Basin Notes - February 2010

What's in a Name

One of my most favourite places to view the geese over the past couple of weeks has been from Old Montrose Pier. I can highly recommend a visit with great close up views of several thousand pink footed geese Anser brachyrhynchus.

Once you start scanning through you will also see greylag geese Anser anser (up to 200), maybe a barnacle goose Branta leucopsis (or two) and maybe some pale bellied brent geese Branta berniela.

The geese in this area are taking advantage of the freshwater entering the Basin from the South Esk. The greylag geese are particularly enjoying this end of the Basin as other freshwater inland lochs have been frozen by the recent colder weather.

From here you are also likely to be blessed with smaller waders like oystercatcher, and little grebes (Tachybaptus rufficollis) and a fresh breeze to blow away any cobwebs.

This week I felt the need to look into the scientific names of birds we see on the Basin everyday. Initially I felt this was rather geeky and I knew that I would not remember them all.

Scientific names are usually based on Latin or Greek and are split into two sections - the first relates to the genus that the bird belongs to and the second is the species name.

So Anas platyrahynchos is the scientific name for mallard, anas being Latin for "duck" (thus separating it from other types of birds) and platyrahynchos, when broken down, relates to the greek words plantus (broad) and rhunkhos (bill).

Thus the scientific name translates to "broad billed duck" reflecting its classic bill shape.

The species name for the pintail is acuta, referring to the "acute" or pointed tail.

So the genus anas being the same for both species, tells us these ducks are related but distinct species with distinct species names.

What I did discover is that the scientific names, are a nice way of remembering special features about the birds which are handy in identification, particularly when colours and feather patterns which are in the bird guide but are not always obvious.

This is not always the case as some birds are named after great ornithologists or places.

When applying this game to geese it can make you think about tricks to remember the differences between the species especially when the geese are at a distance.

Firstly in the UK we have two genera - Anser (grey geese) and Branta (black geese).

This first level is a first useful identification feature in itself, Anser anser (greylag) for example is a good standard grey goose of this genus. In fact it is a goose which can be used to compare against when identifying other geese of similar shape, size and colour. This was probably picked up on by early ornithologists and as a consequence the scientific name was "goose goose", or "common goose".

Whereas Anser brachyrhynchus (pink footed goose) translates to "short-billed goose", which compared to the greylag is a useful distinguishing feature, sometimes more useful that the colour of their feet, which can be easily covered in mud.

Already you can see that the differences within the genus are being used and this is useful for building up pictures and making connections in your mind when remembering the differences to look for when identifying grey geese (particularly at a distance).

There is sometimes some more unusual stories to tell. Peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus) for example opens up an insight into its history. Peregrinus from Latin meaning "wander from abroad".

It was thought that it is so called because young birds on their first long distance migration were thought better suited to falconery than those taken from the nest.

Oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus) translates into "blood legged oyster gatherer".

Although still hard to remember when in the field, scientific names are an insight into the key characters of the species that made the bird stand out from other similar species.