Germany's Lower Rhine is one of the most important wintering grounds for arctic geese. DW goes for a walk in the protected area of Bislicher Island to observe thousands of geese.
Every year the honking of wild arctic geese signals the onset of winter in Germany's Lower Rhine region, where some 200,000 of the birds come to fatten up on green pastures.
Making their way up to 6,000 kilometers (3,700 miles) from Siberia and Scandinavia, White Fronted Geese and Bean Geese, among others species, first arrive in V-shaped formations in the Lower Rhine in November, until returning to their breeding grounds around March.
One of the major centers where geese gather is Bislicher Island (Bislicher Insel), a protected area around 1,200 football fields large. Despite the name, it is not an island, but rather a formation of pastures and lakes created when the course of the Rhine was artificially changed almost two hundred years ago.
Every year around 25,000 geese gather around Bislich, making the flat and bucolic landscape ideal for some good old-fashioned geese hiking, or "Gänsewanderung" in German. Anyone can easily self-organize the trip by car or public transportation (about an hour from Cologne), but I decided to go with my local German Alpine Association (DAV) group.
Arriving by train in Xanten, where one can also see the remains of an ancient frontier Roman garrison town, our flock of about a dozen people set off on a 16 kilometer (10 miles) journey towards Wesel, from where we planned to take the train back to Cologne. Bislicher Island is only a 30 minute walk from the Xanten train station, for those who don't fancy walking 16 kilometers. The path is a combination of well-marked rural roads, paved bike paths and dirt tracks - in other words, easy walking even for those that don't get out in nature that much. And for being flat and just outside Germany's industrial Ruhr region, the landscape is surprisingly beautiful and the air crisp.
But after about 90 minutes of walking everyone became a little impatient and our DAV guide was visibly disappointed. Normally, he said, there were thousands of geese, but so far we had seen maybe a dozen (and a beaver).
Where were they? In my various pursuits of wild animals over the years, I've learned nature is unpredictable and one needs to be patient. Sometimes, it disappoints. So as we trudged along the road, we found the first gathering of about 200 geese, mostly the White Fronted variety, but also a smattering of other species.
Then it became clear our feathered friends were on the other side of the dike. It is quite a sight to observe hundreds or even thousands of geese in one spot, even if all they do is waddle around eating grass and honk at each other. But it is a spectacle when several hundred unleash a cacophony of honks and fly all at once.
It wasn't always so that geese wintered in the Lower Rhine. White Fronted Geese and Bean Geese first started arriving in the 1960s, after which the number of yearly arrivals steadily grew, especially since the 1980s. It is unclear why the geese began to settle in the Lower Rhine in greater numbers.
Goose populations in Western Europe have benefited from greater protection of natural areas such as in Bislich.
But species such as the Lesser White Fronted Geese, for example, are under threat due to poor conservation efforts and hunting in their wintering areas in the Balkans and Black Sea region. Due to human efforts to settle Lesser White Fronted Geese from Finland in Bislich, there are now at least 100 families of the threatened goose that winter in the area.