A CT Scan

A Siemens CT Scanner

Dear Readers, as you might remember I have had a persistent cough since November last year, and a week ago I was finally persuaded to go to the doctor. Being the responsible person that she is, she has sent me for a battery of blood tests and other procedures just to check that my lungs and throat are ok (I’ve been having trouble with my voice as well). Well, on Friday I went for my first ever CT scan, so I thought I’d share the experience with you in case you have to have one at any point. Plus, since I’m doing a science degree I was fascinated with what was going on, which I find is a great help with all this medical stuff – knowledge helps to alleviate at least some of the anxiety, for me at least.

So, first up, what exactly is a CT scan? The CT stands for computed tomography (it used to be computed axial tomography, hence CAT scan, which I like better). It is basically an X-ray, but the X-ray tube rotates to give ‘slices’ of the body, which can then be put together by computer to form a 3-D picture of what’s going on inside the body. You can see some examples of the sorts of images produced here. It takes a skilled technician to identify areas of concern.

A CT scan is similar to an MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scan, but a CT scan can be used if you have a pacemaker or metallic implant. The CT scan is used to detect a variety of abnormalities, from cancer to emphysema and fibrosis, conditions which can’t be picked up on a normal X-ray.

One downside to CT scans is, of course, that you’re subjected to radiation, and rather more than you would be for a normal chest X-ray. However, as you get older the risk gets less (radiation-induced tumours often take many decades to develop). As this is the first one that I’ve ever had, and as it would be kind of good to know if I do have anything serious, I decided that it was worth the tiny risk.

Now, because my doctor has put me on the two-week referral list (just in case) my appointments have come through in advance of any details of what was going to happen, so let me just run through how it was for me, in case anyone hasn’t had a CT scan. First up, don’t wear any necklaces or underwired bras as you’ll need to take them off prior to the scan, though you can keep all your clothes on (no embarrassing open-backed hospital gowns). Secondly, be aware that you might need to be injected with an iodine-based dye to help with the resolution of the images  – I was told that when the dye was injected, I would feel hot and might feel as if I wanted to pee. This was all very exciting.

I was asked to lay on the bed with my feet towards what I think of as ‘the magic arch’ in the photo above. Then my first-ever cannula was stuck into a vein on my right wrist, and as I’m 63 years old I count myself extremely lucky that I haven’t had to have one before. However, it was no more painful than a usual blood extraction. Then I was asked to put my hands above my head, and everyone went off and left me.

For the CT scan itself,  the bed moves under the ‘magic arch’ where the X-ray machine is, and a kindly female voice from the machine tells you to breathe in and hold, and then breath normally. I thought I could also hear my heart beating, so presumably that’s being monitored from somewhere or other. Then, the voice of the technician came through, telling me he was going to inject the dye via the cannula. He was absolutely right! For a moment there was nothing, but then there was a feeling of intense heat in my abdomen and, yes, an urge to pee (which I didn’t indulge). It only lasted a second, then there were one or two more rounds of breathing in and holding and breathing normally as requested, and then it was all done, and I was gathering up my belongings and heading home on the 263 bus.

So, I should get the results in about ten days time, just before Easter. I am honestly not expecting anything bad to come out of this – I’m 90% sure this is just some kind of post-viral nonsense, but I am very glad that my doctor is checking it out, if only because some of the people who care about me are very anxious. And if you are called for a CT scan, be aware that it’s nothing to worry about. Just leave your bra off 🙂 and leave the tiara and medallions at home.



Old Bugwoman’s Almanac – April Updated

Two April nuthatches in Coldfall Wood

Dear Readers, how can it possibly be almost April already? But judging by all the goings on in the garden, it definitely is. My frogs are delayed this year, so the frogspawn has only just arrived, but in ponds up and down the country tadpoles are already appearing. This is a wonderful, blowsy, blustery month when you never know what’s going on from one day to the next. Plus, here in the UK, the clocks went forwards at 1 a.m. this morning, which means it will be lighter in the evening but darker in the morning. Still, an hour’s lost sleep is a small price to pay for all the plants that will be flowering and the migrants that will be arriving this month. 

