What’s the Anser?

No, it’s not a spelling mistake, and there are no philosophical musings here. It’s all about the Anser and Branta families – geese.

AS I drove south from Norfolk (from the North Folk to the South Folk) towards Minsmere, it struck me that I had seen and photographed almost all the geese likely to be seen in Britain in the winter. The most astonishing find was the species I had spent hours chasing in their breeding grounds in Iceland, the Pink Footed Goose Anser Brachyrhyncus. This was the species I had last seen in Britain flying overhead at dawn on a cold December day in 2015. There were thousands of them, a great black cloud rising from the mudflats of the Wash: a sight and especially a sound I will never forget.

While I was travelling in Iceland I looked closely at any goose which seemed to have pink feet, but many Greylags seem to have pink feet too. I finally saw a small group of geese with dark brown necks and knew immediately what they were. It’s no good looking at their feet to identify them, it’s the dark neck which sets them apart. 

So I knew that those thousands of geese moved inland to feed during the day, but hadn’t seen any at the reserves at Titchwell and Cley, and hadn’t given much thought to where they might be, until I happened to glance to my left as I was driving along a busy main road. There was a big flock of something odd looking in an ordinary field beside the road. I quickly pulled in and crept along the hedge. There they were, hundreds of them:There are two common geese which you can see in most parts of Britain. One is the native Greylag Goose Anser Anser, the parent species of all our domestic geese.  

This one was at Slimbridge, but there were plenty in Norfolk too. (The first picture shows Greylags at Cley Wetlands.) One of the fascinating trends in bird behaviour I have noticed recently is that the wild Greylag has learnt from it’s Canadian relative how to live in our cities. They have gone from wild to feral, the reverse of the more normal captive to feral process, as epitomised by the Canada Goose Branta canadensis, a strongly migrant species in its native North America, but one which has adapted to a sedentary and indeed urban life here.

Another rare goose with a confusing name is the White Fronted Goose Anser Albifrons. These really do look like Greylags and it’s no good looking at their fronts which are barred black. The white bit is above the beak – on the forehead. Every time I go to the Wetlands reserve at Llanelli I walk within a few feet of captive White Fronts, but at Slimbridge there is a big flock of the real deal – birds which have flown from Greenland or Siberia to winter in Britain. They were a good half a mile away so I was pleased with this shot.Also much less common are the two “black” species, the Barnacle Goose Branta Leucopsis and the Brent Goose Branta Bernicla. 

The name Branta comes from the Old Norse “Brandgas” – burnt goose. They were at first considered to be the same species, and were believed to spawn from the Goose Barnacle! It must have been very confusing to have been a bird enthusiast in the Middle Ages. To add to the confusion, Barnacle Geese in Britain can have the status of breeding resident, feral resident and winter migrant. These are from the feral population around Slimbridge.

Both species can be seen in Norfolk, with the Brent being particularly noticeable. This is Blakeney Harbour.

Lastly, a Norfolk speciality is another feral goose which has not spread far from East Anglia, the odd looking Egyptian Goose Alopochen aegyptiaca.


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3 Responses to What’s the Anser?

  1. Esther says:

    In the field next to our house we daily see a pair of Egyptian geese, very striking to behold, and fiercely protective of their young ones! They are becoming ever more common in Holland. And medieval bestiaries are a hoot to read! The supposed escape tactic of the beaver always leaves me in stitches….

    • twynog1 says:

      Hm . . . took me a while to see the link here – Egyptian geese being as odd looking as some of the semi-imaginary beasts of the middle ages?

  2. Esther says:

    Haha, there was no link! Just a very small mindhopping excercise on my part from Egyptian geese to barnacle geese to bestiaries to medieval beavers. Welcome to my chaotic mind 😉

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