Lucy McRobert: winter wonderland


There are times, as a birder, when a certain species or group defines a period of your life. For many of us, this winter is all about the 'invasion' of Waxwings that has gripped the UK. Charismatic, beautiful and from an individual to flocks a thousand strong, there are few species that turn heads and win hearts like Waxwings do. My winter, however, has been defined so far by geese. Not as sexy as Waxwings for sure, but I have shared so many happinesses with geese in the last couple of months that it would be impossible not to acknowledge them.

It started with a beautiful moment shared with my daughter. We were in Norfolk in September, combining apple picking, ice cream and birding. Late in the day, an enormous flock of Pink-footed Geese announced their presence high above us with their high-pitched, winking (honking to normal folk, but now I work for The Sound Approach I can't say that). They trailed across the sky, flying in lazy, raggedy, rippling skeins. To my surprise, daughter looked up at them thoughtfully before announcing to the whole playground: "Mummy, look: migration!" I had explained a few weeks previously (and simplistically) how birds would go to warmer places for a winter holiday, but I was stunned that her five-year-old mind had retained the word and concept. (Next up, 'murmuration', 'emargination', and 'moustachial stripe'.

As winter drew in, I was back in Norfolk once more, this time surrounded by Brent Geese. It was freezing cold with a biting wind and occasional flurries of grey mizzle. In one of the most fortuitous moments in my birding life, we bumped into well-known wildlife artist and goose expert James McCallum, who, while casually scanning through the flock for the umpteenth time that day, unexpectedly and very calmly announced: "Oh, there's a Red-breasted Goose!" He followed it up with an even more casual: "Huh, that's the only goose I'd never found before." If birding moments can be cool, this was one of them, and it was necessary to celebrate with mulled wine in the pub.

Sightings of large flocks of geese, including Barnacle Geese in the Netherlands, have reminded Lucy of the joys of winter birding (Mark Wilson).


Winter goose chase

Lying in bed on the day of writing, I awoke to the high-pitched, musical sound of Russian White-fronted Geese laughing as they passed over in small groups, followed by the barking of Barnacle Geese. Driving around that day in the east of the Netherlands, I loved seeing the flocks of 'white-fronts' grazing in the waterlogged fields, the adults with their patchily striped bellies and neat white blaze.

I associate birding in winter with being very, very cold – and so have never enjoyed it as much as I should. I have an inability to put on enough clothes to keep me warm; even with two pairs of socks, gloves, hat and everything else, if there is an inch of skin exposed for a minute, I'll be shivering, my frozen fingers unable to use the focus wheel on my binoculars. I love the flocks of geese, ducks and swans, the shimmering of a wader murmuration, the drama of a starling murmuration, the thrill of a Long-eared Owl roosting in a tree or a flock of glorious Brambling, but I just can't stay warm. Mulled wine admittedly improves the experience. 

But my minor inconveniences paled when I chatted to a Leicester birder named Steve. Steve loves watching wildlife, but winter brings a physical challenge. While I get chilly, Steve's health is seriously at risk in cold weather as he suffers from asthma and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). His lung function is significantly lower than average, and the cold is a major trigger. During the winter months, he is limited as to where he can go, how long he can stay out and how far he can walk. As the temperature drops below 10°C, the risk is too great, and on one occasion Steve was nearly hospitalised after misjudging the weather and the distance he walked. 

Hearing Steve's story, and understanding how many are in the same position, has encouraged me to put on my fluffy socks, get a better jumper and stop my whinging about winter. I'm glad to share his story wider. The geese and ducks, Bramblings and Hawfinches, owls, thrushes and Waxwings are experiences we all look forward to as the rhythm of the year progresses; I can appreciate them even more knowing that these are not moments I should take for granted.


  • This column first appeared in the January 2024 edition of Birdwatch. To be the first to read the magazine each month, take out a subscription to Birdwatch or Bird News Ultimate.
Written by: Lucy McRobert

Lucy McRobert is a wildlife author and communications professional, as well as a Birdwatch columnist. Follow her on Twitter: @LucyMcRobert1