So, here is Old Bugwoman’s Almanac for April. Let me know if you have anything planned locally and I’ll pop it into the list below. 

Dear Readers, April is when everything really kicks off in the natural world – birds are singing and nestbuilding and raising their youngsters, the woods are full of spring ephemerals, the nights are shorter and even us oldies have a surprising bounce in our step. So let’s see what the month should have in store for us here in the Northern Hemisphere.

Things to Do

  • An exhibition by Slovak artist Maria Bartuszová runs at Tate Modern until 16th April – she is inspired by the natural world and produces delicate plaster sculptures inspired by everything from seeds to raindrops. Well worth a look.
  • Camley Street Natural Park is running two family weekends in April, on Sunday 9th and Sunday 23rd April from 1.00 p.m to 4 p.m. Both are free, and you don’t need to book. Pond-dipping seems to be involved! Camley Street punches well above its weight in terms of biodiversity and interest, and there’s a splendid café, which also helps
  • A walk in any of the Royal Parks should be rewarding in April, as the trees come into blossom and the bulbs put on a show.
  • Kew is spectacular at any time, but spring is really something. Plus, they are running a one-day course called ‘Right Plant, Right Place’ on 4th April which sounds very interesting.
  • Bluebells! There are several places around London to spot them, including the Isabella Plantation in Richmond Park, Wanstead Park in East London, Eltham Palace Gardens and good old Highgate Wood, which is just around the corner from me. I just hope that the bulbs survived the Covid trampling.
  • The London Natural History free virtual talk this month is on ‘The Marine World’ by expert Dr Francis Dipper, and you can book here.

Plants for Pollinators

Apple blossom is the RHS’s suggested key plant for pollinators this month, and the bee to watch out for is the red mason bee, a small bee that nests in crumbling masonry and holes in bricks, along with bee hotels. This species is very important for the pollination of orchard fruit.

Red mason bee (Osmia bicornis/rufa)

Other suggested plants for April include Phacelia, Aquilegia (Granny’s Bonnet), Bugle, Wood spurge, Berberis and Cherry.

Bird Behaviour

  • The dawn chorus (and indeed, singing throughout the day) is in full swing now – it’s been estimated that for many species, such as blackbirds, a break in this territorial singing of more than a day will result in another as yet unpaired blackbird taking over the territory. I was a bit rude about the male wren yesterday, but of course losing the territory holder can be disastrous for females already with eggs or chicks, as in some species the youngsters will be killed by any incoming males, and in others the female relies on the male to provision her during incubation and chick rearing.
  • Many hole-nesting birds, such as stock doves, the nuthatches in the photo at the top of the post and ring-necked parakeets will be competing for hollow trees, often with a lot of shrieking and general carry-on.
  • Great Spotted Woodpeckers will be drumming – this isn’t about excavating a nest, it’s all about announcing territory.
  • Listen out for the chiffchaff. These inconspicuous little warblers are amongst the first migrants to arrive, probably because it’s only travelling from the Mediterranean rather than Africa, and soon the countryside will be ringing with their repetitive songs.
  • The first swallows should arrive early in April, with the House Martins appearing towards the end of the month.
  • Blackcaps, whitethroats, yellow wagtails and cuckoos can all be seen towards the end of the month if the weather is favourable. Of course, some blackcaps are now choosing to stay put (there are a pair in my garden as I write this), so they won’t all have travelled a long way, but their song is always such a joy.

Just in case you’re missing April birdsong, here are a few to listen out for later in the year.

First up, the chiffchaff (Recording by Michel Veldt in the Netherlands)

Next up, the blackcap. What a lovely song this is! The recording is by Ulf Elman in Sweden.

And finally, here’s a common whitethroat, again recorded by Michel Veldt.

I wish I had a better ear for birdsong – I find the warblers generally very tricky to tell apart, except for the simple song of the chiffchaff. Do let me know how you do it, if you are able to differentiate between the different species in the field! For me, it’s a kind of superpower.

