Pink-Footed Goose (Anser brachyrhynchus): Herald of the winter months.
'UNK-UNK' 'WINK-WINK', 'UNK-UNK' 'WINK-WINK'. It is a familiar, high-pitched call, one that has the knowing naturalist living in north-western Norfolk (and most recently eastern Norfolk), craning his or her neck upwards and searching the skies to catch a glimpse of the pink-footed geese passing overhead. These grey geese, close relatives of the larger bean goose, make their winter home in the county and most certainly add a special ingredient to the countryside with their rambunctious personality. Depending on the time of year will determine how many geese are seen at any one time, but once the first skeins of the autumn have arrived, normally during late September, one of the great wildlife spectacles of the year is imminent.
They will have returned from their breeding grounds in the North -- for the Norfolk geese this is normally Iceland and eastern Greenland -- and will be waiting for the first sugar beet harvests of the year to refuel tired and hungry bodies after their exhausting migration. It is not unusual for nearly half of the world's population of pink-footed geese to spend the winter in Norfolk -- over 100,000 birds in some years -- and it is quite possible to view feeding flocks of 10,000 or more in the largest fields where disturbance is at a minimum. The sugar beet stubble is their main reason for coming to Norfolk, with the leafy tops and energy-rich roots, discarded during the harvest, providing all of the calories they need to make it through our relatively mild winter and bulk-up for the journey home. It is not all easy feeding however, for the early September arrivals have to make do with scavenging amongst the late summer's remaining cereal stubbles before the 'beet-crop' begins to be lifted.
It is easy to mistakenly think that finding several thousand grey geese feeding amongst the ochreous, rusted hues of Norfolk's winter fields is easy, a simple task of wandering around for a short while until they just 'turn-up'. The truth is very different. Although the pink-foots are here in internationally important numbers, they easily disappear into the arable abyss and it can be a time consuming and exhaustive occupation locating a suitable place where they can be observed without disruption: many thousands of keen eyes will detect even a skilled naturalist. By far the most reliable way to observe the geese is to be close by a favoured roosting location at either dawn or dusk. To see wave after repeat-wave of geese skeins arriving in V-formation against the dimming, pastel toned evening skies or departing on a misty morning is ample reward for a chilly vigil. The Holkham Marshes National Nature Reserve or the Wells and Warham salt marshes are established and favourite roosting sites of the geese, although it is best to avoid clear nights several days either side of the full moon when the bird's movements are difficult to predict.
Only the hungriest pink-footed goose will stomach fresh sugar beet stubbles. Their strong preference is to leave the tops to weather for several days, perhaps allowing the wind and frost to 'knock' the starch out of the vegetable, making it easier to digest.
The pink-foot is one of the fourteen species of true geese in the world, of the genera Anser, all of which have a distinct preference for breeding in the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions, although interestingly, each species seems to keep its distance from another, with defined and isolated breeding grounds in territories far from civilisation and disturbance. Once arrived at these favoured places, nesting begins in late May, when the goose plucks down from her own breast to line a shallow scrape in the tundra, where she will lay her eggs. The gander, taking no part in housekeeping duties, stands guard over his mate and future progeny. Once returned to Norfolk, it is possible to observe the new families gathering amongst the fields of sugar beet stubble, with clans of several generations feeding in close proximity to one another. Since the family bond is so strong, the gander can frequently be observed with a bowed head, hissing and shooing away interlopers with a determined vigour, much as a farmyard goose will confront an errant rambler.
Untroubled by winter blizzards, a flock of pink-footed geese raise their collective heads to keep an eye out for unseen danger hidden behind the driven snow.
In the warm glow of the low-lying winter sun, a large flock of pink-footed geese wander back-and-forth in front of recently harvested sugar beet. The vegetable provides essential fuel for the geese as they bolster fat reserves in readiness for a return flight back to their northern breeding grounds.
With a rasping, side-ways action, an adult goose tucks into a sugar beet root frozen hard into the ground. The tops, left-over from the annual harvest, contain lots of energy-rich starch. The geese prefer to consume the tops after they have mellowed during several days' worth of frosts.
It is not unusual for nearly half the World's population of pink-footed geese to winter in Norfolk -- over 100,000 birds -- and it is quite possible to view feeding flocks of 10,000 or more in the largest fields...