I’ve had the last few days off work, but living in Strangford village; I’m never too far away from the Lough. This morning, I noticed a large flock of Brent Geese flying over the garden on their way into Castleward Bay. But despite the time of year, these geese are not destined for the Christmas table. Brent are one of our priority species and are therefore protected by law.
No species of bird is more closely associated with Strangford Lough than the Light-bellied Brent goose. These amazing birds cover an incredible distance during their annual migration and it is fantastic to see them returning to our patch of coastline every year.
They are born in early summer on the barren tundra of the Canadian Arctic. As autumn approaches, it becomes inhospitably cold there, so they all head south in search of warmer weather. The entire east Canadian population makes the epic journey over Greenland, Iceland and the Atlantic Ocean to spend the winter months in Ireland. The majority of these birds head straight for Strangford Lough where they gather in huge flocks to feed on the highly nutritious eel grass.
Each autumn, Strangford Lough welcomes about 75% of the entire population which is an incredible sight to witness. This year, their numbers reached 30,000 before they started to disperse and spread out around the entire coast of Ireland. Small flocks will continue to come and go throughout the winter before they start their arduous journey back to their Arctic breeding grounds. But they don’t all leave at once, so you will still be able to see some stragglers here until the end of May.
If you are lucky enough to get a good view of them out of the water, take a close look at their legs. As part of the Irish Brent Research Group, the National Trust, along with other organisations such as the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust and the RSPB, has been helping to catch some of the Brent to put individually marked rings on their legs.
This allows us to identify each ringed individual whenever it is subsequently seen. Every time that bird is spotted again, it helps build up a picture of its life. Some individuals have been seen over 30 times during the last few years. Not only do we learn how long they live for and where they go at different times of the year, but we are also learning a lot about which other birds they associate with, within their large, social flocks.
So if you are lucky enough to spot any of these ringed birds, please let us know because it all adds to the fascinating picture of these birds’ lives. A telescope or good binoculars are necessary to get a clear view and a great deal of patience is needed. Each ring will have a single letter or number on it and will have a particular background colour. You need to be careful to record which is the left and the right leg and make a note of the time, date and location. Any other information is also useful, such as whether it was closely associated with a mate or any juveniles. We have to be absolutely sure that we have read the ring correctly so please don’t guess if you couldn’t quite see it properly. A digital camera with a good zoom can be another good way to get a clear view of the rings.
The challenge of ring reading can be surprisingly addictive but it is a very enjoyable way to add a bit of purpose to your bird watching. So we would definitely encourage you to get out there during the Christmas holidays and see how many of these incredible geese you can spot.