Variation in the Clifford Hill White-fronted Geese

It was only yesterday when I managed to catch up with the two adult white-fronts at Clifford Hill Gravel Pits (or, if you prefer the newbie name, Nene Washlands). These birds were first discovered on 5th December and they appear to have settled in with the local Greylags, which are normally in the vicinity of the eastern end of the Main Barrage Lake.

While they are clearly part of the UK influx of ‘Russian’ White-fronted Geese, which took place during late November, one of these two birds shows some interesting characteristics.

White-fronted Goose, Clifford Hill GP, 10th December 2020 (Mike Alibone)

Larger than the other, it has an unusually extensive white facial patch, which is very striking in the field. While these patches can vary in size, I have never seen one this extensive, nor can I find any images which match it in terms of its broadness – including a spike extending to the eye – or in its reach on to the crown. There is also a white area extending below the gape line to the sides of the chin as the images here show.

White-fronted Geese, Clifford Hill GP, 10th December 2020 (Mike Alibone)

The difference between the two birds is obvious when they are together and the bill of the larger bird is also longer, broader, shows a very pale basal area (further contributing to the impression of a large white face patch) and an orange wash, albeit restricted, on the proximal part of the culmen, while the tip is potentially ‘teat-shaped’.

White-fronted Geese, Clifford Hill GP, 10th December 2020 (Mike Alibone). Inset: Tule White-fronted Goose (Reeber, 2015)

According to Reeber (2015), many of the above features are characteristics shown by the race elgasi, Tule White-fronted Goose which, breeding only in Alaska and wintering in California, is the rarest and has the most restricted range of all races of White-fronted Goose.

However close (or not) the resemblance appears, though, there is a good deal lacking. Elgasi is large, longer legged, longer necked, longer billed and generally much darker than ‘Russian’ White-fronted Goose. In general, male white-fronts are larger and slightly longer billed than females, which explains the size difference between the two Clifford Hill birds. However, there is still the extensive white facial patch, the bill shape and colour which add interest to this bird and make it stand out. Is this bird simply at one end of a range of variation or are there some Tule genes in there, somewhere? Alaska is not far from Siberia as the goose flies …

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