Category Archives: 01) Wildfowl

Juvenile Garganey

The Subtle ID challenge

Why does it stand out- just. At the same time easy to overlook. Last Wednesday 26th we had our final Spurn Migration Festival meet. Mark Thomas had found a juvenile Little Stint on Buckton Pond so figured I would swing by en route home. No Little Stint. Maybe it’s at Thornwick Pool ?  Nope. But beautiful juvenile Whimbrel and Little Ringed Plover, and more wildfowl than usual. Mostly Mallard, a pair of moulting Gadwall, some Teal and a…

I know what that’s going to be!  Fired off this shot:

Garganey 18 first pic (1 of 1)


There is something about those orange brown tones and the shape of scapulars long, warm brown, with crisp white fringes. And why do the ones I see look orange on the breast on underparts (does it say that in ‘the book’). It’s fast asleep. No real view of the head pattern. But I just ‘know’ it’s going to be a Garganey- presumably a juvenile.

So I speed around to our magic photo pod. It’s still there, still asleep This is the first pic from the pod:

Garganey 19 next first pic (1 of 1)

OK little missy- time to wake up. please.


Garganey 14 (1 of 1)

LOVERLY! Kinda final confirmation A baby Garganey has arrived in a little influx of wildfowl to our special conservation site at Thornwick Pool. Only the 3rd Garganey record at Flamborough this year and a Patch tick for me 🙂

P.S. perhaps not conveyed in these pics, but the head pattern is not always so ‘obvious‘. Rather easy to pass over at times actually.

Garganey 9 (1 of 1)


She heads onto the water feed. Not so likely to up-end like the Teal, she prefers to just submerge head into water and keep most of body afloat.

Garganey 12 (1 of 1) Garganey 13 (1 of 1)


Let’s have some detail:

Garganey have narrower specula than Teal. Silvery whiteness going on in the outer wing. This one has pretty plain brown wing coverts. Guess that makes it a female, though notice how the width of white borders both above and below actually appears to vary and the overall width of the specula appears to vary from narrow to broader- curious!

Garganey smaller one (1 of 1) Garganey smaller two (1 of 1) Garganey 33 (1 of 1) Garganey 32 (1 of 1) Garganey 31 (1 of 1) Garganey 30 (1 of 1) Garganey 29 (1 of 1)


Tail Feathers

Juvenile wildfowl (most/all?) wear in such a way that a V wedge forms at the feather tip and the shaft pokes out down the centre. Adult tail feathers don’t do that.Garganey 28 (1 of 1)



The Whimbrel was very smart-looking

whimbrel 2 (1 of 1)

and the Mark’s Little Stint hung around for me to see it the next morning:

litle stint juv 27aug (1 of 1)



ANSWERS. To Eider Prize Quiz

Not so easy 😉

Thanks to everyone who had a go at the female Eider prize quiz. Not easy!

Six people named all 4 birds correctly to their taxon/ subspecies level. Well done- they were:

Kent Olsen, Davy Bosman, Liger Alexandre, Mike Buckland, Tony Davison and Hans Martin Høiby. (if I missed anyone- tell me quick!)

and drawn from the hat (by Abi Garner) the winner is drrrrrrrrrrrrr is :

Mike Buckland

I was heartened that by using new features and what for me is ‘right-now’ learning, these and other female Eider can often be identified to a subspecies/ lowest taxonomic unit level- especially when location and circumstance are taken into account. There’s’ more in the new book of course!

A copy of the Challenge Series: WINTER is on its way to Mike.


female Eider 1 (below) is a female Northern Eider – borealis

female Eider one (1 of 1)

Above. Female Northern Eider, borealis, Sindri Skúlason. Quite a few plumped for faeroeeensis on this one. Many true Faeroes birds are a deep peaty brown colour- e.g. lovely photo by Silas Olofson in new book.


female Eider 2 (below) is a female Dresser’s Eider dresseri

female Eider

Above. Female Dresser’s Eider, dresseri, by Chris Wood.


female Eider 3 (below) is a female Pacific Eider –  v-nigrum

Eider female

Above. female Pacific Eider v-nigrum, Chris Wood

female Eider 4 (below) is a female nominate (Common) Eider- mollissima

female Eider three (1 of 1)

Above. female (Common) Eider  – nominate mollissima by Martin Garner.

Fanad, co Donegal

Where much borealis discovery and learning happened for me. This pair while late on (June) and the male is a little worn and just beginning moult to eclipse- you can see nostril position looks pretty good for borealis on both- togther with other features. More on this in Challenge series: WINTER.


