Barnacle Goose

In medieval times, the Barnacle Goose was confused with the Brent Goose, which was silly because they look completely different. They also thought they hatched from barnacles, hence the name, which was even sillier. Like the Brent Goose, the Barnacle Goose migrates from the artic areas of Greenland to overwinter on our coastal lowlands, arriving here in October and leaving in March.

The Barnacle Goose is a medium-sized goose, smaller than a Canada Goose. It has a black neck and breast, a creamy white face, and barred back. The underparts are pale with black legs and a white tail. It is thought the white tail helps them keep together when flying in their noisy family V-formations. When flying, they look black and white with pointed wings. Their call is a single high-pitched bark, "rak!", that sounds like a yapping dog.

Barnacle Geese eat grass and other vegetation. They will use their bill to pull up roots which doesn't make them a favourite of farmers when they uproot the autumn sown crops.

Barnacle Geese pair for life and breed in the Arctic. They nest on inaccessible cliff faces near the sea to be safe from Arctic Foxes. Once hatched, the parents show the young goslings the way to jump down from the cliff and the goslings follow them by instinct and take the plunge. Their small size, feathery down, and very light weight helps to protect them from any serious injury. The parents then lead them to places where they can find food. The goslings are not out of danger, as the Arctic Foxes can stalk the young as they are being led to the wetland feeding areas. Sadly, only 50% of the chicks survive their first month. The ones that do survive, stay with their parents for their first winter.

About 90,000 Barnacle Geese overwinter here, mainly in Scotland and their numbers have increased over the last 50 years. Like other geese, they are specially protected.

Their Latin name is 'branta leucopsis' where 'branta' is from Old Norse 'brandgas' for 'burnt (black) goose' because they are black and 'leucopsis' is from Ancient Greek 'leukos' for 'white' and 'opsis' for 'faced'. A black goose with a white face is spot on. Like Brent Geese, because medieval people thought they hatched from barnacles, they were counted as fish and could be eaten on a Friday.

Barnacle Geese video courtesy of

Brent Goose

The Brent Goose is a winter visiting goose, having spent a brief summer break breeding in the artic. They leave the arctic in September to arrive here in October before leaving for the artic again in March. It is our smallest goose, though very elegant in its black finery.

The Brent Goose has a small black head with a white patch on the side of the neck, like a tiny necklace. A dark brown body, dark belly, black legs, and a black bill. A bit of a goth goose. The underparts are variable, but under the tail is always white. The wings look pointed in flight, and they fly in lines rather than the more traditional goose V-formation. Goths like to be different. Their call is a ""warunk" which is made mostly when landing or taking off - to show how tricky it is. There are two types of Brent Goose; the 'dark bellied' where their underparts are almost as dark as their upperparts and the 'pale bellied' where their underparts are a lighter grey-brown. The Brent Goose is flightless for 3 weeks during July to August while it is moulting.

Brent Geese are veggies, eating plants on land and in water, especially eel grass. They feed at winter feeding grounds on estuaries or the seacoast where eel grass, seaweed and sea lettuce is abundant.

The Brent Goose breeds in the Arctic tundra. Breeding must take place within a 100 days before the Arctic snow and ice return. Nesting often starts before all the snow has melted. Bad weather or the early onset of winter has a big impact on their breeding success. The 'dark bellied' breed in Arctic Siberia whereas the 'light bellied' prefer Artic Greenland. Although the Arctic summer is short, food for the geese is plentiful while they are there. They nest in loose colonies on flat tundra areas near ponds and lakes or on islands. The nest is a shallow depression lined with plant material and goose down. Egg laying usually occurs in mid-June. Mum incubates the 3 to 5 eggs for 24-26 days while the male stands guard as Polar Bears, Arctic Foxes, Glaucous Gulls and Arctic Skuas can all take the eggs or chicks. The chicks abandon the nest soon after they have hatched and can fly six weeks later. They stay together as a family group until the following year.

A Brent Goose can live for 19 years or more. About 100,000 overwinter here, nearly half of the world's population. Loss of eel grass marshes in the 1930s led to a decline in their numbers, but restoration of marshland has helped them recover.

Their Latin name is 'branta bernicla' where 'branta' is the Latinised form of Old Norse 'brandgas' meaning 'burnt (black) goose' and 'bernicla' is the medieval Latin name for a barnacle as people in medieval times though they came from barnacles as they didn't understand where they went in the summer. An important medieval man called John Gerard even claimed to have seen the birds emerging from their shells. The legend persisted until the end of the 18th century. In County Kerry, until relatively recently, Catholics could eat a Brent Goose on a Friday because it counted as fish, so was allowed.


Another magic bird of prey with a wizard’s name. It is Europe's smallest falcon of the open countryside. The Merlin has for centuries been a favourite falconry bird with its ability to catch small birds. Being small, in medieval times, they considered it a lady's falcon.

