Geese are far more mysterious than you think
A few months back I was on an early-morning tour of a wetland. “Now,” began our guide, “does any of you know what I mean by a migratory bird?” Greeted by tuts and sarcastic eye-rolls, he set the bar a little higher and off we went to gawp at feathered friends through binoculars.
The meaning of migration, it turns out, is more complex and downright epic than our group over-confidently supposed. That much is apparent in The Meaning of Geese, a charming account of a winter’s attritional goose-watching in north Norfolk.
The stars of this story are pink-footed geese. “Pinks” do their summer moulting and breeding in Iceland and Greenland then head a thousand miles south to places likes Holkham, which they use as a coastal base for inland sorties to feed in beet fields – that is, if farmers have left anything for them. The global population of pinks is half a million. In the lockdown winter of 2020-21, 50,000 came here, and pretty much all of them were accounted for by Nick Acheson.
Acheson is a goose nerd (the term gooser, as a sub-category of birder, doesn’t seem to exist) who caught the bug as a boy when introduced by a teacher to dark-bellied brent geese as they scoured Norfolk’s salt marshes. As an adult he migrated away to Bolivia to work in conservation for a decade until on a trip back he saw a brent and took it as a sign to continue the good work at home.
The pandemic gave Acheson fallow time to mount his rickety bike and scope Norfolk for the “thousands of lives brought here by wind, genes, instinct and the planet’s axial tilt”. By the time the geese fly north in spring, he’s pedalled a thousand often wet and miserable miles of his own, all to count and identify the resident flocks and share his findings on the goose web. Some fellow enthusiasts mentioned in dispatches, good sorts who like him rarely talk of anything else, also photograph or paint geese.
His beloved pinks soon budge up and make room for other members of the two goose types classified in Latin as Anser and Branta. He loves them all, even “unfairly scorned” greylags and “universally despised” feral Canada geese. “It is hard to look at a barnacle goose,” he enthuses, “and not feel happy.” His lone prejudice is against surly Egyptians, which he argues aren’t really geese anyway.
Goose science is slow, meticulous work. One day with his clicker he counts 273 geese, “mostly brents”, but sifting slowly through vast flocks he will spot random rarities: a tiny scattering of snow geese, a Todd’s Canada goose, a tundra bean goose (not to be confused with its taiga cousin, from a different bit of Siberia). “I’m really good at Where’s Wally,” says another nerd with a telescope. He describes their markings minutely, and sometimes poetically. Black brants are “a bitter chocolate black, with the warm cast of a second-day bruise”.
This is a book about geese, yes. Their fluctuations, their vexed taxonomies, the “fractal complexity” of their flocks, their skill at whiffling, in which they perform aeronautical body rolls when coming in to land. “If I could learn one thing from geese,” Acheson writes, “it would be to whiffle.” There are goose mysteries too. Amazingly, greylag pairs who keep losing chicks will foster their young out to more successful parents, who are willing to adopt as it improves the odds on their own chicks’ survival. Reading The Meaning of Geese may inspire you to descend on north Norfolk this winter yourself.
But it’s also a book about obsession and community and, inevitably, climate change. With an increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius, Acheson projects, Norfolk will one day be too hot for pinks. The tolling bell has forced this student of frequent flyers to renounce flight himself.
His journal also has much to say about what mother nature, whose every changing detail he records, can do for a person’s mental wellbeing. Unlike geese, who pair for life, Acheson seems to be unpaired and, as he confides, “bad at winter”.
But not this winter. By November he has started to think like geese, to feel their overhead chatter vibrate in his chest. One December day he shivers alone and stock-still in a hedgerow for many hours. “I have never loved geese more than today,” he concludes. With humans, as with geese, it takes all types.
The Meaning of Geese is published by Chelsea Green at £18.99. To order your copy for £16.99 call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books