Is this a Black Brant or a Gray-bellied Brant?

Black Brant (Branta bernicla nigricans) is a rare vagrant to eastern North America, with the majority of records originating from three coastal states: New York, Massachusetts and New Jersey. Prior to 1997, there were only nine or ten records for New York State, averaging one record every sixteen years! Despite this profound rarity, few birders take the time to search for Black Brant among the thousands of Atlantic Brant (Branta bernicla hrota) that winter along the eastern seaboard. Three adult Black Brant (Branta bernicla nigricans) spent the 1997-98 winter on the public golf course at Riis Park in Queens. To our knowledge, this is the first time three individuals have been seen together at one location on the east coast of North America.

During the following winter (1998/99), another adult Black Brant was discovered at the same location. This bird differs from those of the previous winter in having a less extensive apron (barely extended beyond the legs) and more obvious contrast between the black neck sock and the dark breast. Could this be a Gray-bellied Brant? Here are a series of photographs of this individual taken on 31st January 1999. For another series of pictures, this time taken at the end of March 1999, click here.

[Note added March 2003: Despite the original title of this page (written in 1999), this bird actually seems quite acceptable as a Black Brant. Contra many published photographs, Black Brant can show obvious contrast between the neck sock and lower breast. This is most evident in females or winter males. The black rather than brown tone to the underparts and back of the bird on this page together with the well-developed white neck collar, complete with prominent internal webbing, is also quite typical of Black Brant.]

Figure 1. Can you spot the 'Black Brant'? Part of the wintering flock of Atlantic Brant that feed on the grass verges and golf course in and around Riis Park in Queens. The adult 'Black Brant' is just left of center. Notice how the belly and lower flanks are much darker than on neighboring adult Atlantic Brant, creating a striking white wedge between the dark lower flanks (the edges of the belly patch) and the dark folded wings.

Figure 2. An extremely useful field mark for 'Black Brant' is the extension of the dark belly. The 'Black Brant' is the bird on the left. The dark feathering extends the length of the belly to the base of the vent region. Thus when the bird faces directly away, it can be easily identified by this dark wedge extending to just between the legs. In typical Pacific Black Brant this dark patch extends right into the vent. In the Altantic Brant on the right, no dark feathering is visible.

Figure 3. Dorsal view of the 'Black Brant'. The two arms of the neck collar almost close on the hindneck.

Figure 4. As a comparison to the 'Black Brant' in Figure 3, here is a dorsal view of an Atlantic Brant (B. hrota). There is a larger gap between the two arms of the collar.

Figure 5. A nice portrait view. The bright sunshine striking the flanks reveals some contrast between the jet black neck sock (neck and upper breast) and the dark brown lower breast. The neck collar is very prominent. The dark bases of the ventral flank feather create a sharply defined edge to the white flank patch. The wing coverts are all dark (lacking the white tips of first-years) confirming that this is an adult bird.

Photographs and page layout copyright of Angus Wilson© 1999 All rights reserved.
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