend their winter in Ireland.
When feeding at sea, Brent geese bob like ducks with their white sterns in the air. In the tundra, the geese begin nesting before the ice and snow have melted. They lay three to five eggs which hatch in three and a half weeks, and within three months the young birds must be ready to fly south.
Brent Geese Grazing
Extreme tameness has undoubtedly saved the Canada goose from becoming a popular target for wildfowlers and probably helped to give it the chance to establish itself as a wild breeding bird in Britain. The first Canada geese were brought across the Atlantic in the 17th century as decorative birds for parkland lakes. Attempts were made to develop their numbers for shooting, but the bird proved too tame. Moreover, it was too irregular in its flighting times and also flew too low to make it a ‘sporting target’. It has now spread out of its parkland home, and a countrywide census taken in 1976 revealed a population of more than 20,000 birds.
Although a large bird, the Canada goose can be unobtrusive when resting or feeding. Suddenly, however, a party may start calling with a trumpet like honking. The noise builds up and the geese take wing, continuing their calls as they make for a neighbouring stretch of water.
The nest of the Canada goose consists of plant material at the water’s edge or on an island. The female lays five or six creamy white eggs in April or May. From these are hatched greenish yellow or brown goslings. They can fly after nine weeks, but remain as a family until the following spring.
More to follow...