Thursday, 2 February 2012

Wild goose chase

I’m sorry about the title. It was too good to miss.

It’s amazing that I have made it so far into 2012 without birding with DTH. He’s my oldest birding friend, my biology teacher, my nature-mentor, and the one who taught me everything I know. He taught me the sad wail of the grey plover over an icy saltmarsh, he taught me the cheery chirrup of the field grasshopper on a sunburnt bank, and he taught me the cucumbery-bittery taste of salad burnet on a chalky slope. It is because of him that I am a naturalist, and it is because of his nurturing of us all that I have the group of birding friends I have.

Today DTH and I struck for the Broads. Taiga bean geese are my favourites of our winter geese – elegant, understated and faithful to their patch of wind-bashed grassland in the Yare – so every year I try to pay them a visit. With them now for a second winter is a lesser white-front. Am I allowed another favourite? I rather like lesser white-fronts too. It’s the rarity, of course, but also the sweet, slightly smiling face and the expression of mild surprise at how beautiful the world is.

Yes, I like lesser white-fronts too. Well, if I’m honest I’m a sucker for geese, which is good if you live in Norfolk. I love the Slavic purr of the Russian brents and the high cackle of the pinks over my house. I love the happy whooping of the Canadas when winter is done and thoughts turn to yellow-gold chicks and I love the nose-blocked mutterings of the disgruntled greylags. I love geese, but the two we saw today are perhaps my favourites of all.

As we walked onto the frozen Buckenham marshes three sponge-cake-coloured Chinese water deer trotted through a thick patch of rushes. I am also a fan of these unique and thoroughly endearing deer and admire them for having done something rather clever: they’ve settled in the UK without anyone writing to the Telegraph to say they should all be slain. I’m certainly no advocate of introducing exotic species, anywhere, ever, but I do feel sorry for wild creatures who, through our hubris and clumsiness alone, have made a life here and are consequently the target of our scorn, our ire and our bullets.

This said, I don’t go so far as the great, big-hearted and much-lamented, Roger Deakin:

This was just the sort of haunt that would have appealed to the animal I miss most on this river: the coypu. […] The last coypu on the Waveney was martyred like Hereward the Wake in some reedy outpost of the marshes in 1989. There used to be plenty of them pottering about incautiously along the river. I saw my last one in July 1986, preening itself on the banks of a stream at Thornham Magna in the headwaters near Eye. I also met several on canoe trips down the Waveney. Like mink, these harmless vegans originally escaped from fur farms. They are a native of South America, and probably suffered from some of the same animal racism now directed at the mink.

Roger Deakin
Waterlog, A Swimmer’s Journey through Britain

By the time we found the geese, we were exceedingly cold and were wondering how much longer we could stand to be out. The taiga beans were, as so often at Buckenham and Cantley, very far away and, trickily enough for us, they were in the company of several European white-fronts. Nonetheless, peering through the ‘scope with wind-watery eyes, we finally found a single smaller, darker white-front with a round head, a tiny bill and a big white blaze. Success and smiles and delicious hot soup for lunch.

Here’s my story; the stag cries,
Winter snarls as summer dies.

The wind bullies the low sun
In poor light; the seas moan.

Shapeless bracken is turning red,
The wildgoose raises its desperate head.

Birds’ wings freeze where fields are hoary.
The world is ice. That’s my story.

My Story
Anonymous, translated from Gaelic by Brendan Kennelly


Chinese water deer
Hydropotes inermis


taiga bean goose
Anser fabalis fabalis
lesser white-fronted goose
Anser erythropus

2012 Totals
Mammals: 10
Birds: 119
Reptiles: 0
Amphibians: 0
Fish: 0

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