COLUMN: Wildlife Matters with Robert Adams

A Canada goose ' the only kind of goose you had a chance of seeing regularly in the Ripon area until the late-70s/early 80s, says Robert Adams. (S)
A Canada goose ' the only kind of goose you had a chance of seeing regularly in the Ripon area until the late-70s/early 80s, says Robert Adams. (S)

Robert examines this year’s late arrival of migrant birds who visit us for the winter.

The birds that visit us for the winter are a little later than the average in arriving this year.

There have been a few thrushes, redwings and fieldfares; but nothing lie the numbers we would normally expect.

The usual date for the main arrival of the fieldfares is about the third week of October, with redwings a week or so earlier.

There could be several reasons for the slight delay this autumn: the berry crop in Europe and Scandinavian may have been as abundant as it is here, so the birds may just be eating it up before journeying across the North Sea, also the prevailing weather system this autumn has been south-westerly, which may have kept the birds from taking off westwards towards the British Isles.

The other possible reason for the lack of winter visitors is that they had such bad breeding seasons that there may not be many to actually come. Hopefully this last pessimistic speculation is not true.

In addition to the flocks of small birds that we get visiting us in winter, we also nowadays get in our area, largely because of the water bodies created by gravel extraction, numbers of water birds: waders, ducks, gulls, swans and, to my mind most romantically, wild geese.

Until the late 1970s/early 1980s the only geese you had any real chance of seeing regularly in the Ripon area were Canada geese, feral birds derived from escapes from ornamental waterfowl collections.

Canada geese, large birds with distinctive black and white heads, were first brought to this country in the late 17th century; the earliest record I can find for the local area is of birds introduced into Swinton Park, near Masham, in the late 19th or early 20th century.

It was probably from these that the Studley Park and other local populations originated.

They had certainly become quite common by the 1970s when a flock of nearly 1,000 birds could sometimes be seen grazing the flood meadows near Ox Close, where Ripon Canal meets the River Ure.

From the late 1970s onwards another large goose started to be seen throughout the year in our part of North Yorkshire.

These were greylags, feral birds again, which were derived from a re-introduction scheme undertaken by wildfowlers to provide birds for shooting.

Judging by subfossil remains greylags had once been quite common in this country, and are indeed the ancestors of the domestic farmyard goose, but by the 18th century they were restricted to a few pairs breeding in Northern Scotland. Prior to the arrival of the re-introduced feral birds the greylag was a scarce winter visitor to our area.

Even as late as 1979 the Harrogate and District Naturalists’ Society annual report enumerated each individual bird seen.

Now they are to be seen in their thousands, grazing on winter cereals in the fields around water filled gravel extraction sites.

Almost any waterbody, even quite small ponds, can attract a pair of breeding greylags in spring and the bird is now a common resident species in much of North Yorkshire.

Of the truly wild geese only one species occurs in this part of the country in any real numbers and with any regularity - the pink-footed goose.

Pink-footed geese nest in Iceland and Spitzbergen and migrate each autumn to the coastal areas of Western Europe.

Many spend the winter in the Humber Estuary and the Wash, to get to which, the Icelandic birds, if they fly directly, will pass over our part of North Yorkshire.

The large numbers of greylag geese that we now have locally seem to draw down some of these migrating geese and parties of up to 60 or 70 pink-foot can sometimes be seen grazing with their feral cousins.

They seldom linger very long and they soon continue on their journey to the coastal wintering grounds.

To wildfowlers the pink-footed goose is the wild goose par excellence: truly wild, comparatively small and nimble in flight and said to be the most esculent of the wild geese.

The wildfowling literature abounds with description of morning flights of pinkies, taking off against a grey and pink-streaked dawn sky, leaving the coastal mud flats to spend the day 
grazing the saltmarsh grasses.

One of the highlights of the birdwatching year for me is to see a skein of pink-foot coming in from the north in the late afternoon in early November.

First hearing their distant haunting calls, then seeing a V of tiny dark specks, gradually they become larger and the calls louder.

Finally they are recognisable as geese, silhouetted against a high cloud ceiling, underlit by the setting sun - magical.