Wednesday 2 December 2020

Goosanders at Stowe 1st December 2020

I awoke with a feeling approaching optimism this morning, something that has been distinctly missing for the last few days. At last the succession of monochrome dreary days, shrouded in a mist that forever hung over Oxfordshire had departed, and this morning I was able to see to the end of the road in our village, the air crystal clear for miles across the rounded contours of The Cotswolds where I live.

A bright sun, low in the winter sky, illuminated the morning as I set off for the National Trust's Stowe Gardens, located forty minutes away in the neighbouring county of Buckinghamshire. It had taken some planning as the National Trust  limit the number of visitors each day and require you to book in advance.Such was the demand, that today was the first for which I could get a booking but fortune for once smiled kindly on me and the day I chose, by sheer chance, was nigh on perfect.

My reservation was for the earliest possible timed entry at 10am, working on the principle that as the day progressed the grounds of the ever popular Stowe would receive more and more visitors.For what I had in mind, involving a particular bird, it would require an undisturbed environment or as near to that as possible.

I checked in at the entrance, parked my car and made my way down the wide tree lined track, descending gently through surrounding parkland which eventually leads to the landscaped gardens and the two lakes at the bottom.The purpose of my visit was to find the Goosanders that come here for the winter and it took me just a few minutes to locate them, idling on the placid surface of the smaller of the two lakes.

The sunlight on the water and the turning leaves were casting multicoloured reflections on the water, creating an image of which any Impressionist painter would be proud. The reflected gold of dead reeds by the lake and the rust browns of the last remaining leaves on the overhanging trees contrasting with the blue of the sky to effortlessly create a complex mosaic of colour across the lake's rippling surface, over and through which the Goosanders elegantly glided. A living piece of art that no one apart from myself seemed aware.There is so much of the natural world's less obvious delights that our dulled senses fail to register but can be easily discovered if one can find time to stand, look and contemplate. As with an Impressionist masterpiece hung in a gallery the longer you look the more you see.

Stowe is renowned for its landscaped gardens and also its magnificent honey coloured buildings, the gardens having been laid out on a grand scale in the middle of the eighteenth century under the eye of arguably the most famous landscape gardener of all time, Capability Brown. 

This, rightly, is what people come to Stowe to see and enjoy, strolling and relaxing in the glorious surroundings, walking their dogs and allowing the grandeur to divert them from a troubled world. We are all suffering a collective trauma at the moment and now, more than ever Stowe provides some welcome, albeit temporary relief from our anxieties.

I walked down to the lakeside, threading my way through the scattered trees to come closer to the Goosanders. I was circumspect and used the mature trees to mask my profile, standing in front of a broad tree trunk, as if to become part of the tree. I feared the Goosanders would be timid and any close human proximity would scare them, as in many parts of their range they are persecuted, despite being fully protected, because their food is fish and they make no distinction between fish such as trout which people pay a lot of money to catch and resent sharing.

I was therefore pleasantly surprised to find they showed little alarm at my presence and allowed me to approach relatively closely and certainly showed no inclination to fly off. Possibly they have become used to the daily presence of the many visitors who rarely deviate from the path around the lake and have come to realise they have nothing to fear at Stowe from the presence of human beings.

There were five, three males and two females and they kept loose company with each other as they swam, dived and preened on the lake The drakes are really beautiful, spectacular, and in the bright sunlight their plumage glowed to its true perfection. Their elongated white bodies an abrupt contrast with their large dark head, which at one moment appears solidly black but when turned and catching the sun at a certain angle shines iridescent bottle green.The feathers of their head form into differing shapes dependent on the bird's behaviour and mood. When relaxed the head takes on a distinctive almost busby like appearance, with a steep forehead, domed crown and long sloping nape, at the base of which longer bunched feathers hang loosely.

Inevitably one is drawn to the striking  plumage of the male but the female, although considerably more subdued in tone is not to be discounted. Her head is a rich chestnut, the feathers of her nape more ragged than the male, the bright chestnut colouring contrasting with her silky white breast and overall grey body. A rather attractive combination to my mind.

Both sexes possess a waxy crimson, stiletto like, hooked bill. The thin mandibles are serrated at their edges to ensure there is no escape for the fish they capture.The serrations give rise to the descriptive name sawbill which is applied to both Goosander and the closely related Red breasted Merganser.

The three small wooded islands at one end of the lake seemed to suit them and they spent much time loafing around the islands and swimming below their banks. When I first saw them the two females were bathing preening and flapping their wings on the water before they were joined by the drakes. There looked to be two pairs with a surplus male, which was regularly chivvied away by one or both females.

Goosanders favour rivers rather than the sea, unlike their relative the Red breasted Merganser which prefers a maritime environment, and they are not particularly rare in northern Britain. They can at times be ridiculously confiding but as I said are often persecuted because of the perceived threat they pose to game fishing and in certain areas are much more wary. It seems a shame that they should be subject to such wilful and illegal destruction but I have long despaired of the human race and its intolerance and abuse of the creatures with which we share this planet.

Goosanders do not breed in the midland or southern counties of England, but can be found breeding in Scotland, northern England and Wales.They first bred in Scotland in 1871 and since 1970 expanded their breeding range southwards. In winter, birds such as the ones at Stowe, move south from their northern breeding areas to lowland lakes, reservoirs and gravel pits. During the day they like a habitat that provides some form of shelter such as rivers with banks of  riparian vegetation, overhanging trees and bushes but to roost seek larger more open waters such as reservoirs.

They can sometimes turn up in surprising locations, often near human habitation.Locally I have seen pairs on small wooded ponds and on the River Cherwell where it runs through the University Parks in the middle of Oxford. Formerly they visited Farmoor Reservoir to roost in numbers but now are a an infrequent winter visitor.

Goosanders breed in holes in trees near rivers and lead their young to the river once they have left the nest hole. Creches of young can be established where one or two females will look after a large number of young. I can recall seeing a female with eighteen well grown young goosanders at the mouth of the River Esk at Musselburgh in Scotland in June, four years ago. 

I remained with the Goosanders at Stowe for a couple of hours,watching and wondering. A pleasant morning that left me more energised than I have felt for quite some time.The wonder of nature, a free resource that is all around us, working its magic once again.

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