Plants in Flower

All the spring ephemerals should be out by now – crocuses, lesser celandine, wood anemone, bluebells (which will continue until May in a good year) and primroses and oxlips. Cow parsley, garlic mustard, blackthorn, wayfaring tree, three-cornered garlic and ramsons, alexanders and hawthorn, stinking iris and grape hyacinth, forget-me-not and marsh marigold should all be in flower, if previous years are any guide.

Other Things to Watch/Listen Out For

  • Tadpoles should be numerous by now, and if you are lucky enough to have newts in your pond you may see them courting, the males whipping their tails backwards and forwards
  • Brimstone and orange-tip butterflies are around, plus speckled woods and peacock butterflies emerging from hibernation
  • Fox cubs are just emerging from their den, so if you are extremely lucky and know where an earth is, you might catch sight of them sunning themselves or playing.
  • Full moon is on 6th April, and is known as the Seed Moon, the Budding Moon or the New Shoots Moon. It’s also known as the Paschal Moon, and in the Christian calendar, Easter Sunday is the first Sunday after the Paschal Moon. So, in 2023, Easter Sunday will be Sunday 9th April.

Holidays and Celebrations

  • Passover begins at sundown on April 5th
  • 9th April is Christian Easter Sunday
  • 14th April is St Tiburtius’s Day, and is officially when cuckoos start singing, so keep your ears open!
  • 16th April – Orthodox Easter Sunday
  • 21st April – Eid al-Fitr (Islamic celebration of the end of Ramadan) starts on the first sighting of the crescent moon.
  • 23rd April – the start of the English asparagus season. Hooray!


Red List – Nineteen – Grasshopper Warbler

Grasshopper Warbler (Locustella naevia) Photo By Dr. Raju Kasambe – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37252857

Dear Readers, the grasshopper warblers will soon be arriving in the UK (if they’re not here already), but it’s likely that you’ve never seen one unless you are a very dedicated birdwatcher – these are extremely shy, cryptically coloured birds, quintessential ‘little brown jobs’. You might well have heard one, though, without realising it, because this bird isn’t named after a susurrating insect for nothing. This recording is from the Netherlands, by Michel Veldt.

Listening to the song makes me wonder just how much energy this small bird must use to call at this intensity for such a long time. It’s astonishing. The bird can keep up this call for two to three minutes without so much as pausing for breath. My Crossley Guide describes it as a ‘fast reeling trill (actually 26 double notes per second) on constant pitch – it also sounds like a cyclist freewheeling‘.  It’s all the more surprising that the bird can keep this up when you consider that grasshopper warblers have already flown all the way from north and west Africa.

Furthermore, the male displays by running along twigs with his wings and tail spread, often carrying a twig or leaf in his beak as an added incentive. The nest is built low to the ground in reedbeds or other dense foliage, and herein lies one reason for their drastic decline over the past few decades – wetlands are drained, water is polluted, and as the birds are insectivorous there is also the decline in insect populations to consider. Both parents incubate and rear the nestlings here in the UK before the whole family flies south again for the winter, and fortunately overall the species is doing well, with a range that encompasses much of temperate Europe and Central Asia. As we’ve seen time and time again, it is the UK that is losing (and has lost) much of its wildlife. In the words of beloved David Attenborough, we are the most nature-depleted country in Europe.

Male grasshopper warbler displaying (Photo by Paul Brady from https://community.rspb.org.uk/placestovisit/deeestuary/m/deeestuary-mediagallery/500592)

The song of the grasshopper warbler is at exactly the frequency of sound that we tend to lose the ability to hear as we get older. And so, here’s a second excerpt for those of us who still can hear it. How sad it would be if even those with young ears weren’t able to hear this strange summer sound, because the bird that makes it no longer visits us? This excerpt was recorded by Irish Wildlife Sounds on Cahore Marsh in Ireland.

