Friends volunteer, popular guide and bird expert Trevor Gunton introduces the next in this series of informative articles.

Image by Corine Bliek, CC BY-NC 2.0

There has never been a time in my long birdwatching life that I have not been involved with this large and perhaps most attractive sawbill.  This species has a very interesting history in the UK.  It was widely persecuted in Scotland, but eventually bred successfully in Perthshire in 1871.  A large influx of birds in 1875 resulted in widespread breeding in Scotland, in the face of strong opposition from Scottish fishing interests.

Goosanders first bred in England in 1941 and in the northern Yorkshire Dales by 1969.  Walking the Dales in the 1960s, I came to know the goosander well, but did not realise that it was, at this time, a non-breeding bird.

It has now continued to expand south in Yorkshire and today I have been informed that goosanders are so common that they are breeding successfully within 5 miles of the centre of Leeds.  

I have always been interested in roosting birds.  The most important goosander roost has usually been located at Eccup Reservoir in north Leeds, where over 250 goosanders were counted in the late 1990s.  But I clearly remember the freeze of the 1962/3 winter, when most inland waters were frozen hard and just about all the Eccup birds eventually ended up on the nearby River Wharfe, or even the North Sea in ice-chocked Bridlington Bay.  Difficult times for birds and birdwatchers!

Coming closer to home, wintering numbers of goosanders fluctuate – the harder the winter, the more birds we can generally expect. In 1960, there were just 15 birds at Paxton, but in 1996 we hosted no fewer than 60.  However, the most important place locally for goosanders is Grafham Water, principally the Dam End.  As I write this article in early November, I have not heard of any goosanders yet this autumn.

In recent years, Paxton numbers have been in single figures.  So why is this?  Is it due to the changing winter conditions?  As goosanders are breeding across Wales, Derbyshire, Shropshire and as far south as Devon, it has been suggested that the reduction in wintering numbers here in Cambridgeshire may be linked to the fact that more birds are now more or less resident throughout the year on their breeding rivers, and they may lose their prime nesting spots if they move.  However, this is unproven.

Finally, the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981) gave overall protection to all wild birds in the UK, but goosanders may still be destroyed where serious damage to fish stocks occurs.  Quite how this can be proven is a puzzle to me. However, up to 500 goosanders per year were killed on Scottish rivers up to 1991.

Despite man’s destructive activities, the goosander remains a very successful breeding bird, as my fact file demonstrates.  Look out for this beautiful and colourful sawbill at Paxton and Grafham in winter!

Goosander Fact File

  • Latin name:  Mergus merganser
  • Colonised Britain in 1871.
  • Breeds along fast-flowing streams and rivers.  Also uses clear lakes throughout the year.
  • Breeds in northern Europe, Iceland, Russia and northern China.  A sub-species breeds in North America.
  • Winters in Southern Europe, including the Volga and Danube deltas, which can hold around 15,000 birds.
  • UK breeding – 1991: c2000 pairs.  2020: 3,100 – 3,800 pairs.
  • Nests in holes in trees overhanging water, young jumping directly into water from nesting hole.  Freely accepts suitable nest-boxes and may use sites previously used by other species, including black woodpecker in Europe.
  • In UK, expanding south as a breeding species, but declining as a local wintering species.

I would like to thank my friend Peter Murphy of Rodley Nature Reserve, Leeds for his assistance in producing this article.

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