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.
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 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.
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.