Focus On: winter geese – part 2

Barnacle Goose: Caerlaverock, Dumfries and Galloway. What a fine spectacle a flock of wild geese can be! (Photo: Phillip Tomkinson)

This article is a follow-up to the first section dealing with the 'grey geese', which can be seen in full at: Full Grey Geese Article.

Canada Goose Branta canadensis

The nominate race canadensis was introduced from North America to grace ornamental parks in England in the 17th century, with the first birds arriving at St. James's Park in London in 1665. This is the goose species with which most are familiar with a breeding population in excess of 60,000 birds. Birds occur throughout England and Wales, southern Scotland and parts of Northern Ireland. A feral population also occurs in Scandinavia (10,000 pairs), which winters in northern France, the Netherlands and Germany. Small resident populations are also found elsewhere in Europe.

Canada Goose: Pennington, Gtr Manchester (Jan 2003). (Photo: Sue and Andy Tranter) Canada Goose: Fairhaven, Lancs (Sep 2003). (Photo: Sue and Andy Tranter)

The Canada Goose in Britain is largely sedentary, with limited dispersal. There is a moult migration to the Beauly Firth (Moray) which mostly involves birds from Yorkshire and the West Midlands. A small number of ringed Scandinavian birds have occurred in Britain and Ireland, and one was recovered from the River Ob in west Siberia. There have also been two movements between Britain and the USA. Our local Canada Geese are perhaps not as boring as we first thought!

Most birders become more interested in Canada Geese when the vagrant forms are considered. There have been up to 12 races recognised, varying in size and colour tone. Of these, four have definitely occurred as vagrants (with two others possibly having done so), associated with wild geese in Scotland (mainly on Islay), and Ireland and others with Pinkfeet in Norfolk.

Richardson's Canada Goose Branta canadensis hutchinsii

This is the smallest of the pale forms, with a thick straight neck and a small bill; hutchinsii breeds in Arctic Canada and winters on the Gulf coast of Texas and Mexico. This is the commonest of the vagrant forms to occur in northwest Europe.

Richardson's Canada Goose: Caerlaverock, Dumfries and Galloway (Dec 2003). Appears 'square-headed' with with a steep forehead and medium-sized bill. (Photo: Allan Sumner) Richardson's Canada Goose: Freiston, Lincs (Feb 2003). The pale breast is a pointer, but note structure and the short legs and squat posture, typical of Richardson's. (Photo: Steve Botham)

Taverner's Canada Goose Branta canadensis taverneri

Small, with a short bill and square-headed appearance. Many, but not all, show a dark throat line which divides the white chin strap; taverneri breeds from the Mackenzie River westwards and winters on the western seaboard southwards to California — this is one of the least likely forms to occur, but perhaps birds here have become caught up with carrier species wintering on this side of the Atlantic.

Lesser Canada Goose Branta canadensis parvipes

Slightly larger than Pink-footed Goose, but size is variable. Longish body, medium-sized bill and a rounded head; parvipes breeds in Arctic Canada and winters in the southern USA.

Lesser Canada Goose: Millichen, Clyde (May 2002). (Photo: John Molloy) Lesser Canada Goose: Gullane, Lothian (Oct 2003). (Photo: Ian Fulton)

Todd's Canada Goose Branta canadensis interior

The largest of the vagrant forms, only slightly smaller than canadensis, with a long, thin, neck and a long bill, with narrower feather fringes to the upperparts in fresh plumage; interior breeds to the south and east of Hudson Bay and winters in southeastern USA.

Todd's Canada Goose: Wighton, Norfolk. Long, with thin neck and a long bill creating a distinctive appearance. One trapped in Ireland with Greenland Whitefronts in Nov 1993 was shot in the USA 15 months later! (Photo: Paul Hackett)

In addition, birds of the nominate race canadensis have occurred with carrier species on this side of the Atlantic and were presumed vagrants. In the absence of a ringing recovery this would be difficult to prove beyond doubt.

Cackling Canada Goose Branta canadensis minima

This is the smallest and darkest of the vagrant forms, with a small bill and a short neck, and is similar in size to a Brent Goose; minima breeds in coastal western Alaska and winters from California to northern Mexico and is perhaps an unlikely vagrant to these shores, but birds believed to be minima have been seen on the eastern seaboard of the USA. However, as with all long-distance migrants anything can happen, and if it is believed that Taverner's occurs naturally and Ross's Goose occurs naturally, then so could minima. The large number of 'feral' birds at large would make isolating a natural vagrant tricky.

Cackling Canada Goose: Farlington Marshes, Hants (Jan 2004). The smallest of the forms with a tiny bill and a short neck. (Photo: Bob Chapman) Cackling Canada Goose: Farlington Marshes, Hants (Feb 2004). Potentially a vagrant form, proof will only be beyond doubt with a ringed or neck-collared bird from the USA. (Photo: Marcus Ward)

Barnacle Goose Branta leucopsis

There is a feral breeding population of around 1,000 birds, however it is the wintering population of some 60,000 birds that is far more exciting. The majority of these are found around the Solway Firth (the easiest location being Caerlaverock WWT NY0365 in Dumfries and Galloway) and on Islay (where up to 30,000 winter).

