The passage of the seasons is marked for many by the arrival of the spring migrants. For me, it starts in the fields around home, with the oystercatchers skirling in the pre-dawn light one early March morning, soon to be followed by other keynote species: wheatear, chiffchaff, osprey and swallow. And in the autumn, a significant day arrives in September when the first skein of geese flies over. It is easy to note your first of the season, but how do you know when you have seen the last of them for the next few months? I think on this showery, late April afternoon, I saw just that.
Monitoring the birds on a Caithness peat bog is a great job, but there are extended quiet spells, especially given the weather. So, I was pleased to hear a commotion behind me, and turned to see two separate groups of pink-footed geese rising from the pastures around the moss. It somehow struck me that these birds were not just off on a foraging expedition. They made a couple of wide circles while gaining height then set off steadily, still climbing, towards the wee hills on the skyline. The two groups now merged into a single skein of about 90, save for one straggler honking in protest at being left behind and making great efforts to catch up. These birds were set on a bearing. Northwest!
They were leaving for sure, and we know that these brave birds make the journey to Iceland, some 800 miles or so, in one hop. I could not take the binoculars away from my eyes as I followed them, the individuals shifting position, the line wavering. Even a peregrine stooping across the field of view could not divert my attention. I kept watching, till soon, the 90 individuals became one tenuous thin black line which faded to grey against the clouded sky and was then lost to view. Thus gradually they were gone, and I, an atheist, could only silently wish them ‘God Speed’ with a dry mouth and damp eye.
I finished work shortly afterwards and enjoyed a beautiful drive south down through Sutherland and Easter Ross to a welcoming late dinner. But I could not take my mind off these geese. They would have crossed the coast with Strathy Point (the first lighthouse in Scotland built to be electrically operated) on their left as I was watching them earlier. Then, as they lost sight of the mainland, the first markers would have appeared beneath: Sule Skerry to the east, home of the gannets and the once remotest manned lighthouse in Britain, and, on the other side to the west, lovely, lonely, once occupied (by humans), North Rona. The wise old birds at the head of the skein knew they now had to head for the point where the sun would soon sink beneath the dark Atlantic.
Sleep did not come easily that night. In fact, I really was up there with the birds. The sun had sunk hours ago, but my geese were still in the air, six or seven hours out from land, making steady progress with a following south easterly. They do know exactly when to leave. Over halfway now, and the fine gander leading the skein shifted to the left to hand over the lead to his mate for this next crucial stage of the journey. She beat a path through the air, and every bird behind gained from her effort, each one taking advantage of the turbulence set up by those in front. At the darkest part of the night some of the youngest were nervous, tiring after the long hours in the air, and a few querulous, nervy notes came from further down the lines. The leader, mother of 25 or more over the last five seasons, gave a couple of strong, reassuring honks to calm the youngsters. She had seen lights over to the east a few minutes ago. They had passed the Faroes and were well into the last leg of their journey north.
Far above, a light passed overhead in the same direction as the birds. An airliner on the polar route to Vancouver full of relaxed, resting humans in a warm, pressurised cabin, all utterly unaware of the epic journey being undertaken 5 miles beneath them. The geese were likewise indifferent to such human doings. The leader registered a lightening of the darkness around them, the sky reddened behind the birds, and a thin black line could be seen on the horizon straight ahead.
She awarded herself a quiet smile of satisfaction, checked all around, and yes, she still had all of the skein with her. She beat steadfastly onward while the sky lightened around them, then, in an orgy of colour as the sun rose behind them, the black line ahead exploded into the red lavas of Iceland glowing in the dawn light.
They crossed the coast and there was that almost imperceptible slackening of effort, the slightest change of angle, as when an airliner starts its descent way out from its destination with a felt, rather than heard, reduction. The leader shifted back, handing the final leg to one of her sons, who proudly and eagerly took the lead. He was heading for his birthplace, still another 150 miles or so away, over the great expanse of the Vatnajökull ice cap and onto the great Thjorsarver marshland at the foot of the Hofsjökull.
Thousands of geese were already present, refreshing pair bonds, claiming nest sites, disputing with neighbours and doing what communities do the world over. A few birds even looked up to watch the new arrivals from the south east gliding in on rigid curved wings until, right above the colony, the leader lifted one wing, losing the supporting airflow, and with the rest of the skein following made that glorious ‘whiffling’ descent, spilling the air from alternate wings and careening groundwards in seeming confusion until, with a cacophony of honking and a wild rushing of wind through feathers, they made a landing on the fresh green of the spring tundra. Home again.
Or is that home? In just a few months, on a chilly September morning in Caithness, I will again hear that most wonderful sound that announces the arrival of the pink-footed geese.