A Blustery Day at Walthamstow Wetlands

Dear Readers, does anything dance quite like a weeping willow? There weren’t many people at Walthamstow Wetlands today, what with the threat of rain and the windy weather, but the path between reservoirs 2 and 4 was open (it’s often close to protect nesting birds), and the willows were covered in catkins.

I love the way that the stems blow in the wind. The trees remind me a bit of great green mammoths.

Weeping willows love water, and so often they’re planted in the wrong place – they can take over a damp garden, sucking up the groundwater and causing all sorts of urban problems. But here, they are in their element, and  these are majestic specimens, each one with its own character.

I was walking with a friend who is laden with many troubles, but these trees stopped both of us in our tracks. For a few moments, both of us were speechless (which is unusual for us, believe me). This is what the natural world can do – it somehow reaches through our cares and worries, and shows us something else, something that is timeless and that shows us that life carries on even when our own worlds are falling apart.

Further along the path, we see an island where the cormorants are nesting. Again, this part of the reserve is cut off for much of the year.

Look at those enormous nests! Interestingly, until 1981, cormorants were almost exclusively coastal breeders. Then, a small population were found nesting in the trees at a site in Essex, and since then they’ve expanded their range across many sites in southern England. Coastal populations tend to have all their chicks at the same time, presumably to overwhelm predators so that at least some survive. At sites such as Walthamstow Wetlands, however, the breeding season is much more spread out, as predation is less of a risk (probably one reason for choosing an island site, where there’s less danger from foxes and cats) but availability of food might be more of a problem, so it makes sense for the nestlings to be at different stages of development.

Judging by the size of the nests, I’d say that they’re built up over a period of years. In very dense nesting sites, the volume of droppings can be a problem – eventually, the chemicals in the guano can kill the nesting trees. Maybe some enterprising person could harvest it for fertiliser once the nesting season is over.

Anyhow, at this point it started to rain in earnest, and so we retraced our steps and headed home, slightly damp but definitely refreshed. I can’t wait to visit again!

There is No Such Thing as Too Many Frogs

Goodness, Readers, I hope you aren’t sick of the sight of frogs yet, because this really is a bumper year as you can see from the volume of frogspawn. Someone asked me earlier how many adult frogs I was expecting from all those eggs, but the sad story is that from each blob, probably only one or two will survive to adulthood – between the dragonfly larvae and other insects that prey on the tadpoles and developing eggs, plus the other dangers that are inherent in being a small, defenceless animal with literally no way of protecting yourself, most will never get out of the pond. On the other hand, if they all did survive I would end up waste-deep in froggies, so maybe nature knows best.

They are all croaking away, but there’s too much background noise to hear them, sadly. You’ll just have to take my word for it.

And in a few short days most of the adults will have disappeared, and then the eggs will hatch. This time really is a marker of spring for me, along with the clocks going forward for us in the UK on Saturday. The days are getting longer, and I couldn’t be more delighted.


Exciting Times in East Finchley

Dear Readers, there have been a number of developments in East Finchley which aim to improve the local environment, and to provide both the human and animal members of the community with something to enjoy. First up is the Leopold Road Neighbourhood Garden, which has been built in an unloved spot, and which now provides seating, plants for pollinators and a very fine bug hotel.

This is the area as it was prior to the redesign.

There’s now a fine mural, some nice new benches and some excellent brickwork.

And a lot of plants that will provide nectar and pollen for pollinators and other insects, with hellebores and cyclamen in flower now, and what looks like a mimosa just about to burst into bloom.

There’s a super-sized bug hotel made out of pallets, and some mahonia for winter nectar and berries for birds.

There’s also an information board, explaining the history of the area ( there was a pig market held in The Market Place just around the corner, with animals driven from far and wide). I love that this was a collaboration between local people and the council, and it is just the kind of ‘pocket park’ that can make all the difference.