There are three breeding populations of Barnacle Geese in the world, two of which winter exclusively in Britain and Ireland. The westernmost population breed in eastern Greenland, stage in Iceland, and then go on to winter in western Scotland and Ireland. The Svalbard breeding population move along the Norwegian coast and cross the North Sea to winter in the Solway Firth. The eastern breeding population from Novaya Zemlya winter in the Netherlands and Germany. Wintering birds away from these areas are usually attributed to feral birds, but ringing recoveries have illustrated that wild birds can, and do, occur away from their usual haunts either singly, or in small groups or with flocks of other geese.

Barnacle Goose: Martin Mere, Lancs (June 2003). (Photo: Sue and Andy Tranter)


Barnacle Goose: Martin Mere, Lancs (Mar 2003). Adults have well 'barred flanks' compared to juveniles. (Photo: Sue and Andy Tranter) Barnacle Goose: Martin Mere, Lancs (Mar 2003). Single birds, or small groups, away from regular wintering areas are often dismissed as escapes, but ringing recoveries have illustrated that even wild birds can quite quickly adapt to behaving in a feral manner. (Photo: Sue and Andy Tranter)


Dark-bellied Brent Goose Branta bernicla bernicla

Dark-bellied birds breed in northern Siberia, mainly on the Taimyr Peninsula. The main wintering areas are on the coasts of eastern and southern England, western France and the Netherlands with small numbers in Denmark and Germany. Favoured wintering locations in England include The Wash, the Thames Estuary and the south coast. Following a massive decline in numbers during the 1930s, numbers have steadily recovered and the world population is thought to be in the region of a quarter of a million birds, with the English wintering population over 100,000.

Dark-bellied Brent Goose: Gibraltar Point, Lincs (Mar 2003). Dark grey belly and flanks extend behind the legs. (Photo: Steve Botham) Dark-bellied Brent Goose: Gibraltar Point, Lincs (Mar 2003). (Photo: Steve Botham)


Dark-bellied Brent Goose: Gibraltar Point, Lincs (Feb 2003). 1st-winters have duller head and neck, indistinct neck collar and pale fringes to the upperwing coverts which appear 'barred'. Juveniles attain their neck patches during the 1st-winter. (Photo: Steve Botham) Dark-bellied Brent Goose: Gibraltar Point, Lincs (Feb 2003). Adults have blacker head and neck, distinct neck collar and uniform upperparts. (Photo: Steve Botham)


Pale-bellied Brent Goose Branta bernicla hrota

Pale-bellied birds have two main populations which breed and spend the winter in separate areas. One breeds on Canadian Arctic islands and Greenland, migrating through Iceland to winter in Ireland. The other population breeds on Svalbard and Franz Josef Land and winters mainly in Denmark with smaller numbers on Holy Island NU1342 (Northumberland), though in recent years the island has held the entire population and is the only regular location for Pale-bellied birds in England.

Pale-bellied Brent Goose: Derbyhaven, Isle of Man (Feb 2004). Slightly larger than bernicla with brownish toned upperparts. (Photo: Pete Hadfield) Pale-bellied Brent Goose: Maidens, Ayr (Mar 2002). Pale grey underparts, which contrast with the back breast.(Photo: John Malloy)


Pale-bellied Brent Goose: Dawlish Warren, Devon (Oct 2001). The brown feather bases are sometimes evident on the rear flanks, but never as in bernicla. (Photo: Tristan Folland)


Black Brant Branta bernicla nigricans

Breeds across eastern Siberia to Alaska and western Canada east to the Perry River. Winters mainly on the Pacific coast from British Columbia to Baja California, with declining numbers in China, Korea and Japan. In Britain it is an annual vagrant, with over 100 records, the majority associated with Dark-bellied Brent Geese flocks, particularly those in Norfolk and south coast. The majority of these records have been in the last 30 years, presumably due to a better understanding of identification criteria. Hybrids do occur.

Black Brant: Farlington Marshes, Hants (Feb 2003). The broad neck crescents and white flanks are often the first sign of a bird amongst a flock of bernicla. (Photo: Bob Chapman) Black Brant: Keyhaven, Hants (Jan 2002). Upperparts are darker than bernicla and the jizz differs from other brent geese being dumpier and stockier. (Photo: Russell Wynn)


Black Brant: Gibraltar Point, Lincs (Jan 2003). The dark belly and whitish flanks contrast markedly compared with bernicla (rear two birds). (Photo: Steve Botham) Black Brant: North Slob, Co. Wexford (Jan 2003). The neck crescents often meet at the front. (Photo: Paul and Andrea Kelly)


Grey-bellied Brant Branta sp.

