Greylag Geese – Ray Colliers Wildlife in the North

greylag geeseOne of the bird attractions  for birdwatchers and tourists alike are the very large numbers of wild geese that visit the Highlands every winter.  The large skeins, often in V-formation, are a regular feature during the winter months and can  often even be seen flying over the  centre of Inverness as they fly to and from their feeding grounds in places such as the firths.  The pink-footed geese is a prime example as  around 150,000 visit Scotland every winter  and many stay in the Highlands.   Their breeding grounds are way north in Iceland and Spitsbergen.   They nest on the ground in inaccessible river gorges and boggy floodplains where they are  safe from predators.   However, by now these pink-footed geese  are long gone north as they start to move at the beginning of April.  Incredibly they make the long journey in a single  flight and, unlike the other common goose, the greylag goose, they do not nest in Scotland.

In contrast the resident numbers of greylag geese are around   20,000 after the breeding season.    However, these are augmented by a further 85,000 birds that come down from their breeding grounds in Iceland but they will mostly have gone back although a few linger into early May.  Most domestic geese are descended from the greylags.   At one time the breeding  numbers in  the Western Isle were so low that a special tower hide was built at Loch Druidibeg in the Uists  to observe them.  Now their numbers are such they cause agricultural damage.   Elsewhere in the Highlands there are scattered numbers of greylag geese colonies with occasionally more being added to boost the overall numbers.

One such colony is to the south  west of Inverness and it started at Loch Duntelchaig a number of years ago.  Evidence suggests that this colony was from wild birds rather than the resident  breeding birds.  One goose fell foul of some overhead cables and whilst it was injured it recovered but  could not fly.  Geese generally mate for life and its partner simply stayed with its mate when the time to migrate back to Iceland  came round.   Since then the offspring  stayed after the breeding seasons and this continued until there is now a strong colony of these birds in the strath and nearby.  It has been very much a feature of the last few weeks that the geese have been calling as they have set up their territories.  The calls – a loud cackling  and honking – have been described as sounding rather like sheep at  distance.  It is a very evocative call and in some parts of the strath has been blending in with the plaintive  calls of curlews that  have long been in territory since the spring.

The greylag geese in the photograph I took  were in a field near Croachy south of Inverness and there were several pairs, and some trios,  scattered over the grassland.   No doubt  the recent cold weather had held  up their nesting programme. They breed near freshwater and the large nest may be under a tree or bush and in colonies.  Only the female incubates the clutch of 5 – 7 large eggs but the male defends a small  territory  around the nest.  The eggs hatch after around  28 days and thereafter the young and adults will flock together with other families after  a few weeks.   There are many Scots names such as quink goose, stubble goose and wild goose whilst the Gaelic name is Geadh-glas meaning grey goose.