Barnacle Geese

Barnacle Goose by Barbara BllardThe Solway Firth, situated between Cumbria and Scotland, is famous for its birdlife, especially in the winter months when more than 30,000 barnacle geese arrive in late October/early November to spend the winter in a milder climate than that found on the cliffs of Svalbard (islands between the Arctic Ocean, Barents Sea, Greenland Sea, and Norwegian Sea, north of Norway--Spitsbergen is the best known) or in Greenland where they breed on the cliffs. They head back to the cold climes in mid-April.

The small black and white geese got their name because it was once thought they hatched from barnacles. Gerald of Wales wrote in his medieval Topographia Hiberniae, v. 47, “For they are born at first like pieces of gum on logs of timber washed by the waves. Then enclosed in shells of a free form they hang by their beaks as if from the moss clinging to the wood and so at length in process of time obtaining a sure covering of feathers, they either dive off into the waters or fly away into free air.” * The myth was finally laid to rest in 1891 when the first nest was found in Greenland.

Barnacle Geese by Barbara BallardThe birds have white faces, a black breast and neck, pale grey upper parts and black, white and grey under parts. Their legs and bills are black. Their favourite habitats are coastal pastures, marshes, and grassy islands where they find seeds, clover and grasses.

They make a variety of noises, using different calls for different situations. The most common sound is ‘gnuk’ for which they vary the pitch. Sometimes they repeat the sound rapidly, and it resembles the shrill yapping that small dogs can make.

Another common sound is ‘hoog’ or ‘hogoog’ considered to be a conversational feeding call. The young make a higher noise, almost like a whistle. When the geese are excited, they get very noisy. Like most geese they rarely graze in silence.

* Source of quote: Gerald of Wales, Topographia Hiberniae, v. 47, ed. Joseph Jacobs, The Jews of Angevin England: Documents and Records (London, 1893), p. 92-93.

Photos by Barbara Ballard

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