Greylag geese have arrived at Cabragh Wetlands, looking for somewhere to spend the worst of the winter before returning north or east for the breeding season.
The Greylag is the most common of the European geese and it can be found right across the continent, from chilly Iceland and Scandinavia, to the Russian steppes and the Siberian permafrost, and in a swathe across Eastern Europe from Poland to the Balkans.
With his grey-brown body the Greylag is easily distinguished, and the light leading edge to his wings is another point of recognition. The underside of his bottom is white, and the tail has a dark band. Legs are pinkish, and his bill yellow or pink, depending on which subspecies you see.
The wild Greylag is the ancestor of our domestic geese, which have been bred to create a bird more suited for farming (heavy with meat, less fussy in feeding, a good layer of eggs and relatively static). The Greylag will breed much further south than most other northern geese, nesting in a wider range of habitats and happy on both salt and fresh water. Most spend the winter in low-lying coastal areas, where they have access to both saltwater marshes and freshwater wetlands, as well as farmed land. His bill is very heavy compared to other geese, which enables him to root through stubble and pasture, eating grass, grain, acorns and other tubers and plants – even potato and turnip.
Normally Greylag build nests in a hollow and under cover, laying four to seven eggs, which will incubate for 28 days before hatching. Their nests are usually gathered in loose colonies, around the fringes of which will be a collection of solitary, non-breeding individuals, which clearly enjoy the company of the flock even if they cannot find a mate. They will mix happily enough with other species of geese. That well-known "honk" will tell you when you are getting too close to the flock. The Austrian observer of animal behaviour, Konrad Lorenz ran a Greylag project in the Alps, and found that while family groups stuck closely together, if they were stressed or introduced to a new environment or experience, the herd drive kicked in, overruling their natural aversion to strangers and encouraging them to mingle in a dense flock.
The solitary geese are not a surprise.
Lorenz chose Greylag as the subject of his study because they display some behaviour patterns that can be compared to human family life. Greylag normally pair for life, with the male selecting a female who tickles his fancy, courting her intensively, showing his strength and courage, attacking potential rival ganders, flying and landing at daring, racy angles and at high speed to impress the young lady, dipping his head in the water and shaking off the droplets to make sure she is watching. Unhappy fathers will try to protect their daughters from unsuitable suitors, and family ties are strong. A Greylag that loses its mate will often return to the company of its parents or unattached siblings, and the unattached year-old offspring will often return to parents who have lost the next year's eggs or goslings. All of this will explain why Greylag colonies have solitary individuals hanging round the fringes of breeding pairs.
Why not come out to Cabragh Wetlands and see if you can spot the Greylag as they enjoy the superior hospitality that Temporary has to offer. Large numbers of them used to be shot around here, but surely they are worth so much more alive?