Barnacle Geese are a miracle of nature. Every winter they make a 4,000 mile round trip from their home in Svalbard near the Arctic Circle to Western Scotland.
Imagine travelling that distance each and every year over the course of your lifetime, under your own steam?
These long distance travellers are remarkable because they use their own in-built ‘sat navs’ to escape the freezing cold of Spitzbergen’s islands to spend four months in Scotland.
It’s a bit like long haul tourists heading to Oz for some winter sunshine and relaxation.
Although Scotland’s climate is still pretty cold, it’s much milder than the Arctic Circle and distinctly lush and green compared with Svalbard’s icy wastes.
Better still, this great bird migration spectacle is bang on my doorstep.
The Solway Firth and the Caerlaverock Wildlands and Wetlands Nature Reserve are the best places to see the Barnacle Geese in the UK so I took a trip there earlier this week. And what a fantastic experience it turned out to be.
Barnacle Geese spectacle
The whole Svalbard breeding population of Barnacle Geese winter exclusively on the Solway Firth from October to April.
This year there are 40,000 Barnacle Geese on the Solway and the best views of the birds are from the Caerlaverock reserve with its observation towers, hides and open fields near the estuary’s salt marshes.
The number of the birds on the reserve at any one time varies between 3,000-9,000 but whenever you go during the winter months, you’re guaranteed to see them in large numbers.
The Barnacle Goose is a highly sociable bird, travelling in large flocks and making a loud, yapping noise to communicate with other birds.
The birds’ morning flight from their roosts to feeding grounds along the Solway Firth is one of nature’s top winter spectacles.
By far the most spectacular way of seeing the birds is to go on an early morning wild goose chase to see the Barnacles fly in over the reserve at first light.
This requires an early start because the birds start their fly-by at sunrise as soon as the first glimmers of light spread across the skies.
The bottom line is that you have to be an early bird!
After an overnight stay in the camper van, I woke around 6:30, looking distinctly dishevelled and worse for wear, strapped on my walking boots and donned full winter outdoor kit.
Looking like Nanook of the North, I headed down to the fields overlooking the estuary on the edge of the reserve around 7:40.
At first, I was worried that I’d left it too late, but within minutes several large groups of geese flew overhead, honking and yapping. A truly exhilarating experience.
The spectacular flights are one of nature’s finest spectacles as the geese form V-shaped patterns and swoop across the morning skies before landing in the fields to gorge on the vegetation.
The fly-by goes on for the best part of 20-30 minutes.
Once the birds have landed, you can head over to the observation towers and hides where there are great views of the flocks on the fields. Listen out for them honking and barking at each other.
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.
What a tribute to the fantastic conservation efforts of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust that the bird’s numbers have gone from 300 to 30,000 plus.
Special wild travellers
So why are these birds so special?
Not only do they fly incredibly long distances, the Barnacle Geese are handsome birds with black and white plumage that makes them stand out from the crowd.
With their black heads, neck and breasts, creamy faces and white bellies, they remind me of avian Newcastle United football supporters. Their black and white colouring is striking and unforgettable.
They’re only small in size which makes their long distance migration even more remarkable.
One of my favourite folklore stories about Barnacle Geese suggests they were born underwater in barnacle shells. Although this is clearly a ridiculous legend, it helped to give the birds their evocative name.
Today, the ‘Barnies’ (as they’re affectionately known) are thriving. Later in the year, they’ll start making their journey back to Swalbard and the Arctic to breed and raise their chicks.
It’s great to think that the young birds will be back with their parents to spend next winter in Scotland.
But there’s still time to watch this year’s spectacular fly-by. Don’t miss one of nature’s truly great experiences.
Tammy’s Wildlife Tips
The Solway Firth is located south east of Dumfries in Western Scotland, close to the English Borders.
Caerlaverock Wetland Centre is the best place to watch the early morning wild goose spectacle. It’s open every day of the year 10-5 except Christmas Day. Drive 9 miles south of Dumfries, following the tourist signs from the A75 west of Annan.
Camper vans can stay overnight in the reserve’s car park for a small fee, a good plan if you want to watch the wild geese at sunrise.
There’s also accommodation in the farm house on the reserve. Listen out for the sound of the geese honking as you lie in your bed.
Look out for ‘wild goose’ warden walks throughout the winter months. During the day the Barnacle Geese hang around the fields on the reserve – Tower, Corner and High Middle Field are good places to spot them.
The Avenue Tower has great views of wildlife on the reserve including the geese. Don’t forget your binoculars.
Wear walking boots or wellies on the wildlife sites around the Solway Firth or Caerlaverock. It’s extremely muddy and boggy in places.
The Barnacle Geese fly in between 7:00-8:00 everyday on January-February mornings. Times vary as the days get lighter in late winter. The geese fly back to their roosts on the estuary during late afternoon,
Good places to see the geese flying by are the Saltcot Merse Observatory and the paths around this part of the reserve.
Caerlaverock boasts a large number of winter birds including Whooper Swans, Wigeon and Teal plus large numbers of ducks. The splendid Sir Peter Scott Hide affords excellent views of the birds from a large, heated observation deck.
Read Tammy’s earlier blog post about Caerlaverock’s wildlife for the bigger picture.
It’s worth driving further along the Solway Firth as many geese descend on the farm land along the estuary during the day.