Heaven scent?

Do you know Neuss (pronounced /nois/)? No? It’s worth a visit, especially for birdwatchers. And it’s back to the cheerful springtime topic of ornithology. So if you were in the mood for a Harlequin article on agile project management or artificial intelligence today, I’m afraid you’ll have to wait a while longer.

Back to Neuss. Although I lived for a long time in the large city opposite Neuss on the other side of the Rhine, it was always a blank spot on the map for me. I had left this city to the left or to the right, e.g. on the way to Holland or to Xanten (with its wonderful Roman excavation site). But that has changed. There is so much to discover…. Not just kingfishers on the Northern Canal.

If you walk along the Neuss Northern Canal (on which, by the way, no ships can sail today, except perhaps paper boats) in a north-westerly direction, you will inevitably come to the Jröne Meerke (which is Rhenish and translates into “little green lake”). A former quarry pond was unceremoniously transformed into a lake by the naturally generous Rhinelanders and, with its former sandy beaches (!), also served the people of Neuss as a sunbathing area and open-air swimming pool for a long time. Today, no one seeking recreation would put their towel on the grassland around the little sea unless they wanted to come home besmirched and smelly.

For some years now, a small population of breeding snow geese (anser caerulescens) have been roaming around this little green lake, mostly from December to July. When the approximately 130 birds arrive, spring (and carnival) begins for the people of Neuss. 

Snow geese come in two subspecies, the lesser snow goose, which are the ones in Neuss, for example, and the greater snow goose (anser caerulescens atlanticus). And the former come in two colour varieties: white (with black primary feathers and ash-grey secondaries) and in blue-grey (except for the white head and neck, and the pale and white rump). The dark plumage is inheritedly dominant. However, as the geese like to keep to themselves, identical-looking pairs mate, usually for a lifetime. The Rhinelanders like to keep it that way: jleisch un jleisch jesellt sisch jähn (like and like like each other.) For twitchers, this means a piece of luck, as both snow goose colour types can be observed in the future.

Why am I telling you about this? What makes these snow geese so special?Because snow geese don’t exist anywhere else in Europe. Only in Neuss!!! Why do you wonder, did they choose this pool? Sometimes birds get lost on their travels or are escaped breeding animals. As far as the Neuss geese are concerned, we don’t really know. Unfortunately, ornithologists have not yet been able to decipher the geese’s song. The standard work on bird calls describes it precisely on page 41: “Their call is a soft, slightly rising and cackling go go go, also koik or goaa and geh-geh-geh. Warning calls are lower in pitch and sound like angk-ak-ak-ak. The flight call is monosyllabic, short and rough and is described as kreh or crow-like.”1 So we will have to wait until the secret of the snow geese in Neuss can be revealed. Normally, snow geese live in large flocks in Greenland, Canada, northern North America, Alaska, Siberia and Japan. And only there!

The Jröne Meerke, in association with other natural areas nearby, is an important part of the local recreation area around Neuss. That’s why more and more migratory birds come here and often stay longer. The Neuss snow geese live in sniffing proximity to other ducks. A total of about 200 birds breed there, plus goslings.

Now please imagine: a modestly-sized, 2.7 ha quarry pond (that’s not really big), with a maximum depth of 6m and no natural outflow, with 200 digesting large birds – and all this close to a residential area. Yes, the patience of the most laid-back Neusser can sometimes be stretched. And so, for many years, attempts have been made, more or less successfully, to get to grips with the mountain of bird poop. Eggs have been removed from the nests, dogs, foxes and martens have been allowed on the island, animals have been secretly killed, attempts have been made to make them infertile and so on. Incidentally, these are all recognised goose management activities recommended by hunting authorities in all federal states when waterfowl populations in cities get out of hand.

Apart from the conservationists, however, no one else was alarmed at the Jrüne Meerke. But the outcry of the “Notpfote Animal Rescue”  association had an effect. The hunting of Canada geese, which also live there, among other things, was originally approved by the city. This was suspended at the end of 2021 (https://notpfote.de/gaia/). The snow goose population remained where it was and as large as it was. It was all to no avail.

A few years ago, the pond also threatened to stagnate: Algae infestation due to excessive amounts of goose and duck droppings. The city of Neuss tackled the blue-green algae invasion with ultrasound. Apparently algae have ears, because they didn’t tolerate the ultrasound music and largely died off. Just kidding. Blue-green algae have air bladders so they can float to the surface. With the special ultrasound waves, which are distributed in the water in the best possible way, these air bladders are destroyed. Lacking buoyancy, the algae sink to the bottom, where there is no light and no oxygen, and die.2 Sad for the algae, good for the clever people of Neuss.

The geese are allowed to stay and the Nüsser or Nüsserin (Rhenish for Neuss citizens) are now taking moderate action against the dark side of Europe’s only snow goose colony. Because ornithologists have established that the snow goose group in Neuss is over-aged and shrinking leisurely (do the geese know this too?). Apparently, the young birds that hatched there stay in their original northern habitat and do not migrate back to Neuss with their parents. Since a snow goose has an approximate life expectancy of 20 years, the species will probably die out at this location without human intervention. What a pity. Then I’ll just have to look out for kingfishers again on the Northern Canal, those nimble, turquoise-coloured fish predators. Nice too.

1Hans-Heiner Bergmann, Hans-Wolfgang Helb, Sabine Baumann
The Songs of the Birds of Europe
474 bird portraits with 914 calls and songs on 2,200 sonograms
Aula-Verlag, Wiesbaden, 2008

2 Nachrichten: Bocholt.dehttps://www.bocholt.de/rathaus/nachrichten/artikel/umwelt-blaualgen-mit-ultraschall-bekaempfen/

Original text: HFI
English translation: BCO

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