Four different populations of brent geese breed in the Canadian Arctic. One of these is only known to breed on Melville and Prince Patrick Islands in the western Canadian High Arctic and winters almost exclusively in Puget Sound in the western USA. These birds are known as Grey-bellied Brants and breed north of Black Brant and west of the Pale-bellied Brent Geese that breed in the Canadian High Arctic and winter mostly in Ireland. With a declining population, in world terms these birds are rare, with a total population of between 4,000 and 8,000 birds. The taxonomic status of these birds is still ongoing and in appearance birds fall somewhere between Black Brant and Pale-bellied Brent Goose, but are quite variable. Up to 15 were noted in Ireland during 2001 and it is likely that birds of this form have been overlooked.

Grey-bellied Brant: Tyrella, Co. Down (Apr 2002). Subtle birds (front centre), differs from Pale-bellied Brents by darker belly and fore-flanks and darker upperparts. (Photo: Martin Garner)


Grey-bellied Brant: Strangford Lough, Co. Down (Nov 2002). The depth of darkness on the underparts is variable and unlike Black Brant the variable neck collar is not as distinctive from a front-on view, usually not meeting. (Photo: Wilton Farrelly) Grey-bellied Brant: Strangford Lough, Co. Down (Nov 2002). The dark belly extends to behind the legs.(Photo: Wilton Farrelly)


Red-breasted Goose Branta ruficollis

One of the most striking of geese, and as a result, popular with wildfowl collectors. It breeds mainly on the Taimyr Peninsula and migrates southwest to winter on the northern and western shores of the Black Sea and most now winter in the Dobrogea region of Romania. There have been around 70 British records with the majority in the east and south and two have been present during the winter 2003/04; a returning bird on Islay (Argyll) and another at Martin Mere WWT (Lancs).

Red-breasted Goose: Martin Mere, Lancs (Oct 2003). Adults are striking birds, but can look deceptively dark at a distance. (Photo: Steve Tomlinson) Red-breasted Goose: Martin Mere, Lancs (Jan 2004). (Photo: Phillip Tomkinson)


Red-breasted Goose: Chew Valley Lake, Somerset (Feb 2002). Red-breasted Goose: Flitcham, Norfolk (Nov 2001). (Photo: Paul Hackett)


Finally, although not a branta, Egyptian Goose is included to complete the 'set'.

Egyptian Goose Alopochen aegyptiacus

This species was introduced to Britain in the 18th century there is now a breeding population of 750–800 pairs, mostly in Norfolk. It also breeds in the Netherlands, with smaller populations in Belgium and Germany. British birds are sedentary, with a short-distance moult migration in July and August. The Migration Atlas reported 5 recoveries of ringed birds, all of which had moved less than 5km. Birds away from the species' stronghold are most likely to be escapes from local collections.

Egyptian Goose: Strumpshaw Fen, Norfolk (Apr 2002). (Photo: Mark Jobling) Egyptian Goose: Torksey, Notts (Feb 2004). (Photo: Russell Hayes)


Egyptian Goose: Leighton Moss, Lancs (May 2002). (Photo: Peter Stevens)



In addition to the relevant sections of Birds of the Western Palearctic, Wildfowl: An identification Guide to the Ducks, Geese and Swans of the World and The Migration Atlas the following articles provide further very useful information on recent advances in goose taxonomy and identification (this reference list is by no means exhaustive!).

Batty, C and Lowe, T. 2001. Vagrant Canada Geese in Britain and Ireland. Birding World 14: 57-61.
Batty, C, Hackett, P and Lowe, T. 2001. Vagrant Canada Geese in Britain: autumn 2001. Birding World 14: 515-519.
Bloomfield, A and McCallum J. 2001. Changing fortunes of the Black Brant. Birding World 14:66-68.
Bloomfield, A. 2001. Ross's Geese in Britain. Birding World 14: 475-478.
Garner, M. and Millington, R. Grey-bellied Brant and the Dundrum conundrum. Birding World 14: 151-155.
Garner, M. 1998. Brent Crosses. Birdwatch 78: 29-32.
Garner, M. 1998. Brent crosses. Birdwatch December edition: 29-32.
Kemp, J. 2001. Identification of Greenland White-fronted Goose. Birding World 14: 103-105.
Martin, J. Unusual Brent Geese in Norfolk and Hampshire. British Birds 95; 129-136.
Millington, R. 1997. Separation of Black Brant, Dark-bellied Brent Goose and Pale-bellied Brent Goose. Birding World 10: 11-15.
Millington, R. 1997. Separation of Black Brant, Dark-bellied Brent Goose and Pale-bellied Brent Goose. Birding World 10: 11-15.
Oates, J. 1997. Identification of Taiga Bean Goose and Tundra Bean Goose. Birding World 10: 421-426.
Sangster, G. 2000. Taxonomic status of bernicla and nigricans Brent Geese. British Birds 93: 94-97.
Scott, M.1995. The status and identification of Snow Goose and Ross's Goose. Birding World 8: 56-63.
Syroechkovski, E. E., Zöckler, C and Lappo, E. 1998. Status of Brent Goose in northwest Yakutia, East Siberia. British Birds 91: 565-572.
Wynn, R. 2003. Further developments in 'Black Brant' identification, including the effects of body moult on the wintering grounds. British Birds 96: 297-301.
Written by: Russell Slack