In Market Place itself, The Friends of Market Place Playground (now part of the East Finchley Community Trust) have been working to improve the small park and children’s playground – it was a dangerous, litter-strewn spot, with damaged play equipment and broken glass. This group has made a huge difference – when I passed there seemed to be new things for the children to play on, and some of the areas around the park had been tidied up and replanted. Sadly, there seems to be an ongoing problem with vandalism, but there were some small children enjoying themselves with their parents, and the cherry trees were in blossom. It used to seem such an abandoned and desolate spot, and now it feels as if it’s somewhere that people will actually use. The more people care about a space, the less likely it is to be damaged in my experience.

The park and playground at Market Place

Cherry blossom in the park

New planting with periwinkle at the edge of the playground

There are lots of other things going on in East Finchley too, one of which is happening on Church Lane, where some of the trees appear to have names. But more about this in the Wednesday Weed tomorrow….

Wednesday Weed – Desert Willow (Chitalpa)

Desert Willow (Chitalpa tashkentensis)

Oops! This should, of course, have gone out on Wednesday. Apologies for the double post!

Dear Readers, yesterday I mentioned that some street trees had appeared in Church Lane, East Finchley, which had been given names. Apparently these trees (known as Desert Willows or Chitalpa tashkentsis) appeared more or less overnight, to the delight of the local residents, who then decided to name them after local people. So, we have Eve, named for Eve Bagley, whose family have lived in Church Lane for 90 years…

‘Angela’ for one of the original residents of Cricket Row on Church Lane…

‘Ted’ for Eve’s late husband, who was a veteran sailor on the Arctic convoys to Russia during World War II…

‘Pauline’ for the mother of Lisa, one of the residents of Church Lane…

and Dominic for the son of Church Lane residents Gail and Barry.

What a lovely idea this is! I’m sure that these will be the best nurtured, most loved trees in East Finchley. We humans do love to connect, and if we manage to do that by seeing plants or animals as individuals (which of course they are), all the better.

What on earth is a desert willow though? Well, the Chitalpas are hybrids between two closely related plants – the original desert willow (Chilopsis linearis) and the northern catalpa (Catalpa speciosa).

The ‘original’ desert willow isn’t a willow at all (though the leaves look rather similar), but one look at the flowers would tell you that this is a much more exotic plant – it comes originally from Mexico and the southern parts of the USA. The flowers are pollinated by large bees such as bumblebees.

Desert Willow (Chilopsis linearia) Photo By Stan Shebs, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=174367

The other half of the partnership is the northern catalpa, which lives in a very small area of the midwestern United States.

Northern Catalpa (Catalpa speciosa) Photo By Famartin – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33470836

These two trees were hybridised by a botanist called A.Rusanov in the Botanic Gardens of Uzbekistan back in 1964. Although it looks very exotic, it’s not a bad choice as a street tree – it’s very drought-resistant and fast growing. I can’t wait for the flowers to appear. Let’s hope that they appeal to bumblebees in the same way that the parent plants do.

There are two forms of the plant – ‘Pink Dawn’ and ‘Morning Cloud’. It will be interesting to see which variety the Church Lane trees are.

Variety ‘Pink Dawn’ Photo By Frau Siebenschläfer – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15726811

Variety ‘Morning Cloud’ By Benny White – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6977091

In his book ‘London’s Street Trees’, Paul Wood calls Chitalpa ‘a street tree of the future’, so it’s interesting to see that it’s already turning up in East Finchley (and in some numbers too!). It’s always worth paying attention to the trees on our streets, they are often such an eclectic mix. To add a note of caution though, the International Dendrology Society suggests that Chitalpa is likely to be at the edge of its range in the UK, and that, without the long hot summers that its parent plants are used to, Chitalpa is always likely to be slightly unhappy. We shall have to see what happens, but fingers crossed! Although the one in the photo below is leaning out into the sunshine (as street trees so often have to to get enough light), it also looks very lush and green. The ones in Church Lane will not be overshadowed, so I have every hope that they will do better.

Photo by Owen Johnson of a leaning Chitalpa in London in August 2018 (see link above)



At Last

Dear Readers, I spotted my first frogs in the pond several weeks ago, but since then we’ve had a cold snap, and everything has gone very quiet. Today, however, was mild, and it’s fair to say that amphibian season has well and truly kicked off. Have a look at the little film below.