Eiders MG (1 of 1)


Black Scoter in Poland

First winter male

Zbigniew Kajzer

Hi Martin,

What do you think about this Scoter? I found it yesterday (18th March 2015) at Dziwnów, west part of Polish Baltic coast. I think it is a  2cy male Black Scoter Melanitta americana. I’m very curious about your opinion.

Previously I found two males of Black Scoter (in 2009 and 2013) but both were adults. We have 5 accepted records in Poland so this immature male represents 6th record. Here is gallery of Polish records of Black Scoter. 

We have on west part of Polish Baltic coast to 6% of the wintering Baltic population of Common Scoter. The number of Common Scoter is highest in spring (March-April) to more than 25 thousands.

Best regards, Zbigniew Kajzer


YES!  It’s a corker isn’t it? (I think Zbigniew knows very well how well he has done- 3 records!). I am not sure but Black Scoter in ‘first winter’/ 2cy male plumage remains extremely rare in the Western Palearctic with perhaps only one/two other claims in the UK? Profile photos like these provide the best angle for ascertaining the position and extent of the yellow bill ‘lump’ which here is out-with any appearance of odd/variant Common Scoter and spot-on for Black. It’s a belter!

2cy Black Scoter poland

The 3rd Pacific Eider for the Atlantic

V-nigrum strikes again!

Alvan Buckley*

“Hi Martin,

Today (8th March 2015)  Ed Hayden and I found a v-nigrum Common Eider on the southern shore of the Avalon peninsula of Newfoundland.

The black “V” under the chin was very strong and easily detected despite ~200m distance. It was seen when the bird was choking down a mussel of some sort.

As you know, this would be the second record for our province – and only the third (??) record for the Atlantic ocean. I have written on my blog HERE.

Exact location was off St. Shott’s, Newfoundland, Canada.

Thanks! Alvan”

* Alvan has previously found among other tackle, little gems like Kamchatka Gull (BOOM!) on his Newfoundland patch and more discrete European, schinzii type Dunlin. See Alvan’s blog >>>HERE<<<

“This one ticks all the boxes for V nigrum. The downsloping head shape- deep curvature of the black cap with green extending under horizontally, black chin V, shape of lobes spot-on— fantastic! Now to refind that one in Varanger at GULLFEST 2015…”

v nigrum7 (1 of 1)

v nigrum8 (1 of 1)v nigrum9 (1 of 1)-2v nigrum4 (1 of 1)v nigrum5 (1 of 1)v nigrum9 (1 of 1)-2


Taiga White-fronted Goose in Britain

The Two Gambel’s Geese in Oxfordshire

We have had the opportunity over the last few weeks of exploring some of the White-fronted Goose complex.  Besides the Greenland and Russian birds at Flamborough, we revisited the Pacific ‘frontalis’with a bird in Israel. now to finish off, a little surprise f you had not heard of this one before…

The Taiga White-front or Gambel’s Goose

A surprising find at Otmoor RSPB reserve in Oxford by Phil Barnett back in May 2004 eventually identified to a best fit that these 2 first winter birds best fit as vagrants of the North American form gambelli – a ‘Taiga White-fronted Goose’. They look amazing don’t they?

They featured in  the ‘Frontiers in Birding’ (the White-fronted Goose chapter by Richard Millington). A more recent paper on the Taxonomy of White-fronted Geese is >>>HERE<<<

gambelli 3 (1 of 1)

Photos by Peter Barker:

gambeli 2 (1 of 1) gambeli 1 (1 of 1)

gambelli 4 (1 of 1)

gambelli 2 (1 of 1) gambeli 3 (1 of 1) gambeli 4 (1 of 1)

Here’s Phil Barnett’s wonderfully fulsome and detailed account from the Oxford Bird Report

The Two Gambel’s Geese in Oxfordshire

Filed Notes (from fuller account in Oxford Bird Report)

They were big birds..not far off Greylag Goose in size. Moreover, they appeared not dissimilar to Taiga Bean Goose in overall structure, with long necks, long, thick orange legs and particularly long bills. The bill colour could change with the lighting conditions, but neither bird showed a pure pink bill or an orange bill; on one bird it was dull pink with a pale grey-buff base, on the other a more obvious orange wash was present over much of the bill. As expected on first-winter birds, the nail was dark grey on both.

