Among some of the birding highlights of recent weeks have been the geese, which are always one of the real joys of winter bird-watching. I’m not often put off getting out during poor weather, but these almost apocalyptic winds of late suggested to me that time might better be spent in the warmth and with a good book in my hand so…….. Whilst not reading Jonathan Dimbleby’s Battle of the Atlantic, I listened to the gales outside and felt pleased that I wasn’t in a convoy riding the Atlantic waves, and then I pulled Wildfowl of the British Isles and N W Europe/Brian Martin off the shelves and dusted it down. Now almost twenty-five years old some of the data mentioned is very much out of date, but there is still some good reading to be had, especially amongst Martin’s information on the naming of the wildfowl. Incidentally I also have Brian Martin’s Birds of Prey of the British Isles, published in 1992, one year before the wildfowl book, and in this case signed by the one and only Bill Oddie who I met years ago at a bird fair up at Druridge. I wonder if any of you were there on that day? I don’t remember anything like that taking place for many a year in this area. I felt a bit awkward asking Bill to sign a copy of a book that he wasn’t the author of, but he didn’t seem to mind. I bumped into him later in the dunes, but I gained the impression he didn’t want to be disturbed whilst birding (I fully appreciate why, as I’m inclined to be the same) so only a nod was exchanged. I know Bill rates Northumberland highly and I’m sure I have it correct that he used to be involved at the observatory at Monk’s House. Anyway I’d been thinking about the Bean Goose and White-fronted Geese I’d seen this month, hence the book coming off the shelf.
Canada Geese, Patch.
The first thing I was reminded of whilst flicking through the pages was that Bean and Pink-footed Geese were separated as species only in 1833, although I understand there is some dispute as to maybe it being a year or two before this. The name Bean Goose is apparently originally a Lincolnshire term and was introduced by Pennant in 1768. The scientific name of Anser fabalis was also given in the eighteenth century. When Pennant first introduced the name Bean Goose there was some thought that it derived from the fact that the nail of the bill has some similarity to a horsebean, but this seems unlikely according to Martin. Fabalis derives from the Latin faba, which means bean. In the eighteenth century, field beans were grown more extensively than now and Bean Geese are thought to be the first geese to exploit agricultural crops in a large way. The Bean Goose I had watched at Holywell was a Tundra Bean Goose, Anser fabalis rossicus, rossicus being a Latinised version of ‘Russia’.
The scientific specific name for Pink-Footed Goose brachyrhynchus derives from Greek. Brackhus meaning short and rhunkhos meaning beak. This makes the point that it is shorter billed than the Bean Goose for which it had been confused until 1833, although Temminck argued that it had been recognised as a separate species in Holland in 1829/30.
Pink-footed Geese. Druridge.
I’ve had many decent sightings of White-fronted Geese Anser albifrons over the years, but non better than the flocks of Greenland White-fronted Geese seen on Islay a few years ago. It was Sir Peter Scott who said that Islay was the ‘best place in Europe to watch geese’ and it was he (along with Christopher Dalgety of whom I am able to find only the briefest information. He was a friend of Peter Scott, a wildfowler and wrote a book on wildfowling) who recognised and first described and named the sub species Greenland White-fronted Geese Anser albifrons flavirostris in 1948. Albifrons derives from the Latin albus for white and frons for forehead and flaviostris is Latin for yellow-beaked. In the case of the rarer Lesser White-fronted Goose Anser erythropus of which I believe I’ve only seen one truly wild bird, and that was on a freezing cold day in Norfolk when the bird kept insisting on disappearing behind a ditch some distance away, the common name simply reflects that this bird recognised since 1758, is smaller than the White-fronted Goose. Erythropus derives from the Greek eruthros for red and refers to the bright pink bill.
In the case of Greylag Geese Anser anser, the Latin Anser simply meaning goose, and this bird has the same specific name because it was thought to be the original wild goose. There is a good explanation given by Martin as to the use of the common name Greylag and the quote is below.
‘’There are many explanations for the origin of the current name, but simple ‘gray lag’ is first noticed in the work of Ray in 1713, and ‘grey lag goose’ was introduced by Pennant in 1768. Lag is a name of great antiquity and said to have derived from the call, lag-lag-lag, widely used in driving domesticated geese. Another explanation is that this was the goose that lagged behind when all other geese went north. But equally plausible is the suggestion that this was the bird which commonly grazed the leys (sometimes leas)--- ley goose’’
Barnacle Geese. Caerlaverock
Now onto the branta/black geese. The generic term Branta stems from the Old Norse Brandgas which means burnt goose and is associated with the dark colour of the geese. In the case of the Canada Goose Branta Canadensis, the common and specific name needs little in the way of explanation and simply describes the bird’s origin. Probably less well known is an old name for Canada Goose was Cravat Goose, and this derives from the birds white chin strap. Plenty to look into as to sub species of this bird and the Cackling Goose Branta hutchinsii, but I think I’ll leave that until the gale force winds return and/or I’m extremely bored!
The Barnacle Goose Branta leucopsis was once known as the Bernicle Goose. The common name Barnacle derives from the twelfth century legend if Geraldus and the myth that this goose emerged from shellfish known as goose barnacles. This myth was of course believed for hundreds of years and eye witness accounts of this happening are on record, an instance of folk seeing what they want to see, and I suggest that this still occurs! The specific name of leucopsis derives from the Greek leukos for white and opsis for aspect or appearance, referring to the bird’s white forehead and face.
Barnacle Geese. Caerlaverock
If I had to choose a favourite goose it would more than likely be the Brent Goose Branta bernicla, that is until I actually see a genuine wild Red Breasted Goose Branta ruficollis, rufus meaning red and collis meaning necked. I find that once the meaning is known the remembering of the scientific name becomes a great deal easier, especially when the terms are used in other naming e.g. Tachybaptus ruficollis for Little Grebe. The Latin specific name bernicla stems from the French term bernicle (or ought that to be the other way around?), and of course also refers to the Barnacle Goose. Now if all this Latin, Greek and French isn’t confusing enough, in the case of the (Pale Bellied) Brent Goose Branta bernicla hrota that we see so many of on Lindisfarne, we have here a little Icelandic thrown in too. I confess the term hrota had me puzzled until I found on the internet that it is Icelandic for snoring. I assumed that it referred to the birds call and Janet Kear’s volume Ducks Geese and Swans confirmed this. It refers to the birds rolling call, which Kear refers to as hard raunk, raunk and softer ronk. In the case of the sub species (Black Brant) Branta bernicla nigricans, nigricans clearly refers to the dark colouring of the bird.
I'd like to say that this is a Red-breasted Goose among a flock of Barnacle Geese, taken after skillful use of fieldcraft. In truth it was a posing Red Breasted Goose at Martin Mere WWT.
Feel free to test me on the above if you bump into me whilst birding, but I may be pre-occupied! I hope to get out this weekend, although I see the damn winds are back. If it gets too bad I may yet get onto Canada Geese sub species, but I doubt it.
You’ll be pleased to know I have finished Jonathan Dimbleby’s Battle of the Atlantic and an excellent read it was too. It even had a kind of birding link, as it spoke of Joe Baker Cresswell, commander of the HMS Bulldog, and the taking of the first enigma machine form a U Boat, U-110. Sam and I stayed with Joe Baker Cresswell’s son for bed and breakfast during our stay at Bamburgh a couple of years ago. It’s a small world, although it wasn’t a small book or a small battle!