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As the thermometers dropped, the wildfowl have flooded in

Jeremy Torrance web producer Jeremy Torrance web producer | 18:08 UK time, Thursday, 21 October 2010

Guest blog: Rich Hearn is Head of Species Monitoring for the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT). He's been writing a Migration Watch blog for the WWT since the start of the autumn, giving regular updates on the thousands of birds that migrate from their summer breeding haunts to spend the winter at some of WWT's nine wetland centres across the UK.

It's been a cracking week for migration at WWT centres. As the thermometers dropped over the past week the wildfowl have flooded in, bringing with them more than a few surprises!

Chris and Kate were at Castle Espie on Strangford Lough earlier this week to witness the beautiful autumn spectacle of the pale bellied brent geese for Autumnwatch. This tidal lough, the largest sea lake in the UK and Ireland, is one of the most important staging posts in the world for these geese who breed in Canada well north of the Arctic Circle before travelling 3,000km down to Northern Ireland. Each autumn around 30,000 birds arrive. Last Friday we counted 28,600 there.

The geese follow the tides in and out of the lough, feeding on the exposed eel grass beds. After literally eating themselves out of house and home they leave the lough around November time to travel to new locations around Ireland, the UK and as far south as France to continue feeding.

Bewick's swans at Slimbridge

The first Bewick's swans of the winter at Slimbridge

As you may have seen in the papers or on breakfast TV earlier in the week, we had a nice a surprise at the beginning of the week at Slimbridge in Gloucestershire when the first eight Bewick's swans of the winter arrived - a good couple of weeks earlier than the last couple of years. Of course there's that folklore that suggests that an early arrival of the swans means we'll have a cold winter - I think it comes from the Russian saying 'The swan brings snow on its bill'. But folklore aside, in 40 years of studying the migration of Bewick's swans here at Slimbridge it does seem that their arrival is accompanied with or followed by a cold snap - like the one we've been having this week.

I wonder if bitterns also have inside knowledge on whether a cold snap is on the way, as last Thursday London Wetland Centre had its earliest ever autumn bittern arrival.

Dawn flight of geese

Dawn flight

Up in Lancashire, Martin Mere has seen record numbers of pink-footed geese - some 36,000 at the last count, which is a truly amazing sight either first hand or via our webcam that's overlooking the birds. Looks like a photographer on the Autumnwatch photo group has captured the spectacle of pink feets at Martin Mere beautifully this week.

Leucistic geese

The very rare leucistic barnacle goose at Caerlaverock

Barnacle geese have been flocking to Caerlaverock in Scotland from Svalbard in recent weeks, with today's count standing at 13,000 individuals, and among them a really interesting family. On Monday we spotted a very rare leucistic - or white - barnacle goose (an unusual variation similar to albinism) but yesterday one of our volunteers told us they'd seen not one but several leucistic geese in a family group which must be a huge coincidence in a population of 30,000 barnacle geese!

Watch Chris and Kate visit Strangford Lough on Autumnwatch, Thursday 21 October BBC Two. Read more about this week's migration news from the BTO and find out the best places in the UK to see migrating geese.


  • Comment number 1.

    When birds migrate is it purely for food or do they raise another brood whilst away?

  • Comment number 2.

    Missed the frist part of epsoed 1 what has happend to Simon king missing him and the dear rut.

    Richard Gregg

  • Comment number 3.

    There are over 65,000 pink footed geese at Montrose Basin which is a superb location to see and hear the fantastic sights and sounds of these birds.

  • Comment number 4.

    There have been sightings of the wild cat very near to Rothiemay in Aberdeenshire.

  • Comment number 5.

    the signs are there for a cold winter! last year the Bittern was early at the London centre and i when i was told i jokingly said "maybe we're in for a bad winter". It's arrival is even earlier this year - maybe they'll top the 7 on site at one time from last winter too.

    i can't wait to see some whoopers and bewick's. i went to Welney last winter to see them and also saw some as they migrated across the Forth near Aberlady.

    the numbers of Pinkies seem to be really high, is this unusual? Montrose and Aberlady have had huge amounts (although some of the Aberlady ones have moved on, it seems).

    I'm glad there seems to be a bit more focus on the geese on AW this year, they are amazing birds and the spectacle of them flying out or returning to roost is magical.

    great blog.

  • Comment number 6.

    mine is a question more than a comment, my husband and I are going to Solway in November, we have never been befor and we we were wondering is there anything particular we should look out for?

  • Comment number 7.

    a question for Kate Humble,we have got two squirriels feeding just outside our back windows,one is bigger than the other,we dont know whether they are mum & baby or male & female,how can we tell.
    thanks, lesjenks

  • Comment number 8.

    Steven Berry - I have an answer for you about migration from our experts at the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust:
    There is still a lot to learn about the causes of bird migration (which may vary between species) but in very simple terms -

    Most migratory species face the problem of occupying a habitat that is suitable for only a part of the year. Migration is one strategy for dealing with seasonal changes in the environment and allows birds to escape to areas with better food availability and more suitable nesting and breeding sites. Other factors such as a high abundances of predators, parasites or competing species, may also encourage birds to migrate and breed elsewhere.

    e.g. The Bewick’s swan which migrates to the Russian arctic tundra for the summer to exploit abundant food resources and 24 hr daylight (important to maximise time spent feeding), as well as suitable breeding sites which are largely free of disturbance. They return to winter in NW Europe in the late summer, before the onset of the arctic winter when food will be scarce.

  • Comment number 9.

    A bright sunny Sunday morning in South Lincolnshire and I've just witnessed a fly past of what I think were Canada geese. Flying in V formation, very vocal 'honking', numbering 150+ birds. Managed to grab the camera to capture the event

  • Comment number 10.

    Here's the link to my Geese fly past Photo on flickr

  • Comment number 11.

    I took my P3 class out today to visit our local Beangeese population in Slamannan (south of Falkirk). Slamannan has the largest population of Beangeese in the UK when they migrate here from about October to February/March time. It is about 2 miles from out school.

    I have always found it crazy that Chris talks about poo all the time on the show, but we found poo in the fields where the Beangeese roost. Of course, we had to dissect it. The children loved the fact that we broke it up and just found grass because that is what Beangeese eat.

    The P3 and P4 children are working with a local artist to create an art exhibition and information about the Beangeese population in Slamannan and to get everyone really excited about the phenomenon in our back yard.


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