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A pink-footed goose chase

3 January 2018

From September onwards, our skies are brightened by squadrons of migrant geese and my pink-footed goose vigil begins, says Sarah Whittley

On 7 September, I hear of a small party in Scotland, by the 15th there’s news of a larger group in West Norfolk but still nothing in Cley. I can’t stop thinking about those young geese, barely two months old and having to brave a gruelling flight, often into strong westerly winds.

But they have to leave their home – it’s non-negotiable. The elders know at any minute it will be besieged by a maelstrom of wintery weather that could kill them all.

Their journey begins over a thousand miles away in the wild marshlands of Iceland and Greenland. You’d think after a busy breeding season, surviving the perils of predation by the likes of Arctic foxes and gulls, they’d want nothing more than to put their pink feet up and have a well-deserved rest. Instead, towards the end of August, they begin to get the pre-migration fidgets.

Extended family groups take to the skies and appear to fly aimlessly over the barren landscape; fellow geese know this pattern and can’t resist the urge to join the party. The migration has begun.

Being a pink-foot twitcher comes with a whole heap of worries, for me anyway. These small, enigmatic geese have a lot to deal with en route and even after they arrive safely. Every time I see a lone pink-foot I wonder what’s happened to its life mate, they’re highly monogamous with some stories of bereaved partners dying of a broken heart. I don’t like to anthropomorphise animals, but it’s a story I’ve read about more than once and having kept wildfowl, I can easily believe it.

For the migration survivors, their first concern is to replenish lost calories, and that’s the reason they come to North Norfolk in tens of thousands. It’s not our beautiful sandy beaches that attract the geese, but the fields of calorie-rich sugar beet crops.

And then on the 22 September, I hear them. At first, it’s just a few faint, discordant squeaks but they’re unmistakable and by the time I’m outside I see clearly the first skein in its typical ‘V’ formation passing over Cley. They’re talking to one another, reassuring the family that they’re ok. Every year I call out to them, “Hello pinkies, welcome back you beauties,” quickly looking around to make sure I’ve not been rumbled.

Reports are coming in thick and fast now. They’ve been seen all along the coast, arriving en masse. Some say we might be heading for record numbers this year due to their breeding success. I watch in awe as a cacophony of probably 15,000 geese whiffle down to the marshes in Burnham Deepdale and think, without doubt, this is one of the best wildlife experiences I’ve witnessed all year. (I think I say this every year…)

My excitement at the arrival of these geese is impalpable, perhaps it’s simply the sheer number of them, maybe it’s their exquisite beauty or their tight family bonds.

Now my natural alarm call starts at around 7.30am as the noisy, excitable geese set off from their coastal roosts to feed inland. If possible, I try to head to Cley Marshes reserve from 4pm onwards and watch as they head back for a quick wash and brush up on the freshwater lagoons before roosting.

By November the pink-footed geese have all arrived and depending on the availability of food, they’ll stay with us until the following March. As winter ebbs and spring beckons, the geese know it’s time to go and although another wildlife chapter begins here on the coast, I can’t help feeling sad as I watch them fly away.

Pink-footed geese images by