posted November 24th, 2008; last edited April 9th, 2010 –– David Sibley
More on identification of Greenland White-fronts
Coincidentally, just days after my last post about the two White-fronted Geese in Concord, two White-fronted Geese showed up in Amherst, Massachusetts (about 60 miles west of Concord, but not the same birds) that appear to be one Greenland and one North American type. James Smith has some discussion and really nice photos on his blog, and he’s allowed me to post some of the photos here.
Two Greater White-fronted Geese – 23 November 2008, Amherst, MA. Photos copyright James P. Smith, used by permission. Click for higher resolution (660 kB). In this montage the upper image shows the apparent North American bird with the Greenland-type on the left. I’ve resized and pasted in another photo of the Greenland type below for comparison.
This provides a great comparison of the two birds, very well-photographed, in similar light and from similar angles. The Greenland-type bird shows the following differences from the North American-type:
- neck, head and bill larger and bulkier than the North American-type
- neck and head more uniform and darker brownish
- scapulars with slightly narrower and less contrasting pale edges
- white border on flank feathers narrower
- pale tips on median and greater coverts narrower and less contrasting, not bright white
- pale edges on tertials slightly narrower and less white
These are all the same differences that I noticed on the two birds in Concord, and that have been described before as identification features for Greenland White-fronts in Europe. One other feature deserves mention:
- bill bright orange (and James says the color is accurate and this bird was truly very orange-billed) which may be useful even though we know how unreliable bill color can be, and the other bird happens to be a fairly obviously pink-billed individual, providing a strong contrast. One thing I noticed on the Concord birds, and again here, is that the North American bird has a fairly obvious whitish tip on the bill, while the Greenland bird does not.
And on 24 November, Taylor Yeager posted photos of another apparent Greenland White-front
(scroll through the gallery to see several images of this bird), this one in Sharon, MA about 30 miles south of Concord. This bird doesn’t look quite as heavy-billed as the other two, but it still looks fairly thick-necked, the bill is bright orange, and it has the dark head, narrow and low-contrast feather edges on the back, virtually no white on the wing coverts, very narrow white flank stripe, and extensive black on the belly between the legs. I’m comfortable calling this a Greenland White-front also.
This would all seem to lead to confidence in identifying Greenland White-fronts, and I think we’re getting there. But when I browse photos of White-fronts from other areas they show a bewildering range of variation. Identifying Greenland White-fronts will require excellent views and a careful assessment of all the different identifying features, preferably with direct comparison to other White-fronts, and a healthy dose of caution.
Another photo of the two birds in Amherst: Greenland-type in front showing the much larger and bulkier bill and head, and thicker neck, in comparison with the more delicate features of the North American-type bird behind. Photo by James P. Smith, used by permission. 23 November 2008, Amherst, MA.
Finally, one further mystery: It’s not at all clear how we can tell that the smaller bird in Amherst is a North American White-front rather than a Eurasian bird. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a discussion of that identification issue, but Eurasian White-fronts show up rarely in Iceland, and could easily wander into North America from there or from Siberia, so it is a potential vagrant to North America. All I can dig up in a cursory search is that Eurasian birds are consistently pink-billed, and may average smaller-billed, and may average less white on the wing covert and tertial edges, but those things are all vague, subjective, and variable. So while I’ve called the smaller bird in James Smith’s photos a North American-type, I can’t actually rule out the possibility that it is a Eurasian bird. Any comments or suggestions welcome.