The Merlin has a typical falcon shape with triangular pointed wings. It is smaller than a Kestrel and not much bigger than a potbellied Mistle Thrush. It is easy to tell apart from a Kestrel as it doesn't hover. Merlins have a blue-grey back and a rusty streaked breast. Their pointed wings are dark at the ends and there is a striking black band at the end of the tail. The female is larger and has a browner back. Merlins fly close to the ground in a direct dashing flight with short powerful wing beats followed by a glide.

Merlins usually hunt alone, chasing small birds with agile twists and turns and catching them in the air. It is a fantastic, fast and magical chase to watch. Typical prey includes Skylarks, Meadow Pipits, Chaffinches and Thrushes. They will also feed on voles, bats, moths, and beetles. Merlins rely on their speed and agility, flying fast and low, typically less than one metre above the ground, using trees and large shrubs as cover before taking their prey by surprise.

Merlin breeding occurs typically in May or June. They nest on the ground amongst moorland heather or in old crow nests. Both Mum and dad incubate the 3-5 eggs which hatch after 28 days. Initially, mum tends the young while dad gets the food, issuing a "kek, kek, kek" call near the nest. After 18 days, the young Merlins leave the nest and hide somewhere nearby. They can fly at 25 days and depend on mum and dad for a further 4 weeks. Crows are the primary threat to the eggs and nestlings, though in general carnivorous birds avoid Merlins because of their aggressiveness and agility. Their desire to drive larger raptors away from their territory is so pronounced that it is an identifying characteristic.

There are 1300 pairs in Britain. In winter, they move south from their moorland breeding grounds to lowland areas like coastal salt marshes. Some Merlins from Northern Europe also overwinter here. By far the most serious long-term threat to these birds is habitat destruction, especially in their moorland breeding areas. They need tall heather and are vulnerable to over management by burning or sheep grazing. Like so many birds of prey, they are specially protected.

Their Latin name is 'falco columbarius' where 'falco' derives from the Latin 'falx' or 'falcis' for a sickle, referring to the claws of falcons and 'columbarius' is Latin for 'of doves' from 'columba' meaning 'dove'. The English name Merlin is derived from Anglo-Norman 'merilun' or 'meriliun'. They are also known as a 'pigeon hawk' from their bird catching ability.


A Hobby is a fairly small, spectacular, fast flying falcon with long, narrow wings that wears red trousers. It is a summer visitor of open fields and woodland, often seen over flooded gravel pits.

It looks like an oversized Swift with its sickle-shaped wings. It is the size of a Kestrel but more rakish, with long pointed wings and a short tail. The Hobby is dark blue-grey above and sports a black moustache on its white cheeks. It is thickly streaked below with reddish flanks and red under the tail that makes it look like it is wearing rusty red trousers. It is the natty dresser of the falcon world. Both sexes look the same though, as with many birds of prey, the female is slightly bigger and bossier. Hobbies are elegant flyers that have power and speed, capable of rapid acceleration and breath-taking turns when catching prey.

The Hobby is the only bird of prey that regularly feeds on large insects, which it catches in flight with its feet, and eats while slowly soaring in circles. Big juicy dragonflies are a favourite, followed closely by grasshoppers and moths. It will also eat small birds. The Hobby is so agile it can even catch Swallows, House Martins and bats. Swallows and House Martins have a characteristic "hobby" alarm call when one is about. It is fast enough to rob other predators, like Kestrels, of their catches.

Hobby courtship starts in May with dramatic soaring and diving aerobatics. This is quite late compared to other migrant birds. It nests in mature trees, using the old nests of other birds like crows. The only time you will hear a Hobby is when it gives a "kew, kew, kew" call in the vicinity of its nest. The 2-4 eggs are laid in late in June and hatch after 28 days. Mum does most of the incubation while dad brings the food and occasionally relieves her when she fancies a wing stretch. The youngsters can fly 28 days later but depend on their parents for a month. It is thought that Hobbies lay their eggs late, so many inexperienced young birds are about for food when the youngsters are ready to fly and learning to feed. With their late start, there is only time for them to have one brood.

The Hobby is a summer visitor, found mainly in England, though a rare few get as far as Scotland. There are 3,000 pairs and it is specially protected as liking to eat small birds has not made it a friend of gamekeepers. Its current biggest threat is egg thieves. The oldest known Hobby lived for 15 years, though the average life span is usually 5 years.

The Latin is 'falco subbuteo' where 'falco' derives from the Latin 'falx' or 'falcis' for a sickle, referring to the claws of falcons and 'subbuteo' is from the Latin 'sub' for 'near to' and 'buteo' for 'buzzard'. A falcon near to a Buzzard. The English name comes from Old French 'hobé' or 'hobet'. Interestingly, the inventor of the tabletop football game called it 'Subbuteo' because the Hobby was his favourite bird.