WE lived for a few years in Southend-on-Sea in Essex. Many probably think of it as a ‘kiss-me-quick’ kind of place, and it is true that it has lots of amusement arcades. But it is also home to the world’s longest pleasure pier (one and a third miles) with its own railway, and one of the best wildlife spectacles to be had in the country.
Every October the brent geese return to the Thames Estuary at Leigh-on-Sea, the western end of Southend. There are actually two types of brent geese, the pale-bellied which breed in Canada and Greenland and winter in Ireland, and the dark-bellied, which breed in northern Russia and winter on the south and east coasts of England and sites on the other side of the North Sea. It is the latter type, Branta bernicla bernicla, we are concerned with here.
They are small geese, not much bigger than a mallard. They have about two months of good weather in the Arctic tundra to lay eggs and get their goslings ready for the journey south, which can be up to 2,500 miles. By mid-September, they have left their breeding grounds, and arrive in large flocks on our shores in early October. Thousands spend the winter months around the Essex coast, feeding on eelgrass (an underwater plant with quarter-inch wide leaves that can reach lengths of 3ft) in estuaries and on crops and grass in adjoining fields. From the shore you can clearly hear their endless chattering to each other in a sort of ‘cronk’. They sound permanently rather annoyed about something.
You would think that after all that flying they would want to rest, but not a bit of it. They often take off in huge flocks, flying in loose formation rather than a distinct V, and keeping in family groups.
I could not choose between these videos of the geese in flight so I am giving both:
When the tide comes in they adjourn to fields or swim in the shallows:
In March it is time to leave for Russia. (The geese in the video above were filmed in May, so I don’t know what they were up to.) This spring the Essex Wildlife Trust https://www.essexwt.org.uk/protecting-wildlife/projects/brent-geese was able, with the help of a tiny GPS tag, to track a goose on its epic journey. Codenamed Bran17, the male bird flew first to the Wadden Sea, a shallow body of water with tidal flats and wetlands in the southeastern part of the North Sea. Here, he spent two months feeding and resting on the coast of northern Germany before the sprint finish began on Saturday May 23. By midnight, he passed to the south of Copenhagen and crossed the southern tip of Sweden, heading out across the Baltic Sea.
By 6am on May 24, the bird passed Gotland, a large Swedish island in the middle of the Baltic Sea, continued to cross the Baltic Sea and after travelling 630 miles, he finally had a rest stop in a bay on the Estonian island of Hiiu.
After only 12 hours, at around 6pm May 25, Bran17 flew off again, heading up the Gulf of Finland passing the cities of Helsinki and Tallinn, Estonia. By midnight he had reached the west coast of Russia. During May 26 he passed St Petersburg, and by 6pm he arrived at his destination, Lake Lizhmozero in Karelia, northwest Russia. He had covered 1,134 miles in 60 hours from the north coast of Germany.
If you fancy a trip to see the geese, you get better views when the tide is out, and there are two or three decent pubs with views over the front at Leigh. You are better off with binoculars.
While I am writing about Southend, I wonder if any readers can solve a mystery which has been puzzling me for about 30 years. We lived in Shoeburyness, the easternmost part of Southend, and sometimes after coming home from work in the early hours we would go for a walk by the sea. One night the air was heavy and a thunderstorm was clearly on the way. The sea was still with small waves lapping on the sand, and as we watched them we started to see something that I still find hard to describe. The edges of the waves were lit with an electric blue, bright and sparky like miniature lightning bolts. It was definitely not caused by marine creatures; it was too bright. We watched for several minutes as the phenomenon increased in strength, but as soon as the thunder and lightning started it vanished. It has been suggested to me that this was phosphorescence but I understand phosphorescence to be more of a glow than a dramatic light show.