Monday 11 November 2013

Sitting on the bog..

This week I seem to have spent a lot of time lying down on a bog in the dark trying to establish where my white-fronted geese are going to bed. And white-fronts like nothing more than a nice wet bog to sleep in. Maybe all the Sphagnum moss makes a comfy mattress? Watching their bedtime movements isn’t quite as creepy as it sounds. Nor, as it turns out, as easy. 
White-front roost habitat. With the Opera rocks behind

You might ask why bother? Firstly, it’s good to work out where the birds are roosting, simply because a safe roost site plays an important part in the bird’s survival throughout the winter. By knowing the location of roosts and having an idea of the numbers of birds using each site, we can ensure they are protected, remain undisturbed and appropriately managed. This has been done before, about 20 years ago – the problem is the white-front population here on Islay has changed dramatically in that time – and the early indications are that their roosting habits may well have changed too. Secondly (and potentially more interestingly), we might be able to get an idea of linkages between roost sites and feeding areas, i.e. individuals from one roost may feed in a certain area, whilst birds from another roost feed somewhere else.  Taken in conjunction with the work we’ll be doing catching, marking and GPS tagging some birds (more of which soon!), this would give us a clearer idea of if, as seems likely, the overall Islay population is made up of lots of smaller flocks; a meta-population, if we’re getting technical. If this is the case, and we see that some flocks are doing better or worse than others, we may get an indication as to what is causing the birds problems.

Which explains why I have been hiding in clumps of heather and ditches first thing in the morning and last thing at night. Which has meant some early starts. Which can be a struggle for me. And the white-fronts are pretty shy about letting you know where they sleep. Countless times I’ve seen them fifty or sixty suddenly appear out the dark and apparently drop into a pool – only to find absolutely no sign of them the following morning. I think a lot of the time they are just having a bit of a drink and wash before heading off somewhere else. It’s great being out and about though. Most memorable this week has been the sight and, best of all, the sound of hundreds of geese passing literally a few feet from me on their way to feed in the morning. They were battling into a headwind and so were almost touching the ground with their wingtips, trying to keep under the wind. They were just lifting enough to flick over the gorse bush that had a me in it – really a brilliant experience!

Approaching barnies
Staying on the flying geese theme, I’ve had some fun this week playing with the camera and flying barnacle geese. These funny little black and white lawnmowers look a bit more like a proper goose when they are airborne – and the sheer numbers of them are quite breath-taking sometimes. I did a quick count, and I reckon there are 340 in this photo. Which is framed pretty tightly. I think there were about 10,000 in view at this point!

340 (?!) barnacle geese

I did feel a bit sorry for them at times. Clearly, being a goose in a hail storm isn’t much fun. They stuck at it though; they’re hardy little things and that grass won’t eat itself. They looked like they enjoyed the old preen and wing stretch afterwards..

Wet barnies
Post shower stretch

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