AS we head into 2024, it seems a good time to reflect on how wildlife has fared in the previous year. 2023 seemed to be a good one for Goosanders. I regularly saw them along the river Wharfe and, during the mid to late summer, sometimes in quite large numbers. Goosanders can be gregarious birds. In July, a group of twenty-four juveniles had gathered near the Old Bridge in Ilkley. Apparently the collective noun for Goosanders is a ‘dopping’ (from a term meaning ‘dipping’). By some margin, this is the largest ‘dopping’ that I have seen on the Wharfe. I think many of these birds stayed together for a little while, moving up and down the river, foraging.

A few weeks earlier I watched an adult female Goosander shepherding part of this group, as they foraged for food in a similar location. After a short while she dived and surfaced with a Crayfish (see Nature Notes, June 2023). This was presented to her entourage. Suddenly there was commotion on the river. The Crayfish was soon in two pieces, and extended chases ensued, as the juveniles tried to secure possession of at least a part this prey. Goosanders are able to move at speed over the water, using a ‘higher’ paddling technique to propel themselves forward. In the photograph the lead Goosander has part of the Crayfish in its bill, but the chasing pack are intent on changing that situation. After a while, and after the Crayfish had swapped ‘owners’ a couple of times, things settled down. In part, I think because, by then, it had been broken into ‘bitesize’ pieces that could be ‘wolfed’ down without interference.

Of course, species don’t exist in isolation, and it is interesting to consider possible reasons why such a large group of Goosanders was present. In my last Nature Notes I mentioned that, in the latter part of 2023, Herons were more common along the Ilkley town section of the river, having been rather scarce for quite some time. I suggested that human and canine disturbance may have been the reason for their absence. Herons are consistent predators of ducklings. On more than one occasion I have seen them take small Mallard chicks, while the mother is present. Broods can quickly be decimated. Is it possible that a scarcity of Herons, for the early part of the breeding season, contributed to a local expansion of Goosander numbers? The spread of ripples along the river. It is interesting to consider how interconnected things might be.

Wishing everyone a very happy and wildlife friendly 2024!