Festive Goose: completing my Black Brant education in Sussex – Christmas week 2015

During a dull phase of national birding dictated by December’s mild Atlantic weather pattern, identifying the Brent Goose sub-species Black Brant has been a priority task for me. Individuals are dotted around the country every winter in Brent Goose flocks and I really should have seen a Brant before now. My first attempt was at Cley, Norfolk on 2nd Dec but I later realised I had not paid sufficient attention to the ID, my mind being more on getting to the Snettisham Pallid Harrier on that occasion.

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Black Brant (left) with Dark-bellied Brent Goose © rights of owner reserved

So needing to fill an umpteenth (since my Maroc experience) grey, damp and oppressive day, directly beneath the jet streams in England, I elected on 22nd to learn more about Black Brants by visiting another regularly reported goose (pictured above) near Chichester Marina. The location is about 4 miles SW of that Sussex town on the A286, along a road of the same name that my satnav doesn’t know about. I had stopped here once before during the interval since my last post, with fellow Oxonbirder Mike Kozniowski. But we had three difficult species on our agenda that day and ended up not getting any of them. Now I intended to devote the necessary time to tracking down one bird.

After first thinking I had identified that Black Brant at Cley, Adam advised that the whiteness in the flank is a more reliable diagnostic than the broad neck collar. Then after scrutinising more Brent flocks on that interim occasion I indeed felt the need to be sure of having seen this sub-species. After all, another Oxon birding colleague had called Brants “a birder’s bird that separates the men from the boys”.

Pre-visit research on Tuesday directed me to fields beyond Salterns Copse, a local nature reserve to the marina’s immediate north. Following a footpath “Salterns Way” I could see two smallish Brent flocks rather distantly and close by a lane to Dell Quay (SU835028). But first I tried to get nearer to these geese from where I was, crossing over to another path skirting Chichester channel. There attractive groups of Curlew, Oystercatcher and Shelduck were feeding behind the receding tide, but only 8 Brents awaited me at my waterlogged walk’s end.

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There’s a soggy Black Brant in there somewhere

Returning to the car I drove around to Dell Quay, finding at 1:45 pm what must have been the entire local Brent flock (pictured above). They were in a field on the far side of the lane I could see earlier. This was overlooked, rather conveniently by a muddy lay-by and the remaining hours of daylight were available to scan for the Black Brant using my car as a hide. Various candidates suggested themselves over the next 2 hours during which it rained quite steadily, but none that were obvious.

Some time after 3:30pm all the furthest away Brent Geese went up and flew to join those closer to the road. It had stopped raining and with the entire flock now in one huge and scannable group I set up my scope by a gap in the hedge. I picked out a whitish-flanked individual with a broad neck collar that I felt more confident about, but was this really my bird? In failing light I didn’t attempt a digiscoped photograph.

Over the Christmas period I managed a morning re-visit to the site, this time finding the Brent flock in the field between Dell Quay and Salterns Copse. Once again creamy flanked candidates suggested themselves as the Brant but then I would realise other geese nearby looked much the same. At first I kept my distance but when a jogger went through without consequences I moved a bit closer. Guess what? The whole flock went up, then resettled on the far side of the field close to Salterns Way by a farm. And that proved to be the turning point in my fortunes.

I next watched a dog walker getting closer and closer, fearing the worst as he did so. But with his impeccably behaved Labrador on a lead he stopped and took pictures with his phone, and the geese were not the slightest bit bothered. That was it, and I hot footed it over to that side myself. There I soon picked out a goose that relegated all those I had considered previously to mere possibilities. The Black Brant was fortunately at the nearest end of the flock to myself, and now the brighter whiteness in the flank was obvious. Checking the collar, and a clean diagonal line with the darker breast markings that Adam had advised me to look for, this was definitely my bird.

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Black Brant (centre in front)

Conditions were quite wet again and this digiscoped image (above) was captured in poor light through a smeared eyepiece and front end. Having got my eye in I could now relocate the Brant over and again, eventually getting some grainy telephoto shots in the rain (below).

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Black Brant (6th from right standing upright)

This has been an interesting and ultimately very satisfying exercise, since I solved the riddle of identifying the sub-species completely unaided in the field. So now I am a man separated from the birding boys where Black Brants are concerned.

Though glad I didn’t have to scan all these geese looking into low sun, the present weather pattern is making me feel I could gladly quit this country if the jet streams don’t move back soon to where they flowed prior to the present decade. A whinge this might be but I just yearn for the kind of cold, crisp winter days remembered so often and well from the 1990s. In the new year I’m heading for hopefully sunnier climes again and cannot wait to get out.

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