Wednesday 2 February 2022

A Wild Goose Chase 31st January 2022

We are in Scotland for six days, staying at our favourite hotel at Kelvinside in the City of Glasgow.The purpose of our visit is three fold; to celebrate my birthday, see our daughter who lives and works here and do a bit of reconnoitering with a view to moving to Scotland and being closer to our daughter.

Today we planned to visit a few locations to the  north of Glasgow but, as I do every day, I first consulted RBA (Rare Bird Alert) and saw that an adult Ross's Goose, that has been associating for the last two months with the huge flocks of Pinkfeet that come here each winter, was only fifteen minutes down the road from our hotel.

Even better,the location was on our planned route north.

Recently the goose has been regularly reported north of Glasgow at a place called Millichen but yesterday it was last reported to be with the Pinkfeet flock a few miles away by Dowan Farm, which is at a place called Baldernock.

A quiet word with Mrs U resulted in her assent to spending a little time looking for the goose before turning our minds to other matters.

Today the gales which had battered Scotland yesterday had abated to just a fresh wind, the morning being cold and pleasantly sunny. A welcome lull before the second gale was due to arrive on Tuesday. Fifteen minutes drive from our hotel found us driving along a single track road in rural farmland with the tower blocks of the city clearly visible on the skyline behind us. Whichever route you take out of Glasgow you are soon in countryside.

We came to the rather gentrified Dowan Farm and looking to our right saw a vast area of wet fallow fields which is where the geese were yesterday. Unfortunately there was no sign of them today.

Somewhat deflated I drove onwards and uphill coming to a T junction in the road. Decision time. Turn left or right? Turning right would take us downhill to more huge fields on our left which sloped upwards to another farm and looked promising.We descended the twisting road to a long straight section before it ascended once more. The great problem was the road was narrow and with little opportunity of parking the car safely. I drove to the end of the straight and putting on the car's hazard lights stopped to scan the largest and rather distant field, sloping up to the skyline

There were the geese!

Hundreds of Pinkfeet were scattered across the slope. A truly magnificent sight and my expectations rose. Now the priority was where to park if anywhere? Eventually I found a muddy bit of verge where I could just about get most of the car off the fortunately quiet road. It then required me to walk back along the road for several hundred metres to scan the field.

I felt it would be just a matter of moments before I picked out the distinctive all white form of the Ross's Goose amongst the hundreds of grey brown Pinkfeet. It would be blindingly obvious.

I scanned from one side of the flock to the other, expecting at any moment to experience the joy of discovery but there was not a sign of the Ross's Goose. 

I scanned twice more. Disbelieving. Hoping that maybe I had somehow missed it amongst the flock but no, it definitely was not there.

Now what to do?

I reasoned there must be another flock of Pinkfeet nearby.Maybe it was with them?

I asked my wife if she would indulge me just a bit longer with a look at Millichen, the other location the Ross's Goose had been reported from.We followed the RBA directions to West Millichen Farm and came to a farm track which RBA said would lead to a gentle summit and a view of the fields the geese favoured on the other side but I demurred from taking the car up the track. Numerous waterfilled potholes and severe undulations did not augur well for the car's welfare.

To see the geese would require us to walk up to the summit of the track and look down the other side at the fields there. 

I said to my wife 

'I bet the geese are over that brow but we do not have time to walk up the track'

'Let's forget it and I can maybe try tomorrow if there is time'

Reluctantly I conceded defeat and we decided to head north to Helensburgh, the first location on our itinerary of looking for a new home. Retracing our route courtesy of the satnav we turned onto a busy road.

Coming to a sharp left hand bend we noticed a large field on our left which we realised was the field we would have viewed if we had driven up the farm track.

'Can you keep an eye out for any geese?' I asked my wife

No sooner had I spoken than she replied

'There are loads in the field on our left'

There was of course nowhere to stop and with the local bus right behind me I had to drive uphill for over a mile before I could find somewhere to turn off  and then drive back. Coming back I noticed the entrance to a small track on our right and realised that this was the other end of the track that commenced at West Millichen Farm. Further I could see two cars parked at the top and two birders scanning the geese. Figuring if they could get their cars up the track there was a good chance that I could too and, even better I would be off the road, I turned onto the track and dodging the potholes made it to the two birders looking through their bins at the geese.

Surely the Ross's Goose was here?

Getting out of my car I enquired

Any sign?

Sorry no.

They shook their heads but told me that they could not see all the geese from here due to the sloping downward contour of the field.

I told them that from the bend on the road below it would be possible to see the entire flock and there was a farm entrance there that could be used to view the flock.

They did not seem too certain about this but there was no sign of the goose from where we currently were standing so, aware that time was running out and probably my wife's patience too, the best and only chance I had was to go back to the farm entrance and scan the flock from there.  

Arriving back at the bottom of the hill I stopped on the verge by the farm entrance and got out of the car I looked at the field across the road, which sloped away and upwards with several hundred Pinkfeet scattered far and wide across it. 

I put my bins to my eyes and virtually the first goose I saw was the Ross's Goose, squatting on the grass as geese often do when they are relaxed and not hungry, surrounded by Pinkfeet.

Pinkfeet can be notoriously jumpy due to the fact they are hunted in Britain and are therefore rightly wary of humans but my presence on the other side of the road was distant enough to thankfully not alarm them and after a minute or two scrutinising me, the geese, including the Ross's Goose were re-assured my intentions were benign and went back to feeding or idling their time away.

Fantastic. The feeling of triumph after all our effort was, as ever, energising. A pulse of adrenalin coursed through me.

The Ross's Goose was here and even better it was one of the closest in the flock that was scattered across the field.

Even my wife could see it from the car without bins, it was so obvious amongst the darker Pinkfeet. Its all white plumage almost gleamed in the sunlight. A dull pink bill and legs and black primaries the only colours other than white.

I grabbed  my camera  from the backseat of the car and took some images as it was close enough to get a reasonable photo.

The other two birders must have seen me with my camera and realised the goose was showing as they too came down the road and drew up by the  farm entrance.

We left them to it and headed off for Helensburgh.

Job done.

Ross's Goose breeds in northern Canada and migrates to winter in the southern and western states of the USA and northern Mexico. Although the species is widely kept in captivity in Britain and Europe it is a long distance migrant perfectly capable of crossing the Atlantic and getting caught up with migrating populations of Pink-footed Geese.The Ross's Goose population has grown significantly since the 1950's and there are now more than two million in existence, so the probability of some reaching Britain during this time has greatly increased.

This is the fifth Ross's Goose I have seen in Britain and all of them were associating with a Pink-footed Goose flock.It has taken the BOURC (British Ornithologists Union Records Committee) fifty years to finally accept that an adult Ross's Goose seen at Plex Moss in Lancashire on 5th December 1970 until it was last seen on the 17th January 1971 was genuine and is the first record for Britain. Let's hope that the other past records of this goose in Britain are re-examined and given the credence they deserve.

Many birders have decided that such long delayed decisions are unhelpful and make their own minds  up about the provenance of unusual or rare wildfowl that turn up in Britain. I too include myself in this view.

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