Birding in Wharfedale – Goosanders

Red Kite

Red Kite

One of the most attractive of the water birds we find along the River Wharfe is the goosander. This diving duck is a ‘sawbill’, i.e. it has a long bill with a serrated edge, which helps it catch active fish and crustaceans. It is an elegant bird where both sexes have attractive plumage, but it is also shy and will avoid crowds, so it is always a pleasure to come on a pair along a quiet stretch of the river. Unlike many of the birds in our area, the goosander was once a rarity and the first recorded case of breeding here was a red-letter day; it is now a bird everyone likes to record, so that we get a lot of sightings each year.

The goosander occurs throughout Europe and North America (where it is known as a common merganser), and in the Far East. In Eurasia, it breeds throughout northern countries, particularly in Scandinavia, and across to the Bering Sea. It migrates in winter to warmer countries, mainly to inland lakes, gravel pits and broad rivers. The original estimates for Europe of 150,000 in the 1980’s are now considered much too low. The first recorded breeding record in the UK was in Scotland 1871 but, since then, there has been a major expansion south. It is now found throughout most of England. There were 2700 breeding pairs in UK in the late ’80’s, up from 1250 pairs in 1975. In Wharfedale, the goosander is a scarce breeder and a common winter visitor.

The other common sawbill in the UK is the red-breasted merganser. However, the two species tend to be separated by habitat. Goosanders favour rivers and inland lakes. It doesn’t tend to feed on the bottom of rivers and so is tolerant of deep waters and fast flowing streams. By comparison, the merganser favours shallower salt water, i.e. tends to be found around the coast. The merganser is therefore a scarce visitor to our area with, typically, 2 or 3 sightings per year .

Communal courtship can occur anytime from December, but peaks in late winter and spring. Females are gregarious and often search for suitable nest sites together. They usually nest near water – in a hole in a tree, in a bank or in crevices amongst rocks; they also frequently use nest boxes. The earliest eggs are laid between the end March and early April; but usually from mid-April to early May. There is 1 brood/year typically with a clutch of 8 to 12 eggs. Incubation takes 30 to 32 days. Chicks leave the nest after couple of days and are taken to the water, where they are cared for by the female for 5 weeks. Meanwhile the male will desert the female during incubation, and sometimes after the eggs are laid – only rarely are male and female seen with young.

Goosander Movements and Habits
The migratory habits are complicated and unique amongst UK birds. The almost complete disappearance of males during the summer remained a mystery for many years. It is now known that males leave females in late June and migrate to fjords of Northern Norway to moult. They remain there until the advent of freezing, with early arrivals in North Sea countries in late October and early November, but with no large numbers until December, later than any other wintering ducks. Females moult but stay in this country, along with a few males. The goosander is a gregarious bird outside breeding season, and large flocks gather during the winter when birds return to the UK. In the summer groups of females can be found together.

The goosander locates food from the surface with head under water and then dives expertly, using only its legs for propulsion under water. It is particularly keen on eels and salmon, which makes it unpopular with anglers. In fact the spread of birds in recent years has led to them being regarded as an economically important pest and it is now subject to licensed culling (see table discussed below)

Birds are silent except during breeding when the male croaks and the female cackles, although their wings can make a whistling sound.

Finding goosanders in the WNS area
The following table summarises the trends in goosander population in our area: the map shows sightings in the first half of this year.

You have a good chance of seeing goosanders any time over the next six months. Your best hope is at Lindley Wood reservoir, although views from the bridge can be distant and you really need a telescope. Alternatively, try wandering along one of the quieter reaches of the Wharfe. My own favourite spot is the small, tucked away hide 400 yards north of the Cavendish Pavilion on the west bank of the river. The riverbed there falls quite rapidly and the water sparkles as it ripples over the rocks. It’s a quiet spot, with areas not easily seen from the nearby, busy public paths, and I often see a pair of birds there. Alternatively, it’s a good spot for dipper and grey wagtails – or common sandpipers in the breeding season.

John Flood


Goosander in the WNS area: An Historical Perspective
Pre-WNS Main sites for wintering birds in Yorkshire have traditionally been Eccup Reservoir, Stocks Reservoir and Hornsea Mere (although with little evidence of their presence before 1920), so they must have been seen occasionally in our area.[For instance, 176 birds were present on Eccup in 1979 when conditions were particularly severe in Western Europe, and 118 were recorded on the Wharfe between Poole and Arthington that same year when the reservoir froze over!]

1940’s Generally 2 or 3 sightings a year in Washburn or to the East – usually of 2 or 3 birds, although with 15 near Weeton in March 1947.

1950’s Little change, with 3 years when there were no sightings. Most of sightings were on the Washburn Reservoirs at Swinsty and Lindley – where birds appear to have been present for much of the first 3 months of 1953. There was 1 record on the Wharfe at Ben Rhydding in 1953, whilst birds were twice recorded at Grimwith Reservoir.

1960’s Numbers were, if anything, slightly down in the first half of the decade. Significant increases from 1968, but with birds still being seen mainly on reservoirs. Birds started appearing at Knotford Nook in 1965, and were beginning to show a strong preference for Chelker Reservoir from 1968 (when 31 were recorded at the end of that year). Birds were winter visitors, starting to arrive in November and not being recorded after March.

1970’s Not much change throughout the first half of the decade, although the observation period extended to the first and last quarters of each year. Regular sightings on the River Wharfe started to appear in 1975. Chelker still a favourite, although good numbers on Lower Barden Reservoir from 1977.A key event in 1976 was the first breeding record at Bolton Abbey when large numbers watched a female and 8 young in June. At the time this was the most southerly record. Breeding has occurred in the area almost every year since then, although none was reported in 1989. (Breeding had been spreading southwards since the first record in Scotland 1871. Birds bred in Northumberland in ’40’s, on the River Tees in 1969, and in Wensleydale at Leyburn in 1972.)

1980’s – to present Since then the goosander has become a common winter visitor and a scarce breeding resident, with limited numbers of birds present throughout the year. They are seen along the length of the river and on the reservoirs, with those in Washburn and, in particular, Lindley favoured by winter migrants since the early ’90’s. It seems that breeding continues to be restricted to the river and there has still been no records of breeding in the Washburn (so that sightings there tend to be restricted to between October and May). There are several reports of young each year, with a peak of 22 pairs with young in 1997.The increase in numbers has not been universally welcome and there was an application to cull birds from the fishing community in 1994. In the last few years, and after a peak in the late ’90’s, there has been a distinct decline in numbers with peak numbers, presumably due to culling. Numbers on Lindley Reservoir have fallen from a peak of 65 in 1999 to less than 30 in subsequent years (and the peak so far in 2003 has been only 14). In 2002, there were actually more young reported in Airedale than in Wharfedale!