Six geese a-laying
By Charlotte Owen
The sixth day of Christmas sees the arrival of six geese a-laying, which is a good excuse to talk about one of our most abundant winter visitors.
Around 120,000 Brent geese fly to the UK each year from their summer breeding grounds in the now-frozen Arctic tundra of Siberia, where the harsh conditions grant them a narrow two-month window of weather mild enough to raise a family. These geese were a-laying back in June, with each female incubating up to six cream-coloured eggs in a shallow nest lined with moss and downy feathers. The male stands guard, warding off hungry Arctic foxes and thieving skuas for the 25 days it takes the eggs to hatch. As soon as they have, the nest is abandoned and the young goslings follow their parents to nearby feeding grounds, roaming the shallow pools of the boggy summer tundra to graze on scurvy-grass and seaweed. After six weeks of gobbling up grass, the goslings are ready to fledge and it may only be one more month before plummeting temperatures trigger their first flight south.
It’s an incredible journey of more than 4,000 kilometres, gruelling enough for experienced adults let alone youngsters just a few months old. Thankfully, they get a lot of support and the geese fly together in family units, the parents guiding their goslings along the Russian coastline in iconic V-formation or spreading out into less orderly lines, stopping off to re-fuel at several choice locations along the way. The early birds arrived in September but the greatest influx is usually in October, when large flocks of hungry, honking geese touch down in Sussex. By December they are settled into their winter feeding grounds, with most Brent geese gathering at Chichester and Pagham Harbours, feasting on eelgrass. They are smaller than you might expect of a goose, closer to the size of a mallard with a short neck and bright white collar. Most of ‘our’ Brent geese are dark-bellied but you might spot one or two of the pale-bellied variety. They usually winter much further north but occasionally stop off in Sussex, where they are always a welcome sight.