Typically for first-winter geese in spring, both birds had undergone a partial body moult which had included at least the head (both were showing a white frontal blaze), and probably the neck, mantle and upper flanks, but no black belly bars had yet appeared. A close look at the head and neck was intriguing. The white frontal blaze was tall (reaching to a blunt point above the front of the eye) and wide (especially across the forehead, above the bill), so that the blaze appeared quite angular. Both birds exhibited a fairly obvious yellow-buff eye-ring. The head and neck pattern looked distinctive. The Otmoor birds were both greyish brown on the face and fore-neck, but with a dark brown crown (the lower edge of which cut through the eye); this dark crown also extended back to the nape and continued down the rear of the neck. Also, the black band behind the white shield formed a very broad vertical line running from the lores down to the chin, where it broadened to a thick dark throat line.

The upperparts were drab sepia-brown, with reasonably obvious pale fringes to the scapulars, but the tertials were not pale-edged. The underparts were paler grey-brown, but the upper and rear flank feathers were much darker. In spring, many first-winter geese still retain their juvenile tail feathers, and the Otmoor birds were no exception. On both individuals the tail was extensively dark brown, with a fairly narrow white tip to all the feathers and with narrow pale fringes to the outermost pair.

Identification discussion

Plainly they are not European White-fronted Geese; they are far too large, rangy and long-billed, while the bill colour and tail pattern also eliminates that form. Greenland White-fronted Goose is a little larger and darker overall than European White-front, with a longer, orange bill and a largely dark tail, but that didn’t seem the right answer…

Martin Reid suggested they were Taiga White-fronted Geese, citing the long neck and long legs (“adaptations to living in taiga habitat that is taller grass, plus shrubs to look over for predators”) and that it looked identical to those which he had seen and photographed in Texas.

To contemplate identifying the Otmoor geese as Taiga White-fronted Geese first requires an understanding that there have been said to be two taiga-breeding races, elgasi and gambelli. The first breeds in Alaska and winters in California and the second breeds in NW Canada and winters in the Gulf states of the USA and Mexico. There appears to be no safe way to tell these two apart, but that may be for good reason; they may in fact be closely related, or at least share similar habitats. The commoner Nearctic form, American White-fronted Goose ‘frontalis’, also shares some features exhibited by Greenland White-fronted Goose, so that too needs to be considered. The choice for the Otmoor birds lies between the three: Greenland flavirostris, American frontalis or Taiga White-fronted Goose gambelli.

While Greenland Whitefront was considered… the extreme size, disproportionately long neck and bill, the bill colouration and the long, thick legs are an even better match for the other Nearctic forms. Greenland White-fronted Goose is not the only form of white-front to show an orange bill; it is frequent in all the Nearctic forms (eg Kauffman 1994, R. Millington pers obs), especially in young birds. While the head and neck colouration may provide strong evidence, the tail pattern could be important too. A first-winter Greenland White-fronted Goose in late May should show an all-dark tail, with merely a remnant pale tip. First-winter American and Taiga White-fronted Goose also show a largely dark tail, but not so extensively dark as that of Greenland White-front; of the two, Taiga has by far the darker (R. Millington & I. Lewington, pers comm). The remnant pale fringe shown by the Otmoor birds appears to match the Nearctic forms but, being rather prominent, perhaps most closely resembles that of Taiga White-fronted Goose. In general terms, American White-fronted Goose closely resembles European White-front, except it is bigger and browner, has a rather darker tail, and often shows a large, orange-toned bill. However, the disproportionately long neck of the larger of the two Otmoor birds, along with its very long bill and long, thick legs, suggest it something different again. All these features, like the tail pattern, appear to better fit for Taiga White-fronted Goose. The Otmoor birds showed a rather distinctive head pattern, which is detailed above, and appears to match that shown by Taiga White-fronted Goose (PB pers comm).

The feeding habits of the Otmoor geese were intriguing. They preferred to feed in overgrown, wet habitat, and were seen up-ending like swans in their quest for aquatic vegetation. While American White-fronted Geese are habitual grazers and Greenland birds frequently root in deeper vegetation, this manner of feeding is described as being entirely typical of Taiga White-fronted Goose…

Read recent Taxonomy PAPER 

Northern Eiders off NE Canada

nostrils and carrots

Martin Garner and Bruce Mactavish

The Challenge of finding and identifying Northern Eiders ssp borealis as grabbed my (MG’s)  attention since around 1982! A water shed in the the 1990’s came with the find of a flock of 7 credible Northern Eiders off Fanad Head, co Donegal, with among Surf Scoter and a probable dresseri/ borealis intergrade. The same site eventually hosted the first Dresser’s Eider for the Western  Palearctic. Searching for sailed Eiders took off! NE Scotland became a boiling pot of Eiders, sails and lively discussion. Que this more recent paper:

Hellquist, A. 2014. Identification of Northern Eider. Dutch Birding 36: 221-231.

