Formation flying of the feathered variety


One day last week, whilst out enjoying some welcome autumnal sunshine, I heard a primeval sound which never fails to stir the blood.

I knew what it was immediately, but I had to scan the sky for several minutes before I could actually see the source of the chorus of honks and barks.

Flying in their familiar ‘V’ formation was a skein of geese, heading west.

Not being too confident in identifying the species from that distance, I would guess from the barking call and the general direction, that they would probably have been barnacle geese, making for their wintering grounds at Caerlaverock, on the Solway Firth.

Latest figures show that around 31,000 barnacle geese over-winter at this site and all come from Spitsbergen, inside the Arctic Circle.

It is incredible to think that in 1946, a mere 500 birds were found wintering on the Solway.

A ban on shooting in 1954 and the creation of the National Nature Reserve at Caerlaverock two years later, combined to ensure the dramatic increase in population, which soon followed.

They start to arrive in late September and stay for around four months, during which time they feed on grasses on the saltmarsh, pastures and barley stubble fields.

Anyone with even the remotest interest in bird watching should spend a day at Caerlaverock. It is only about an hour and a half’s drive from the Borders and it provides a great opportunity, not just to see these vast numbers of geese, but to observe other wildfowl species at close quarters, from comfortable, heated observation hides.

Bewick, whooper and mute swan, widgeon, tufted duck, mallard, coot, moorhen etc, all come well within photographing distance, at feeding times.

Further out, from the outlying hides, many species of wader can be seen feeding, with the help of binoculars or a telescope, and now and again a predator, such as peregrine, may pop in for a meal.

While you’re at it, if you are there from next month onwards why not make a short detour on the way home to try to see the amazing annual spectacle of the starling murmuration at Gretna around dusk.

Nearer home at the weekend, my monthly round of local lochs to count the wildfowl yielded no surprises, but all three lochs still held family groups of mute swans, which will split up once the breeding season approaches.