CATCHING THE WILD GEESE – 19 – 23 Mar 2010

The final ‘phone calls had been made, weather checked, optics polished, bags packed and suddenly the long-awaited Wild Goose Chase was upon us. Eight intrepid birdwatchers crammed themselves, baggage and birdwatching gear into two cars, abandoned ourselves to the M6 rollercoaster and headed for the Scots border. The news of a pair of Smew near Gretna raised the antennae and we met our ninth member, coming from the land of the Geordies, at Longtown ponds. But despite a good search although with the light against us, we could not find our quarry. And it began to spit with rain – not the best of starts.

We set off into the rolling countryside of Dumfries and Galloway leaving motorways behind for the next four days. Near the village of Rothwell, not far from Caerlaverock, we caught up with one of our targets – Barnacle Geese, 4000 of them feeding in fields, including a leucistic bird showing all-white feathering, which we saw twice more as the flock shifted to and around Caerlaverock.

Caerlaverock covers a massive area, and our brief visit didn’t do it justice, although we landed the day’s prize there – a male American Wigeon which performed well for us. Gadwall, Little Grebe and Shoveler were seen from the ponds off the Avenue (exciting, cramming into the bunker-style hides!). A flock of bright Yellowhammers attracted the attention on the feeders until they were scattered by an attacking run from a Sparrowhawk. Apart from the Barnacles and a couple of Canada, geese were conspicuous by their absence, although both Mute and Whooper Swans were present.

And then away to Newton Stewart, to check into the Bruce Hotel, enjoy an excellent dinner, and listen to Paul Tarling, an RSPB warden for the Mull of Galloway, talk of the geese, their origins and where to find them. And he was remarkably accurate with his information, as we found over the next couple of days.

Saturday dawned bright and clear, although with a cold wind, and we were soon in the cars rolling for West Freugh, quickly finding 14 Greenland White-fronted Geese on farmland north of the airfield. At Maitland Terrace, wildfowl again entertained us with Greylag Geese top of the bill, and we eventually nailed the drake Green-winged teal, another transatlantic visitor. The first migrant of the spring, a Sand Martin, hawked up and down a hedgeline. Behind the terrace was the big Pink-footed Goose flock, with two Barnacle Geese (of the Icelandic race – thanks Paul!) among them. And down the road at Low Mye were 98 more White-fronts.

Our next major stop was Loch Ryan, where a northerly wind was blowing straight into the loch. This was causing the high tide to splash on to the road in some places, but was also responsible for bringing in the eight Gannets who were fishing in the loch. Red-Breasted Merganser, Goldeneye, Scaup, Eider, Shag, Kittiwake, Guillemot, Black Guillemot and Raven were all seen before we turned into Broadstone Road in Stranraer. Here we achieved our aim as two pale-bellied Brent Geese paddled across the Stranraer seafront – we had seen 6 species of geese and two of swan – and our Wild Goose Chase was over.

We could relax into the rest of the weekend now, and made our way to The Wig, on the west side of Loch Ryan. 42 Brent Geese awaited us, with an ostracised dark-bellied amongst them, but waders were the main course here. We saw Lapwing, Curlew, Oystercatcher, Turnstone, Redshank, Bar-tailed Godwit, Dunlin and Ringed Plover, with 2 Stonechats and 6 Long-tailed Ducks as dessert.

The next morning we surfaced at 0400 to undertake the Dawn Goose Walk at Wigtown LNR. Elizabeth Tyndall, the ranger, led us, and in the pre-dawn, heard the evocative calling of the Barnacle Geese out on the merse. Pink-footed Goose, Whooper Swan and Pintail were seen, but the morning alarm calls came from a Blackbird (and friends) as it was chased along a hedge by a Sparrowhawk. We returned to the Municipal Buildings, to be met by steaming bowls of porridge and mugs of tea. Which other local authority in Britain supplies that?

After a second breakfast at the hotel, we set off for the RSPB reserve at the Ken-Dee Marshes. Red Kites were hanging over the car park as we arrived and walked down to the observation platform. Family groups of Greylag and White-fronts were quickly latched on to, and flocks of Fieldfare and Linnets located in the rough fields. Threatening weather and a hint of tiredness cut the visit a little short and we made our way to the Red Kite Feeding Station at Bellymack Farm.

Bellymack yielded up to 20 Red Kites poised over the feeding site producing fantastic views, with 3 Buzzards. A single Tree Sparrow made use of the feeders with Yellowhammers, Reed Buntings and Chaffinches, all scared into immobility when a Sparrowhawk slashed unsuccessfully through the area. A final stop at Skyreburn near Gatehouse of Fleet produced two Dunlin on the estuary and a most obliging Dipper on the burn, followed by a cup of tea.

For Monday morning rain was forecast, and so it proved, setting in as we reached the RSPB reserve at Mersehead. We spent two hours in the visitor centre there, picking out a Snipe among the waterfowl through the rainswept glass. We could see the end of the rain clouds coming, so timed our lunch to match, and left the centre for the main hide as the sun came out. On the walk out a Little Egret was spotted quickly followed by a fine male Wheatear. Spring had definitely arrived. Barnacle, Pink-footed and Canada Geese were noted, with good numbers of Gadwall and Pintail, not to mention a Little Grebe and a locally uncommon Magpie. Singing Skylarks accompanied us on our way back to the car park.

Onwards to Southerness as high tide approached. A different type of birdwatching here, searching the rocky outcrops for waders, and the mighty Solway for seabirds and sea duck. The highlight was three Purple Sandpipers on the rocks opposite the lighthouse among 33 Turnstones, with 44 Redshank further along. Two Red-breasted Mergansers flew west offshore, and at 1600 we left for the hotel, to meet up with the two ladies who had spent the day sight-seeing, for a final dinner.

On our last morning we chose to make a stop on the journey home at Castle Loch, Lochmaben. A good selection of wildfowl greeted us included 6 Great Crested Grebes and a dozen Goosanders. The jewels were a Chiffchaff both heard and seen, a swirling cloud of 70+ Sand Martins high above the loch, and 5 House Martins hawking insects over the loch. We had seen 94 species in our time in Dumfries and Galloway.

And so it came to an end, as all good things must do. Four days of good scenery, good weather, good birds, good food and good company. In fact a good time was had by all.