Three 'Black Brants' from Long Island, New York

Field identification of the different brant populations is a fascinating but poorly understood topic. At present three taxa are recognized: Atlantic Brant (Pale-bellied Brent Goose); Black Brant and Dark-bellied Brent Goose with evidence of a fourth population known variously as Gray-bellied, Western High-Arctic or Melville Island Brant. The latter has not yet been formally described but needs urgent consideration given the small size of the population (estimated at 4000-8000 birds) and its very limited wintering range (Puget Sound, Washington/British Columbia).

In two pioneering articles (1, 2), Martin Garner and Richard Millington presented evidence that Gray-bellied Brant have occurred as vagrants to Northern Ireland in the copy of Irish-wintering Atlantic Brant. General acceptance of these claims are hampered by a poor understanding of (i) the field identification of Gray-bellied Brant, (ii) the extent of individual variation in Black Brant and (iii) the appearance (and frequency) of Black x Atlantic Brant hybrids. This issue should resonate in the UK where observers and the rarities committee (BBRC) are also wrestling with non-classical Black Brant, which may represent Black x Dark-bellied hybrids (3,4).

To add to this debate, Andy Guthrie and I have put together photos of some interesting Brant photographed on the same day at Riis Park at the western tip Long Island and on the outskirts of New York City. The extensive saltwater bay and marshes host a large wintering and migrant population of Atlantic Brant with a now annual occurrence of Black Brant (5). Some links to previous birds that we've photographed in this area are supplied at the bottom of the page.

Literature Cited:
1. Garner, M and Millington, R (2001) "Grey-bellied Brant and the Dundrum conundrum." Birding World 14(4): 151-155.
2. Garner, M. (1998) "Brent Crosses." Birdwatch 78: 29-32.
3. Martin, J (2002) "From the Rarities Committee's files: Unusual Brent Geese in Norfolk and Hampshire." 129-136.
4. Wynn, R. (2002) "Brants: the hybrid problem." Birdwatch Issue 118 16-18
5. Wilson, A. and Guthrie, A. (1999) "Black Brant in New York State." Kingbird 49(2): 98-106

Andy Guthrie has prepared the following narrative and brief analysis:

Following Paul Buckley and Shai Mitra's report of a possible Gray-bellied Brant at Riis Park, NY on March 14, 2002 [see their message to ID-Frontiers], Tom Burke, Angus Wilson, Andy Guthrie and Gail Benson met there two days later to study the Brant flock that frequents the area.  During the morning, most of the. Brant (approx. 1500-2000) were feeding on the park's golf course - unfortunately, this area is enclosed by a chain link fence which prevents access and also limits viewing possibilities.

Brant #1 Riis Park, Queens County, New York.

Fig.1.Brant #1 (right hand bird). The first year on the left shows a darker belly and more extensive neck collar than most first year Atlantic Brant. This youngster rarely strayed far from brant #1, which is likely a parent but also associated with a more typical adult Atlantic Brant, presumably the other parent.

After searching for about 1/2 hour, Tom located a dark Brant in the flock - Brant #1 in the following discussions and above photograph (Fig 1., right hand bird).  We studied the bird, looking at details of the flank coloration, extent and color of dark on the underparts, contrast of the "stocking" and the back and belly, and extent and shape of the white neck collar.  In our estimation, the bird was virtually identical to a bird (or birds) that we had seen previously at Riis Park, and had reported as 'Black' Brant, B.b. nigricans.  When the bird raised its head, we could see that the neck collar extended across the throat without a break (i.e. 'complete neck collar'). [Click here to see more photos of Brant #1.] At this point we were unsure if this bird was the same as seen by Buckley and Mitra the previous day.  Interestingly, the small group of Brant that this individual was closely associated with included at least one 'dark' first-year Brant. This young bird (Brant #1a) appeared to be part of a family group that included Brant #1 and a bird that appeared to be a typical 'Atlantic' Brant. This encounter may provide circumstantial evidence of hybridization.

Brant #2 Riis Park, Queens County, New York.

Fig. 2. Second 'Black' Brant (Brant #2) from the Riis Park Golf Course. This individual showed more contrast between browish belly/upper breast and the black neck sock. Not visible in this photograph, the collar did not connect across the throat (incomplete collar).

After we had studied and photographed Brant #1 for approx. 45 minutes, the entire flock was spooked and settled down again after circling the area for a few minutes.  We searched through the flock again and Angus quickly relocated Brant #1.  We studied the bird for several more minutes, although the bird was distant and eventually wandered out of view.  Shortly after, Tom spotted another interesting 'dark' Brant on the otherside of the flock.  This bird, Brant #2 (see above photo, Fig.2), was clearly much darker below than 'Atlantic' Brant, but showed significantly more contrast between the neck 'stocking' and both the upperparts and underparts. [Click here to see more photos of Brant #2.] Additionally, it differed from Brant #1 in that the neck collar, while very prominent on either side of the neck, was clearly broken in front and the white sides were separated by a wide area.  We studied and photographed Brant #2 for about 30 minutes, until the entire flock was disrupted by a park worker who was purposefully chasing the geese in a golf cart.  The vast majority of the Brant flew out of the golf course area and out of sight. At this point we called it quits and returned our cars.

Having parked in a different area, Angus Wilson happened upon a small group of Brant which contained Brant #2, conveniently feeding along the grassy verge of the road which separates the barrier beach from the bay.  He was able to get some close-up shots (figs 2.2, 2.3 and 2.4) before being threatened with arrest for "looking through binoculars at and photographing" the Marine Park Bridge!  Luckily, Angus was able to persuade the assembled authorities that his rather dodgy appearance was a combination of being British and a birdwatcher, and didn't represent a true threat to the continued collection of the $1.25 required from all who cross from the barrier beach back into Brooklyn.  Further study of Brant #2, however, was prohibited.

Brant #3 Point Lookout, Nassau County, New York.

From Riis Park, we traveled east to Point Lookout, Nassau Co., NY.  Here, on the west side of Jones Inlet, large groups of Bonaparte's Gulls congregate on the falling tide, and large numbers of Brant frequent the exposed sand bar and nearby water.  Shai Mitra had previously located a 'Black' Brant, which had been seen as recently as the previous day.  When we arrived, we ran into Shai and a number of other birders (mostly there to search through the gull flock).  We discussed the Riis Park Brant with him; from our verbal descriptions, his opinion was that our Brant #1 appeared to be the candidate 'Gray-bellied' Brant seen by Paul and him.  Shortly after our arrival, the 'Black' Brant was located in the Brant flock swimming in the inlet.  The bird, Brant #3, conveniently swam over to the sand bar and walked out of the water, allowing for close study and photography.  This bird appeared clearly darker than the two Riis birds, showing less contrast between the 'stocking' and the upperparts and underparts, and had a more extensive neck collar (as can be seen in fig ??, the collar was connected on the back of the neck by faint 'v-shaped' lines). [Click here to see more photos of Brant #3.]

The following pages show additional pictures of these birds and provide some more commentary.
More photos of Brant #1
More photos of Brant #2
More photos of Brant #3

Other 'Black Brant' candidates from New York.
Click here to view a prior 'Black Brant' from nearby Floyd Bennet Field (28 Mar 1999)
Click here to view a prior 'Black Brant' from Riis Park (31 Jan 1999)
Click here to view a prior 'Black Brant' from nearby Jamaica Bay (19 May 2001)

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All photographs copyright of Angus Wilson and Andy Guthrie, 2000.
Page layout and text copyright of Angus Wilson 2002.