Guest Post: Pinky- billed Greenland White-fronted Goose

Norfolk, Dec 2011 – Jan 2012

by James McCallum

Shows the two Greenland White-fronts together (facing left at the back). Difference in bill colour evident. European White-front facing camera, front left. © James McCallum

The bird in question is essentially identical in build and proportions to an adult Greenland White-fronted Goose (GWF) that it frequently accompanies, it is therefore outside the range of variation in build, proportions and plumage seen in European White-fronted Goose (EWF). The bill is of the same size and shape as the GWF but appears even a fraction longer. The tail is as the GWF and typical, i.e. blackish with just a neat white edge and tip. The plumage is characteristically dark but fractionally paler below and the scapular edges slightly paler than the accompanying GWF but within the range of variability of GWF.

2 adult Greenland Whitefronts. Pink-billed (left), orange-billed (right).© James McCallum

The bill colour is very interesting as it changes hue depending on the light.

Dull weather – it can appear warm pink, sometimes pinky-yellow. In the same light the GWF’s bill appears a dull orange or yellow-orange.

Bright sunlight  – This is more interesting as the bill looks very pink, just a shade warmer than the Eurasian WF’s bills. In contrast in the same light the bill of the accompanying GWF appears bright orange! During such lighting conditions the diffence between the bill colour of the two ‘big’ birds is surprising.

On the first day that the bird was seen at close range and in bright sunlight I had been joined by Ash McElwee and we were immediately struck by the marked differences in bill colour between the two birds. We considered the possibility of the bird being a Pacific White-fronted Goose but felt that the build, plumage and bill structure was so similar to the accompanying Greenland bird that is was probably a pink-billed GWF. Just to be safe I phoned Andy Stoddart and having all watched the birds for a couple of hours we felt a pink-billed GWF was the most likely option.

Interestingly the birds turned up seperately amongst a group of upto 110 Eurasian Whitefronts but since arriving were fequently feeding together, sometimes being seperate from the flock and occassionally with feral Greylags that visited the same field. The flock of EWFs originally numbered 56 and during their stay attracted further EWFs and many other geese including Pink-footed (often single figures but max 850) Tundra Bean Geese (min of 9 different birds). The large group of Pink-footed Geese were moved on by the farmer but the Whitefronts were left mainly undisturbed and the ‘turn over’ of other species  joining up with the EWF flock changed daily. This was particularly interesting as the birds were well outside the traditional goose areas of Norfolk. They were, however, situated along a recent but now regular ‘flyway’ used by Pinkfeet moving between North and East Norfolk.

Pink-billed GWF  and normal GWF. Showing slightly warmer pink than EWF which were nearby. © James McCallum

On orange-billed EWF: see here and here

On Pacific Whitefront: see here

4 thoughts on “Guest Post: Pinky- billed Greenland White-fronted Goose

  1. Mike Watson

    The Collins guide caption for GWF reads ‘but can look pinkish!’. I have never really studied this before but have seen several birds that fitted the description pinkish recently (Fylde & Islay December 2011), similar to James’s bird. I am not sure a pinkish billed GWF is that remarkable?

    1. James McCallum

      Hello Mike,
      Many thanks for your reply. I agree that there is nothing earth-shattering in my observations and I believe you are totally correct in saying that Greenland Whitefronts with pinkish bills are not that remarkable! I should have been a little clearer in my intentions. Greenland Whitefronts are quite rare away from their traditional wintering areas – for example here in Norfolk they are a description bird. This post was prompted by Martin’s genuinely more unusual observation of European Whitefronts with orange bills. It is a simple attempt to show how variable GWF bill colour can be and we thought it might be worth sharing. It is possibly more of interest to those of us seeing GWFs less frequently and potentially encountering such a bird out of range. For example in over 20 Greenland birds I’ve seen in Norfolk all, with the exception of this bird, have either orange or yellow-orange bills.
      With best wishes
      Hi Tristan,
      Thanks for your reply too. Really interesting to read of your experiences of similar-looking birds. After two blank years there seems to have been a mini influx in North Norfolk with at least seven different birds so far. Really must go back to Islay one winter.
      All the best, James

  2. binocularface

    Interesting post James. I observed a couple of birds in Dumfries & Galloway a few winters ago in amongst the wintering Greenland Whietfronts. These birds had very pink bills (in fact they were first reported as Russian White-fronted Geese). I spent a fair bit of time trying to get better views and went through similar thought processes to you; however in the end I concluded that they were Greenland birds (size, structure, plumage tones etc). Interesting that I have not observed GWFG with such intense differenciation in bill colour/tone since but (as Mike Watson comments on) I have seen birds with subtle pink tones. I would love to know the exact origins of these Greenland birds with pink bills (and the Russian birds with orange bills)!

  3. Pingback: Greenland White-fronted Goose | Birding Frontiers

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