Waking up on a frosty November morning does little to stir me from the warmth of my duvet and I would much prefer to remain under its protection than face the harsh reality of winter. Like most mammals in the UK, humans don’t hibernate during these colder months, although given the option I might seriously think about it. But as much as I dislike the winter here, for some animals the shores and countryside of Britain offer a respite from even colder climes.
From the central lowlands of Iceland and eastern Greenland, colonies of pink-footed geese have begun to make their way to Britain’s shorelines. Cutting Arctic winds sweep across the open tundra and glacial ridges where these birds nest and by mid-November as many as 300,000 pink-footed geese will have left their breeding grounds to overwinter in our slightly less formidable landscape. However, their thousand mile journey across the north Atlantic journey is not without its own hazards and by the time the geese arrive their weary bodies are ready to rest and refuel. In their Arctic homelands pink-footed geese feed on short grass and tundra vegetation but it is carbohydrate rich sugar beet crops that brings the pinkies to north Norfolk each winter. This particular crop is very high in calories and the geese will consume large quantities in order to bulk up for the journey home in the spring.
Pink-footed geese are best known for their iconic V shaped flying formation. Scientific research has shown this flight pattern to be the most efficient way to fly and it also allows the geese to stay in visual contact with each other. Flying wing tip to wing tip allows each bird to benefit from the uplift created by the bird in front and reduces drag, similar to a team of cyclists who ride behind each other. However, it’s not much fun for the bird in front who is doing all the hard work and so like the cyclists, the birds take turns as the lead. In addition, the geese constantly call to each other during flight. Calls are timed to synchronise with the birds’ wingbeats which not only sets the pace but also enables any bird lagging behind to catch up with the rest of the skein.
Pink-footed geese are highly sociable birds and once established on their overwintering grounds tend to remain in close-knit flocks flying to and from overnight roosts and feeding together in family groups. In Norfolk, large numbers roost on The Wash close to the RSPB reserve at Snettisham. At first light they take to the skies in search of fields of winter stubble and the much-loved sugar beet only returning as dusk falls and the threat of predators looms. Each winter, visitors come to Snettisham reserve to witness this amazing spectacle and despite the chill on a crisp winter’s morning, the sight and sound of pinkies flying against a watery orange sky is one thing that I will happy leave my duvet for. Standing on the shores of the reserve and listening to the melodic ‘wink-wink’ call of hundreds of geese flying overhead is definitely worth getting up early for.
On selected dates during November, December and January we are holding a number of special morning walks to witness the ‘flight of the pinkies’. Join our knowledgeable guides at Snettisham reserve for this winter wonder and conclude your experience with a hot and hearty full English breakfast.
Full details can be found at www.rspb.org.uk/snettisham