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Lost or escaped, snow geese" were a magnificent sight

by Paul Cormacain

OFF to Castle Espie again, this time to see among others the snow geese. Snow geese? Well, Jimmy Deane, who used to write this column, and myself, saw a snow goose once in Donegal, possibly about 15 years ago.

We were rather surprised at the sighting, just as I was last week at Castle Espie, for the snow goose is a beautiful Arctic goose, not a bird of Europe.

It has pink legs and bill, white all over except for black primaries which are mostly noticable in flight. So it is very distinctive, easy to identify, and it would be difficult to mistake it for any other bird.

The one we saw in north Donegal was a delight to see, and we spent many an hour over deciding its origin.

The consensus was that the bird had not flown from the Arctic, but it might well have been an escapee from the north of Ireland or the north of England.

About two million of these birds breed in Arctic north America and in Siberia, and mostly they over-winter in Louisiana and Texas.

Some folk do keep them in collections, so the easiest, most obvious thing to say of a sighting is that the bird is an escapee.

According to 'Wildfowl of the World', by Madge and Burn, most vagrants in Europe are considered escapees. However, 'wild individuals do occur, especially in Iceland and Ireland'.

So the bird seen in the far wilds of Donegal could have been a migrant who got lost. The three snow geese at Castle Espie were much further east, but because each would have encouraged the other, the strong possibility exists that they were migrants who did not follow the traffic signs.

Chances are that they will hang around Espie for a time, resting after their journey from the Actic or from a collection. Why not nip along and have a look.

You might be even lucky enough to see the unusual sight we saw. A lady mallard hoved into view with her brood of four young ones around her.

Now the mallard is our most common duck, and it exists over most of the northern hemisphere apart from the tundra zone of the high Arctic, high mountains and deserts. Most parks with a pond have them.

After the male breeds he gets offside, and leaves the female to do all the work with bringing up their family. That is why you only see the young with their mother, never with the father.

They are dabbling ducks, which means they do not dive but rather probe below them for sustenance. Part of the rearing of the young is for the mother to teach the young to 'dabble' for their food. That is exactly what this lady mallard was doing.

The children were diving! What sort of a teacher was the mother? What sort of pupils were the children? Why was big daddy not there to help out? Did the mother not tell them that were dabbling ducks, not diving ducks? All very strange!

When we eventually got an explanation, it was simple and straight-forward. James Orr, from Castle Espie, told us the young were hungry, and instinctively they dived for food. When they grow up, they will realise they are dabbling ducks, and never dive again.

Other unusual geese at Espie were nene, the indigenous goose of Hawaii, and its presence there represent a minor miracle.

At one time the Hawaiian goose was on the brink of extinction, but a captive-breeding programme was established. Now the nene is back in the wilds in Hawaii.

All the year round there is a good collection of birds at Castle Espie, with winter visitors, summer visitors, and all-year-round inhabitants. It is always worth a visit, and is enjoyable for its bird watching, or even a day out for the family.

Coming Events

Saturday 7th, Sunday 8th September - Green Living fair at Castle Espie, designed to help the politicians at Johannesburg think more clearly, more from 9187 4146

Sunday 8th September - Teddy Bears must be accompanied by humans if they go for a walk at 2pm in Colin Glen Forest Park. Phone 9061 4115

Sunday 15th September - Date scheduled for the ! Annual Belfast Hills Walk, this event has now been cancelled.

Thursday 26th September - Birdwatch morning at Castle Espie at 10.30, more details from 9187 4146.

Friday 27 September - Wildlife Pub Quiz, 8pm, find out more from Castle Espie 9187 4146

Ulster Star