Bird migration is one of the wonders of nature and Scotland is one of the best places to see this wildlife spectacle.
Every autumn thousands of wild geese, swans and ducks fly thousands of miles from the Arctic, Iceland and Russia to their winter habitats to avoid the snow, ice and freezing weather.
The good news for Britain is that Scotland is one of their favourite places for this winter sojourn.
This weekend I went on a wild goose chase to Dumfriesshire where 30,000 Barnacle Geese migrate every year from Svalbard in the Arctic.
Caerlaverock’s Wildlife and Wetlands Centre has about 10,000 of the birds on its reserve where they feast on the grasslands and surrounding farmland.
It’s a wonderful sight to see these pretty black and white-striped geese enjoying their winter vacation!
As well as the ‘barnies’, as they’re affectionately known, there’s Whooper Swans, the whistling Wigeons from Russia and other seasonal migrants.
The Whooper Swans are easily differentiated from their British counterparts, the Mute Swan. Although they’re slightly smaller, the biggest giveaway is the yellow beak compared with the bright orange of the Mute Swan.
Whoopers also make – unsurprisingly – a massive whooping noise whilst the Mute Swans don’t make much noise at all.
Up at dawn
The biggest thrill of any trip to Caerlaverock is the early morning wild goose fly-over when thousands of the birds swoop over in large flocks in a sensational display at sunrise.
The entire Svalbard population of Barnacle Geese winter exclusively on the Solway Firth. It’s amazing to think that a few decades ago there were only a few hundred of these geese but today their numbers have grown nearly ten-fold.
A wild goose chase requires an early bird start to the day. Tammy and Tony were up at 6am to see the Barnacle Geese fly in from the Solway Firth.
I’m never at my best early morning but I love hearing the sound of the geese. As they fly in from the coastal mud flats where they roost, the birds make a yapping and honking sound.
This trip, the birds came over in two great waves of thousands of birds followed by some smaller groups who were obviously late for breakfast.
There’s something quite amazing about seeing this spectacle as the geese pass overhead like a well-marshalled battalion, often forming amazing zig-zag patterns.
When they land on the fields, they jabber away like they’re having a sociable breakfast conversation with their mates.
One of my favourite folklore stories about Barnacle Geese is that they were born underwater in the form of barnacles. Although this is clearly a crazy piece of legend, it did help to give the birds their evocative name.
They’re sociable creatures who are great fun to watch as they hang out and enjoy the relatively mild weather.
During the day the Barnacle Geese hang around the fields on the reserve – Tower, Corner and High Middle Field are all good places to spot them.
It’s also easy to see the geese in the fields of the farm next door to the reserve. The Avenue Tower is a great place to get an overview of wildlife on the reserve including the geese swooping by.
Night time wildlife
Night time offers even more opportunities to spot nocturnal creatures such as owls, badgers, deer and foxes.
But don’t forget to watch your step and take a small torch as the reserve is pitch black.
In a moment of wild enthusiasm my partner Tony headed out into the dark, starry-lit night to see what he could spot lurking in the shadows (whilst Tammy lurked in the van watching the football).
Sadly he saw nor heard any wildlife (not even an owl hooting) and then managed to fall down six steps from a bird hide in the dark. Fortunately, only his pride was scuffed together with his trousers and his bruised derriere.
Unfortunately his sound recording machine came off much worse and was completely trashed in the accident.
All proof that this wildlife watching malarkey isn’t as easy as it looks on TV’s Springwatch and Autumnwatch!
Birds at Caerlaverock
- Caerlaverock – winter bird list
- Barnacle Geese x 10,000
- Mute Swans
- Whooper Swans
- Tufted Ducks, Mallards, Teal
- Moorhens and Coots
- Little Egret
- Great Tits, Coal Tits and Blue Tits
- Tree Sparrows
- Robins, Blackbirds and Fieldfare
- Greylag Geese and Canada Geese
- Golden Plover and Redshank
Tammy’s top tips – Caerlaverock and Solway Firth
The Caerlaverock reserve is located nine miles south east of Dumfries in the attractive coastal area of the Solway Firth.
Wear walking boots or wellies when you’re on any of the wildlife sites around the Solway Firth or Caerlaverock. It’s very muddy and boggy in places.
Caerlaverock Wetland Centre is a brilliant location to start your trip. It’s one of the best places to get close to wildlife and watch the early morning wild geese spectacle. It’s open every day of the year 10-5 except Christmas Day. Camper vans can stay overnight in the car park for a small fee (by prior booking) – a great plan if you want to see the early morning wild geese spectacle.
There’s also accommodation in the farm house on the reserve for those who fancy staying overnight.
The centre also organises monthly early bird trips to watch the geese as well as lectures and other wildlife watching programmes.
The best views can be seen from the reserve’s towers, its four observatories and the smaller bird hides looking out onto the reserve and ponds.
If you love swans Caerlaverock organises a twice daily feeding session at the Peter Scott hide at 11am and 2pm daily. It’s a great opportunity to get up close and personal with the wild swans.
The Barnacle Geese fly in between 6:45-7:30 am on November and December mornings. The best place to see them is from the Saltcot Merse Observatory or the paths around this part of the reserve.
If you’re in the Caerlaverock area, it’s worth a trip to another great wetland at RSPB Mersehead Nature Reserve nearby.
For history lovers, don’t miss a trip to Caerlaverock Castle with its gatehouse and moat, located close to the wildlife reserve.