Update December 03, 2007: added new page of four GWFG in flight from Texas; an orange-billed, darker-headed adult with two pink-billed adults and an orange-billed juvenile - click here or read text below.
Update March 16, 2006: changed the four-letter code used here for Greater White-fronted Goose from GWGO to GWFG.
Update April 11, 2003: added
the references for Banks' taxonomic article and Kaufman's article
on IDing flavirostris in North America, and adjusted the
text (in red) to reflect this latter
Update March 25, 2003: added
discussion on separating the larger Nearctic forms from Greenland
Update March 24 2003: added
list of references to the bottom of the page.
This page is devoted to exploring the appearance and identification
of the various forms of Greater White-fronted
Goose (Anser albifrons),
or GWFG. It is a work
in progress, as much remains unstudied within this taxa group;
indeed one form is perhaps the least-known of all the Anser assemblage.
Initially this page concentrates on the Nearctic forms:
Pacific White-fronted Goose A. a. frontalis: the commonest form;
breeds in numerous pockets in the tundra zone from western Alaska
to perhaps as far east as northwestern Hudson Bay, Canada - total
population east/north of the Rockies is much smaller than that
breeding south/west of the Rockies; birds breeding in the tundra
zone of eastern Siberia may also be this form; wintering locations are based
on breeding populations, with the largest populations from western
and southwest Alaska wintering from Oregon to California, and
most of the small, more northern and eastern populations wintering
on the coastal plain of Texas and eastern Louisiana; total population
in the order of ca. 250,000 birds.
Tule White-fronted Goose A. a. elgasi:
breeds in taiga at Redoubt Bay, and possibly other nearby
locations in the Cook Inlet, southwestern Alaska; winters in the
Sacramento Valley of northern California, with a couple of banded
recoveries from east of the Rockies e.g. one from Texas; population
in the order of ca. 2,000 birds. For a period this form was erroneously
referred-to as "gambelli."
Gambel's White-fronted Goose A. a. gambeli:
sensu strictu, as per Hartlaub 1852; Delacour and Ripley, 1975;
presumed to be the taiga breeders at the Old Crow Flats, Yukon,
and possibly similar habitats further east in Arctic Canada (Elgas
1970); presumed to winter in Texas; population unknown; the history
of this taxon is clouded with uncertainty and confusion; a couple
of specimens from Texas (Oberholser 1974) plus a small group of
hand-reared chicks captured at the Old Crow Flats (Elgas 1970)
comprise the entire published knowledge of this enigmatic form.
Birds from near Fort Worth, North-central Texas: this region is
not normally part of the wintering range of GWFG, and I believe
that the few records of overwintering individuals or pairs represent
sick/injured birds (sometimes plus an adult guardian?); my tentative
thoughts are that all the birds I've seen are gambeli (although
I cannot yet discount elgasi):
A juvenile/first-basic from March 1992.
A juvenile/first-basic from October 1998;
later joined by another immature bird, and photographed on December 31, 1998 and again on January
A juvenile/first-basic plus adult from
April 10, 2000, and photographed again on May
Birds from the south-central Texas Coastal Plain: numerous Snow
and GW Geese winter in the region, along with smaller numbers
of Ross's Geese and a few Canadas.
A flock of presumed gambeli from
A flock of presumed frontalis with
one gambeli/elgasi from mid-February 2001. This
page is the only one I have that shows a direct comparison of
the smaller and larger forms. I have seen many smaller birds in
the Texas Coastal Plain, and I feel that the birds seen in Fort
Worth are the larger form.
ADDED DEC 2007: A flock of presumed frontalis with one presumed gambeli from early December 2007.
Similarity to the Greenland Greater
White-fronted Goose, A. a. flavirostris:
A recent article in Birding World (Kemp 2003) discussed separating
flavirostris from nominate Eurasian albifrons -
largely based upon a family group of two adults and six first-winter
birds seen in Norfolk in the company of one first-winter nominate
albifrons and a couple of Pink-footed Geese (Anser brachyrhynchus.)
To my knowledge, only one published article
has mentioned separating flavirostris from gambeli/elgasi:-
Kaufman 1994 - and this mostly urges caution rather than offers
a solution - and thus I feel that most Europeans and some
east coast North American birders may not realise the potential
pitfalls presented by some individuals of the Nearctic White-fronted
Goose group (frontalis, gambeli, elgasi.)
Here are links to some "flavirostris" on the
WWW - note that some may NOT be flavirostris!:
birds from Islay, Scotland - part of their main wintering range
a bird from Norway
a bird from Iceland
a bird from Italy (LINK NOW BROKEN)
- a bird from Germany (LINK NOW BROKEN)
- a bird from the Netherlands (LINK BROKEN TEMPORARILY - ?)
The large GW Geese that I see in Fort Worth - whatever taxon they
are - have large, robust, strongly orange bills as juveniles.
This bill color can be retained well into the early Spring - even
after acquiring a significant amount of white feathering at the
bill base. These birds are slightly darker on the upperparts and
neck than the smaller frontalis, and thus would appear
clearly darker in comparision to albifrons (the form with
the palest upperparts.) Below, they are typically very pale on
the lower breast and belly, and initially on the flanks - but
they seem to replace the juvenile flank feathers in the late winter,
and the 2nd-generation feathers are much darker - perhaps as dark
as the the flank feathers of flavirostris. Adults are similar
but have varying amounts of black barring across the belly (usually
not very extensive.) The tail pattern has been mentioned as a
good ID feature for separating flavirostris from albifrons
- but I wonder if the sample size has been large enough to evaluate
this properly? Even with the rather small sample I've been able
to check, flavirostris does appear to have white tips to
the retrices that are much narrower and with less "bleed"
up the outer edge than on albifrons. My limited sample
of the large Texan birds indicates that the tail pattern is somewhat
variable; most have more white than flavirostris but less
than most albifrons. This is a rather small difference
except in extreme examples, and at least one Texan bird has appeared
to have the white tips as small as that stated as typical for
flavirostris. Another feature mentioned for flavirostris
is the thinner white flank line where the wing-coverts meet the
flanks; in juveniles and some adults this line can appear non-existent
while on albifrons it seems to be prominent in all ages.
The large Texan birds are variable in this regard, but at least
one first-winter individual seems to show no flank line at all.
The large Texan birds seem closer to albifrons in the prominence
of the pale edges to the scaps and tertials - but the fresh juv.
Fort Worth bird in early Winter seems to be almost unmarked in
this regard - similar to typical juv. flavirostris.
The Nearctic GWFG breed/molt in close proximity with large numbers
of other Nearctic forms of goose (Canada, Brant, Snow) - and those
wintering in Texas undertake some of the longest migrations of
all the Nearctic geese. Little is published on the GWFG breeding
east of Yukon Province, and it may well be that the ratio of frontalis
to gambeli(?) is much different to that found in the stronghold
of frontalis west of the Yukon. Thus these larger forms
are as likely to be vagrants to Eurasia/eastern North America
as are those aforementioned Nearctic goose taxa - all of which
are found in those regions with varying levels of frequency; indeed
frontalis should be occurring fairly regularly - but presumably
is undetectable among albifrons?
In summary, I feel that imm. gambeli/elgasi (and perhaps
frontalis? - I have limited detailed experience with them)
are much more like flavirostris than are albifrons,
and could lead to mis-identifications in Eurasia and eastern North
America. My tentative conclusion is that the color of the breast
and central belly is a key means of separating flavirostris from a potential gambeli/elgasi
on a bird that has a large orange bill, darker upperparts and flanks, smaller
white tips in the tail (than albifrons) and a limited white
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