Country diary: a whole animal society is on the move

Carey Davies
Photograph: NPL/Alamy

Enough light seeps from the cloud-bruised sky that I can find my way, but night is gradually claiming the fields and back roads beyond Leeds – under trees and in hedgerows it has already arrived. In this frail crepuscular gloom, my run feels like a chore, and I mourn the passing of long evenings.

On a long, wind-buffeted stretch of straight road north of Eccup reservoir, a sound catches my ear; I look up to see a long skein of 40 or 50 birds undulating in my direction, filling the air with a clamorous medley of honking sounds. This one line of geese is a spirit-lifting sight in itself, but as they pass overhead I notice another formation, just as big and just as loud, close behind them.

‘I look up to see a long skein of 40 or 50 birds undulating in my direction.’ Photograph: Mike Lane/Getty

Adjusting my ears to the sounds of this second wave, I tune in to more calls, spread across a huge width of sky, and come to a stop when I begin to process the magnitude of the phenomenon. It is a migration of pink-footed geese – a whole animal society on the move from their summer breeding grounds in Iceland and Greenland.

More rippling, honking, shrieking lines of birds appear from the north – and keep appearing. I stand there for 15 minutes, watching wave after wave drone overhead on their final approach to the reservoir, where their noises converge into a cacophony. The tight formations loosen as they descend, peeling apart as they join the enormous collective entity on the water.

I struggle to comprehend the quantity of birds that must be involved overhead, but pink-footed geese travel in serious numbers; four years ago, about 86,000 of them – a fifth of the world population – were spotted in one place in Scotland.

Growing cold, I start running again. The incoming skeins show no sign of stopping. By the time I reach the reservoir’s shores, it is too gloomy to see much, but the noise of the combined conversation of these tens of thousands of birds is overpowering. It fills this dreary autumn evening with the promise of distant lands, the spirit of collective endeavour, and the borderless wonder of the wild world.

‘Pink-footed geese travel in serious numbers.’ Photograph: Robin Chittenden/Alamy