History Group Talk February 2012

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The talk this month was "Dartmoor Birds" an illustrated talk by Richard Hibbert.


Rather than a look at Dartmoor Birds in the plural, we had an in-depth look at one bird in particular. This was the 'Goosander'. Richard who is a teacher as well as a wildlife enthusiast has researched the life and habits of this particular bird. He therefore called his talk :-

The Secret Life of the Goosanders.

This bird really enjoys living on fast moving fresh water rivers, and it is in this environment that they live and breed. Goosander = Mergus Merganser.  It does at certain times of the year ‘roost’ on reservoirs and lakes but breeds on the banks, trees, rocks and undergrowth of rivers and the River Dart is one of it’s favourite haunts here in South Devon all year round. They can be found on a few other rivers in this area, in fact South Devon is an isolated site in Britain. Their most favoured area is Wales, and the West Midland northwards including all of Scotland. They tend to ‘pair up’ for breeding in January / February when the males can be seen in their breeding finery. For years now it has been noted that from May to November the males seem to disappear and there has been great confusion as to where they were or whether they lose their colouration. It has only recently been realised that in fact they migrate north, to northern Norway. Quite close to the North Cape, to a Fjord known as Tanafjord. It is there that the males seem to congregate - up to 3,500 of them in one of the biggest flocks recorded. They go there to ‘moult’ and when they attain their breeding plumage they return. Their heads with a dark green plumage that reflects well in the winter sunshine, and their white under parts have a distinct ‘pink hue’. In other words they are ‘in the pink‘, ready to charm their females.  This is quite early in the ornithological world as most male birds tend to be at their peak plumage in March / April ready for breeding.  Is it the food that they eat on the Fjords that has an effect on their colouration? More research needed there!  The female has in contrast Brown Head Feathers, a distinct difference. They lay between 8 and 12 eggs and hatch in May. The ‘ducklings’ are immediately able to swim, and feed themselves, eating small water insects and the like, where the mature Goosanders survive entirely on fish. It is due to their diet that they are not liked very much by fishermen. There is also another bird 'The Red Breasted Merganser‘, smaller and with a ‘shaggy head of feathers’. Both breeds are very striking in appearance.  Historical Data; The first recording of the Goosander in Britain was in 1871 having migrated from Europe, but much farther North. It was not until 1931 that they were seen on Burrator Reservoir and the first record of them breeding in Devon was not until 1980 and the first on Dartmoor was when they bred on the Dart in 1985. In 2011 there were recorded 89 Goosanders in Devon and about 2,600 pairs in Britain as a whole. They are distinctive in their colouring and the shape of their red beak, which has a hook on the front tip. The other most noticeable thing is the ‘Saw Like’ edges to their beak. Sometimes known as the bird with teeth. This is because they are fish eaters. They grab their prey, then rotate it so that they can swallow their food head first. The teeth and the hook like bill, stops them losing their food once caught. The success of this talk can be judged by the number of questions asked after the presentation and we look forward to a further visit from Richard, or perhaps a guided nature walk.


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