Sunday, 29 September 2013

Home for the Winter

 I'm only human. I can easily become enamoured of pretty things, new things, unexpected or wonderful things - Ospreys and eagles and all the endless variety of birds. But first love endures, and these are mine...

The brent geese of Strangford Lough are back.

This morning I was up and out at stupid o'clock, driving the 20-odd miles to an isolated parking spot near the market town of Comber. It was still almost dark, and autumnly cold. A chill east wind whipped in off the slate-grey water, bating the full tide. Not a bird to be seen, on it or by it - they have more sense. But this is Northern Ireland – if you don't like the weather, wait fifteen minutes.

In fact it took twenty for the daily miracle to happen: the sun rose over Greyabbey – well named the place, so it is – and with that a flurry of charcoal wings, low and fast out of the indistinct horizon, and that unforgettable sound...

Of all geese, the brents have the sweetest voices. The new arrivals call to those already paddling in from their hidden roosts back in the saltmarsh. Together they merge into rafts of birds, stem-to-stern and head-to-wind. Last week there were a few hundreds. Today there are thousands.

I've already got my camera coupled to a Televue Ranger 90mm astro refractor. I hate using it for this – focusing is a nightmare, there's no depth of field worth talking about, and the whole set-up is optically snail-like at f8 on a good day – but nothing else in my kit will reach out the 500m to where the geese are starting to feed.

The species is Branta bernicla “hrota” - the pale-bellied race that breeds in the high Canadian Arctic, further north than any other of its kind. They have migrated almost 3000 miles by way of Greenland and then Iceland to spend the winter here in Ulster. It's estimated that 95% of the entire population returns to Strangford and Lough Foyle – a conservation challenge of epic proportions, for the dwarf eel-grass zostera noltii that they prefer grows almost nowhere else in any quantity, except - happy coincidence - the estuary of Afon Dyfi in Wales.

The tide is racing out now, exposing more than 40 hectares of mud flats. The geese follow it and so must I, round the shoreline to Castle Espie WWT where there are higher viewing points – and also hot coffee to be had. The mug goes down well and there's a chance to chat with the staff.

 What's the overall count on the Lough?

22,700 brent geese as of Friday – a good total with the peak month of October not yet reached. It looks like the birds have had a productive breeding season, unlike last year when numbers were down on average.

A few more shots from the shore hide. Curlew are in massed ranks at the edge of the saltmarsh, waiting for their particular cafeteria to open. A leavening of shelduck and wigeon have joined the geese, taking advantage of their vigilance. The sun is almost overhead now and it could even be called warm (with a little imagination).

Sunday afternoon visitors are pouring into the WWT centre, whooping and hollering, and I take the long route round the south perimeter of the reserve to avoid them, pausing only to wince at the recently-completed “Limekiln Observatory”: a well-intentioned but horribly misguided design that merges with the shoreline landscape like a fart in a diving suit.

But not even duff architecture can spoil this day: the geese are back and that's all that matters.


Ulster Wildlife Trust - Strangford Lough Campaign

Irish Brent Goose Research Group (Site)

Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust - Castle Espie

1 comment:

  1. Paul, what a picture you paint, some great photos too, never seen Brent Geese. Gorgeous.