Every year this feels like a little miracle to me. Frogs arrived within a week of our putting in the pond, goodness only knows where they’d been until then because I don’t know of any other neighbourhood ponds. Frogs are such mysterious animals – what do they get up to once they leave the pond? Where do they hang out? A few adults seem to linger on every year, but the concentrations that I see in the spring are soon gone, replaced by tadpoles and then tiny frogs. I know that lots hibernate at the bottom of the pond, but how about for the rest of the year? Anyhow, I know that they eat lots of slugs (at least in theory) so I’m very pleased to welcome them every year. There’s something about those hopeful faces that I find very endearing.

And if you look closely at the photo below (just to the right of the frog), you’ll see the first blob of frogspawn.

In other news, there are still plenty of squirrels. Look at this one, pretending to be a lion at a waterhole in the Serengeti…

If s/he was holding a baby in her arms I could almost hear ‘The Circle of Life’ playing in the background…

And finally, further to my wish list of birds yesterday, I just want to point out how much I appreciate my regular visitors. The starlings really are at the peak of plumage perfection at the moment, and it’s easy to forget how handsome they are. Look at the extraordinary range of colours on the back of this male bird. And to continue the Serengeti theme, does anyone else think that the knot in the trunk to the left looks like an elephant’s eye?

And how do I know that this bird is a male? Because the base of his beak is pale blue (in the females it’s pink-ish). Very handy that they are colour-coded, eh.

Male to the left (blue tinge to base of bill)

There didn’t seem to be any females about – maybe they’re already nesting and incubating? How exciting this time of year is. I can’t wait to see what happens next.


A Bit of a Wish List


Dear Readers, after the appearance of my 36th bird species last week, I am left wondering about which birds I would love to see in the garden, but never have. I am also pondering why this might be the case. For example, Coldfall Wood is just around the corner and is positively heaving with nuthatches, yet I have never seen them in the garden, although the great spotted woodpeckers regularly make the trip. Maybe the nuthatches have everything that they need, so why would they  move?

And here’s another bird that many people are blessed with, but that I have never been lucky enough to have as a visitor – the bullfinch.

Bullfinch (Pyrrhula pyrrhula) Photo By © Francis C. Franklin / CC-BY-SA-3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37675952

This lovely peachy-pink bird is not rare, and you’d think it would be pretty visible, but if it’s ever popped in I’ve never noticed it. My Crossley Guide mentions that it is now ‘a regular at garden feeders’. If you hear a distant wailing sound, that will be me.Then there’s this bird – it lives in ‘deciduous damp woodland’ (of which there is plenty again in Coldfall Wood) and you’d think that it might occasionally drop in, but not so far. This is the marsh tit, which as the Crossley Guide points out is one of the ‘worst-named British birds, not found in marshes at all’.

Marsh tit (Parus palustris) Photo By Sławek Staszczuk (photoss [AT] hotmail.co.uk), CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1550036

Moving on, this bird is definitely on my wish-list, but I am not holding out much hope, though a pair  were, again, heard in Coldfall Wood. If I saw a lesser spotted woodpecker in the garden I think you’d hear the cheers from space.

Lesser spotted woodpecker (Picoides minor) Photo By Thermos – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1837011

And then there’s this one, the turtle dove. Some people do see them in their gardens, but this bird (like the lesser spotted woodpecker) is a Red List species. Would one pay a visit to a little suburban garden? Who knows. As I’ve said before, when you try to create a garden for wildlife, you never know who will turn up. After all, I didn’t expect the grey heron either.

Turtle Dove (Streptopelia turtur) Photo By Charles J. Sharp – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=122770143

And finally, this is my dream bird (well, in terms of what could possibly turn up). There are tawny owls in St Pancras and Islington cemetery and Coldfall Wood, I have a tall tree, and they would be extremely welcome (though the magpies might be less impressed). But hey, I can dream. And if all else fails, you can hear them tu-whit tu-whooing if you’re in Coldfall as night falls, and sometimes it’s enough to know that an animal is still around and living its life.

