Nature

Sound of the Wild – Barnacle Geese on the Solway Firth

Barnacle Geese at Caerlaverock

Barnacle Geese at Caerlaverock

In winter there’s nothing better than the sound of wild geese honking overhead.

Barnacle Geese are incredible flying and honking machines. Every winter they make a 4,000 mile round trip from their home in Svalbard near the Arctic Circle to the Solway Firth.

These long distance travellers are remarkable because they use their own in-built ‘sat navs’ to escape the freezing cold of Spitzbergen to spend four months in Scotland.

Although Scotland’s climate is cold, it’s positively balmy compared with the Arctic Circle and Svalbard’s icy wastes.

This bird migration spectacle is a great winter wildlife experience which I was lucky to see first-hand earlier this week at the Caerlaverock Wildlands and Wetlands Nature Reserve.

Awesome honking sound!

The Solway Firth – and Caerlaverock in particular – are the best places to hear the sound of the Barnacle Geese in Great Britain.

Barnacle Geese at Caerlaverock

Barnacle Geese feeding on the Solway Firth

So what’s the best way to experience the geese? Wild birds can be pretty elusive unless you know where and when to look for them.

Waking up early is a must at Caerlaverock so we stayed overnight on reserve in our camper van. We set our alarms for 6:30, kitted up in outdoor woollies, and walked down to the estuary just before the sun was about to rise.

Timing is crucial so we scheduled our trip to perfection, reaching a good viewing spot overlooking the Solway estuary around 7:15 am.

As the sunrise started to light up the skies around 7:30, the first of the geese started to lift into the sky, flying low over the water.

As the sky grew brighter, they were followed by huge flocks of birds, filling the skies with inky blackness as they flew overhead.

Caerlaverock reserve

Solway sunrise

What a thrill to hear them coming closer and closer, their honking reaching a crescendo.

We could identify individual birds as they circled overhead before landing on the nearby fields for their early breakfast treats.

The birds roost on the other side of the estuary so their arrival in waves is really dramatic as they fly over the water in V-formation to find their daytime feeding grounds.

Play the video to hear the spectacle at its peak.

After the final fly past ended, the skies fell quiet again. The birds were now busy feeding on the reserve and surrounding farms so we headed up the observation tower to get a panoramic view of the geese.

There must have been around 11,000 birds. The only downside to the spectacle was the whirring sound of a distant airplane in the far distance.

So why do the geese honk so loudly when flying in formation? Apparently, honking is designed to encourage those up front to keep up their speed. Pity any lagging behind at the head of the flock!

Barnacle Geese are especially attractive with their black and white striped plumage, petite appearance and cute faces. But these wild birds get skittish if you get too near so keep your distance and use a bird hide as your viewing spot.

Later that day, we drove up the Solway Firth to Castle Douglas where we were surprised to see many more Barnacle Geese grazing on the fields near the coast.

But it was the sound of the birds which were the stars of this wildlife show. This is the true sound of winter!

Tammy’s Wild Goose Chase – Top Tips 

The Solway Firth is south-east of Dumfries in Western Scotland, close to Carlisle and 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 nine miles south of Dumfries, following the tourist signs from the A75 west of Annan.

Barnacle Geese

Barnacle Geese

Look out for ‘wild goose’ walks throughout the winter months including the first weekend in January 2015 . During the day the Barnacle Geese hang around the fields on the reserve – the Tower, Corner and High Middle Fields are good places to spot them.

Don’t forget your binoculars and a telescope. Wear walking boots or wellies on the wildlife sites around the Solway Firth or Caerlaverock. It’s extremely boggy in places.

Read Tammy’s earlier blog post about Caerlaverock’s wildlife for the bigger picture.

Barnacle Geese – Fact File

* Barnacle Geese spend the summer nesting in the Arctic Circle in Svalbard, Greenland and Russia.

* In winter the geese fly south for food and warmth. The Barnacle Geese from Svalbard fly south to the Solway Firth.

* The journey between Svalbard and the Solway Firth is about 2,000 miles – the geese make this journey every year.

* In the 1940’s there were only 300 Svalbard Barnacle Geese but thanks to WWT Caerlaverock’s conservation work, there are now over 30,000 birds.

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