One of the author’s observations is that nostril postion can be discriminatory in identifying borealis from nominate mollissima. Simply put (and read the paper for the proper version!) you want a nostril position that is pretty much BEYOND the end of the feathering rather than heavily overlapping with it.

Start here to see what is meant with this nominate mollissima Eider in Varanger. The nostril overlaps with the end of feathering.

Common Eider nominate mollissima, Varanger Martin Garner

Common Eider nominate mollissima, Varanger Martin Garner

Common Eider nominate mollissima, Varanger Martin Garner

Common Eider nominate mollissima, Varanger Martin Garner

NE Canada

OK? Now I have always felt whenever delving into the subject that the Eiders of North East Canada were the most stand out- THIS is borealis baby land!  I have a high degree of Bruce Mactavish homeland envy and he has recently got some fantastic images showcasing the Canadian borealis.

Check out the nostril position on these shots by Bruce off Newfoundland last month:

Northern Eider ssp. borealis, Newfoundland, Feb 2015, Bruce Mactavish

Northern Eider ssp. borealis, Newfoundland, Feb 2015, Bruce Mactavish

Northern Eiders ssp. borealis, Newfoundland, Feb 2015. Bruce MacTavish

Northern Eiders ssp. borealis, Newfoundland, Feb 2015. Bruce MacTavish

Fanad, Co Donegal

Now have a look at this one taken of Fanad by Brett Richard’s. This bird was with the Dresser’s Eider.

Northern Eider, ssp borealis, Fanad, Donegal, Brett Richards. June2011.

Northern Eider, ssp borealis, Fanad, Donegal, Brett Richards. June2011.

NE Scotland

I trawled though quite a lot of shots of ‘sailed Eiders’ from NE Scotland. There might be some but I could find NONE with pro-borealis nostril position. Nada.

But this one- in Northumberland fits (if a little swollen)…

Apparent Northern Eider  ssp. borealis, Northumberland, May 2008 Tim Dean. The nostril position is very favourable!

Apparent Northern Eider ssp. borealis, Northumberland, May 2008 Tim Dean. The nostril position is very favourable!

Not all

This borealis (on range) on Svalbard would not be identifiable out-of-range.

Northern Eider ssp borealis, Svalbard, Chrys Mellow. This one has nostril no different to nominate mollissima

Northern Eider ssp borealis, Svalbard, Chrys Mellor. This one has nostril no different to nominate mollissima

and finally back to Bruce Mactavish in Newfoundland with grateful thanks…

He has a fantastic rich Eider vein to mine. V-nigrum, possibly v-nigrum intergrades, pucka borealis, Harlequins and as below Dresser’s Eider on the left with the King on the right.

Dresser's Eider- adult male in top left, with Northern Eiders ssp. borealis, Newfoundland, Feb 2015. Bruce MacTavish

Dresser’s Eider- adult male in top left, with Northern Eiders ssp. borealis, Newfoundland, Feb 2015. Bruce MacTavish

and this carrot bill still has me head scratching…




Carrot-billed Eider off Newfoundland


Newfoundland’s Bruce Mcatavish emailed a rushed set of news and photos- check out this bad boy! See Bruce’s post HERE.


A remarkabley bright orange-billed drake Eider. Thoughts instantly turn to the possibility of it being Newfoundland’s second record of Pacific Eider v-nigrum. Is that what it is?


We don’t think this is a  v-nigrum. At first glance it’s inspired but appears to completely lack a bunch of key characters.

Specifically v-nigrum should have deep curvature to base f black cap- horizontal on this bird with forehead bump- very typical of borealis. There is not enough green under black cap (under there seems tad more than most of borealis around it). I don’t think the basal lobes feathering intruding into bill base are big and fat enough. The bare skin frontal process should be short-looking for v nigrum

So what is it?

Either an extreme coloured borealis (not impossible) or that all-in v-nigrum from a few years back got cheeky with the locals?


 Palmer’s words.

The Handbook of North American Birds:

Referring to the Davis Straights/W &SW Greenland and southerly East coast… between Greenland and Canada...both typical and atypical v-nigra have been taken (not breeding) including measurements in Schioler (1926). Schioler indicated they occur there every winter…

J.C .Phillips (1926) thought them merely individual variants (of borealis) and not true Pacific Eiders.

So… the answer is?