Tawny Owlets (Strix aluco) Photo By photo taken by Artur Mikołajewski – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=176924

So, this is the dream wish list, but in truth I am delighted with whoever shows up – even the commonest birds, the ones we take for granted, can amaze us if we pay attention. Is there a bird that you think should have shown up in your garden, one that you know is around, but which never puts in an appearance? Let us know, and we can commiserate together (and celebrate our good fortune in having a garden at all when so many people don’t).

Red List Eighteen – White-fronted Goose

White-fronted goose (Anser albifrons). Photo By Ryanx7 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=72020641

Dear Readers, this bird doesn’t breed in the UK, but it is a winter visitor, and it’s Red listed because the numbers that visit are declining. So, what is going on? There are two distinct populations of white-fronted goose who visit us: in Ireland and western Scotland, the winter sees the arrival of ‘Greenland’ white-fronts, while in the east and south of England, we are visited by birds from the steppes of Russia. Both these populations have been affected by climate change, but in very different ways.

The Greenland birds visit us in the winter, spend time in Iceland in autumn and spring, and then head to Greenland to lay their eggs and raise their young, a window of only three months. However, the rising temperature of the North Atlantic means that these birds now sometimes arrive in Greenland to heavy snow – previously, the snow wouldn’t come until the birds had laid their eggs and were incubating them, before melting away when the goslings were old enough to start foraging. The earlier snow means that, just when the birds should start feeding up so that they had energy stores to take them through the exhausting business of egg-laying, their food was buried. Many birds are too skinny to reproduce, and the overall effect is that there aren’t enough young birds to replace the old ones. The Greenland population is therefore out of sync with the climate cycle of the region, which doesn’t bode well for the future of these birds.

Greenland race of the white-fronted goose (Photo By Rhododendrites – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=99843358)

For the Russian birds, the story is brighter. Again, there has been a decline in the number of birds reaching the UK but this is largely because the birds are ‘short-stopping’ – the winters are generally milder in Continental Europe now, so the birds stay there instead of using energy to push on to our shores. This is the case with a lot of bird species now, and just adds to our sorry state of ‘nature-depletion’.

White-fronted geese in flight (Photo by By Frank Schulenburg – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=95901578)

White-fronted geese can be found pretty much all over the northern hemisphere, so you can find these birds in North America too. There, they are known as ‘greater white-fronted geese’ to distinguish them from the ‘lesser white-fronted goose (Anser erythropus). I love that the greater white-fronted goose is also known as the ‘specklebelly’ in the USA. The white-fronted goose can be distinguished from the larger and commoner greylag goose because the white-front has that white band at the top of the bill, and also has orange legs, compared to the greylag’s pink ones.

My Crossley ID guide describes the call of the white-fronted goose as ‘disyllabic, with yelping, laughing quality. See what you think. This was recorded by Stanislas Wroza close to Strasbourg in France.

A famous flock of white-fronted geese were part of the inspiration for Sir Peter Scott to found the Wildlife and Wetlands Trust – they used to arrive at Slimbridge, now a reserve in Gloucestershire. Sometimes the white-fronts have one of the much rarer lesser white-fronted geese with them – these geese really are small, barely larger than a mallard. Slimbridge is still a wonderful place to watch waterfowl of all kinds. Lesser white-fronted geese are considered to be an endangered species across their range.

Lesser white-fronted goose (Anser erythropus)

By now, many white-fronted geese will already have departed, en route to their breeding grounds in the east or the west. Let’s hope that conditions in Greenland are good for the western birds, and that the eastern birds arrive without being shot out of the sky. They are relatively mannerly geese, compared to the assertiveness (ahem) of the greylag goose, who will snatch a croissant from your hand without so much as a by-your-leave. And we could all do with a bit more gallantry in our lives, I’m sure.

Crossley Guide illustration of white-fronted geese – European (Russian) subspecies are the two large birds on the left, the Greenland birds are the two large birds on the right)