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Crane Spotter – February 2021 – From Russia With Love

Russian White-fronted Geese

It was one of those mornings we had this winter when a foggy grey blanket hung heavily overhead.

Some nearby house lights pierced the murk but I could not see beyond them.

On such a morning birds get confused and disorientated. In the garden a flock of over 100 dark shapes launched from their perches in the crown of an oak tree.

But seemingly they could not work out where to go and quickly always returned. This happened a few times until blue sky appeared and these Starlings moved on.

Birders love a bit of fog because it can usher in surprise visitations from birds who lose their way far from home. So I half expected something exciting to happen.

It did not take long to hear that an extremely scarce species to Surrey had landed just over the Waverley border, in Mole Valley. And in some numbers.

My birding friend Mark Davis had been out walking in the strong winter sunshine later that day and picked out as many as 46 grazing in a field. Geese!

© Richard Waters

But not just any old Geese. They were Russian White-fronted Geese and had arrived here after a long journey from their breeding grounds in the tundra of European Arctic Russia and northwest Siberia.

I found a presumably displaced individual in a Cranleigh field one January among the regular Greylag and Canada Geese and people travelled from miles to view it. But a large flock such as this was a county first for many observers.

Next day the birds were still viewable from a public footpath and I was surprised to see how tame many of them were. They gorged fearlessly on grass within yards of a farm worker who appeared oblivious to their true identity as he tackled a hedge.

The number of Russian White-fronted Geese reaching these shores has been falling for many years. They are more usually expected in the wilds of Kent or the floods alongside the Severn estuary. Any big flocks recorded in Surrey tend to be flyovers and not on the deck as these birds were.

Fortunately, they stayed around long enough to be seen by many observers and remained in the vicinity well into January in the company of big numbers of local geese, up to 370 Greylags, over 500 Canadas, 84 Egyptians and one feral Barnacle.

And our visitors were not alone. They were among several hundred Russian White-fronted Geese who landed in south-east England after overshooting their continental wintering areas thanks to easterly winds and that well-timed fog.

Other groups were subsequently located elsewhere in Surrey including Barnes, Burpham, Clapham Common, Godalming, Holmethorpe, Merstham, Richmond Park, Ripley, Thursley, Unstead, and Wimbledon Park. And Cranleigh or nearby villages? Who knows?

Russian White-fronted Geese (smallest birds in foreground) with local Surrey Canadas and Greylags © Richard Waters

Maybe some had flown right over us but before the third lockdown I went on wild goose chases on various days to see if any had decided to stay and were living secretly in our midst.

Perhaps those mixed flocks of more than 300 geese, who earlier this winter and in the autumn were noisily flying over the Ewhurst Road area on their way to roost each night, were acting as cover for a Russian….

Several times I found where the geese were feeding during the day. There were Canadas, our largest goose, and Greylags, but not the tinier target bird which as an adult has – you guessed it – a white front between the base of its bill and head and also distinct darkbands across its belly.

Several people have commented on the impressive spectacle of these ‘migrating’ geese but they are not going far. Just back to roost after a day’s feeding.

With Spring still some way off it is likely that a few of those Russians are still out there. So if you get a chance to spy a group of geese closely this month on your daily exercise then check them out for what the skies brought in from the cold.

Twitter – @Crane_Spotter
Click here to see all of Robin Stride’s previous Crane Spotters.

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