Today, I made the first of my usual autumnal pilgrimages to the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust’s (WWT) Martin Mere reserve near Ormskirk, Lancashire. I have been there so many times that I have long lost count. I return there every year in late September or early October to witness what is, for me, a true wildlife spectacle to rival many better known natural sights.
As autumn begins to grow in its seasonal beauty, the winter visitors to our shores start to arrive. Amongst the many different species to spend the colder northern hemisphere months in the British Isles, there is one that really connects with me – the Pink-footed Goose.
These smaller geese, more petite than their canada or greylag cousins, breed just below the arctic circle, in Iceland. Only a few weeks after hatching, the goslings follow their parents from their early homes and fly across the north Atlantic all the way to our small islands. Around 240,000 pink-feet winter here, usually spending much of their time on the east coast but they use Lancashire as a first major staging post, with many thousands resting there before heading on their way further east.
I find the sounds of these geese have a soul-splitting ability. A single calling pink-foot, perhaps the lead of a small skein flying over an otherwise silent salt marsh, ‘wink-wink, wink-wink, wink-wink’, seems to be one of the loneliest and wildly remote sounds of nature. It brings visions of the wide open valleys of Iceland, and of the long struggle between their birthplace and their wintering fields here in the UK. Counter to that is the combined stirring chorus of a many thousand strong flock taking to the air in a mass force of nature. This is an invigorating, breathtaking and heart-pounding moment, a wave of noise as the flock erupts from the ground, turning the immediate sky into a flickering darkness, then splitting to form swirling clouds of avian purpose.
Three springs ago, I made a trip to Iceland with the aim, amongst other things, to see the breeding grounds of the pink-feet. I had seen them so many times in the autumn and winter, in Lancashire and in Norfolk, that I felt a great need to see them at the other end of their journey, in their other home. Feeling particularly sentimental at the time, I wrote the following:
“We drive through the high mountain passes, with small villages and scattered farms. The tall rock faces supported by brown scrub and green pasture. Out onto the valley bottom, the river flattens its course and man-made obstructions claim some of the plain. Out of shelter in the vehicle, the wind whips past and roars through the valley. Rolling clouds of sand and dust maraud across the plain, making eyes dry and scratched.
This is where they are, in small groups and pairs, preparing to nest after the long struggle north. Their colour now matching the surrounding ground. They are quiet here, now only an occasional call; not the great waves of noise from their winter glories.
Not as imagined; they are not alone here, amongst the farmland, fences and roads. Not as wild as thought but still more wild than most. A sense of seeing their other home; their real home. A sense of seeing it all, from journey start and journey finish.”
Today, there were over 20,000 pinkies at Martin Mere, a true spectacular in both sight and sound. The WWT website for the reserve has a sunset video that gives something of the emotional experience – but you have to be there to really feel it.