Wild Goose Chase

The elusive white fronted goose. (Image by Adrian Arpington, in Public Domain)

Since late last year I have been volunteering at Otmoor, a fantastic yet little known RSPB reserve just north of Oxford. Every other week I trudge round, chat to visitors and top up the feeders, and it is really rather fantastic. Until this week I had seen some great stuff but in terms of wildfowl, it hadn’t really lived up to its billing as a superb inland wetland site. Since the ice melted, and the rain started falling though, the fields have flooded and the ducks and lapwings have returned in good numbers.

On January 2nd 29 white fronted geese had been reported, so I carefully scanned all of the geese flocks I could find, to no avail. Towards the end of the day, a wise seeming man said ‘seen the white fronts yet?’ I replied with a weary no, and he said that despite some observers beginning to think they had been mis-identified, he had seen them ‘clear as day’ not five minutes down the track. So now, fully on life-bird alert, stamp down the track I did, and it was more like 15 minutes. The only thing that was as clear as anything was the mud, which was, well, clear as mud. Goose fail.

Upon returning home I carefully reviewed ID features for white fronted geese to make sure I hadn’t missed them — slightly smaller than a greylag, dark barring underneath, pink or orange bill depending on origin, with a white patch at the base of the beak which gives the species its name.

My little detour was a miniscule form of ‘dipping’ — not sticking a net in a pond to see what you find, and nothing to do with the small bird of upland streams, but setting out expressly to see a bird, and then failing to see it.

Dipping is the stuff of twitching legend — really serious twitchers of old will all have long distance dip stories to tell, almost as a badge of pride — after all, there is no thrill in a hunt at the end of which the kill is guaranteed. It’s part of the reason I argue for the superior status of birding to trainspotting, in the league table of geeky hobbies — we may have books and guides and websites, pagers and text alerts, but we don’t have timetables — all the technology in the world won’t prevent a bird from flying away. Unless it’s a penguin.

So what does the ‘chase’ actually do for us? For one, it’s another motivation to shift myself and get out and about. For example, I just went out looking for waxwings, again, to try and add them to my Reading campus list. I didn’t see them, but in the event had quite a nice walk around the lake, and noticed the Shovelers had come back.

On Wednesday, I was foolish enough, on my return to Otmoor, to try again. I hired some extra eyes, we scanned the same flock of greylags and Canada geese, again with no result, and eventually, on a very similar piece of advice, trod the same muddy track, this time after several days of rain, with lots more falling right on top of us. Double goose fail. Helen’s theory was that a bunch of greylag had mischievously painted white at the base of their beaks, or that the white fronts were wearing false greylag beaks. I suspect they were always where we were not.

In hope of compensation, just like for last week’s damp bird outing, we entertained the regular vague hope a barn owl would appear on our way back to the car; I haven’t yet seen one at Otmoor, but perhaps wishing for two in six days was greedy. However, whilst I was hopping around trying to remove two very muddy boots (it’s all part of the entertainment — seriously, you should try one of my ‘bird tours’), two unexpected dark shapes flapped rapidly out of the dusk and into view swinging over the car park. Round once — what was that?! Looked snipe-ey. They jerked back round for a second pass. Too big, surely? And look at that short flat end to the tail. And the flight style. Unbelievable, they’re coming back round once more. Woodcock! Not the geese, but who cares? Pure winter’s evening magic.

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