Thursday, 12 January 2012

Reasons to be cheerful part two ...

Today it's hanging out the washing on a clear winter morning. The sheets tugging and snapping in the breeze; damp, clean laundry smells; warm hands but cold fingers fumbling with wooden pegs. Best of all, the sound of pink-footed geese passing overhead. Looking up to see hundreds (sometimes thousands) of them moving in constantly changing waves and curves across the sky.

They are mostly heading west in the mornings. That's because Ashfield sits in the middle of Strathallan. Just a few miles east of the village are the Carsebreck and Rhynd Lochs, part of the South Tayside Goose Roosts Special Protection Area (SPA). The strath is an avian motorway for the birds, heading west to feed on the stubble fields of the Carse of Stirling, or east to the wet pastures by the estuaries of the Tay and Forth.

Scotland holds over 50% of the world population of these dainty geese in the winter. Our geese are mostly from Iceland, though others breed in Greenland and Spitsbergen.There are now also significant numbers in England - especially in Lancashire and Norfolk. Though we call them pink-footed geese their scientific name, Anser brachyrynchus, actually means 'small-billed goose'. Since the very similar greylag goose (unhelpfully called Anser anser - goose goose) also has pink feet it's worth remembering that if you're trying to tell them apart. Greylags have big orange-pink conks, pink-foots dainty black and pink ones. If you listen carefully you can tell them apart from their flight calls too - pinkies have a vaguely two-syllable call 'wink-wink', greylags are more raucous and barky. I can tell you this with confidence because my other half, who's a far better birder than I am, says so - but I'm still never quite so sure which is which!

The geese are here from October to April. Numbers have increased eight-fold in the last sixty years thanks both to changes in the law in the 1970s banning the sale of wild geese, and their own adaptability. The birds have widened their diet, particularly in Norfolk, to make the most of new winter crops like sugar beet. So now there are many more places in the UK where hanging out the washing in winter can give you a reason to be cheerful!

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