The Listers Dilemma

You’d think that making a list of the different birds you see in a year would be a simple matter, wouldn’t you? First find your bird and, if it looks different from stuff you’ve seen before, put it on your list – job done! Well, in the majority of cases it is as simple as that but for a small group of species sometimes the differences aren’t that great and, as a consequence, their identity is in a perpetual state of flux. This is the vexed world of ‘lumping’ and ‘splitting’, where minor differences are deemed, by the ornithological powers that be, to be either significant enough to split them off into a separate species or insufficiently different and they lump them into a single species. As birders get better at field identification and the science around DNA develops, so the process of adding and subtracting continues and the list of birds you can or can’t count changes!  As there are generally a number of different ‘birding authorities’, there are numerous versions of the list. The list you choose to use is probably a reflection of whether you are a birding ‘radical’ or a ‘conservative’ –  if you like to win, you’ll choose the most liberal list, which has the greatest potential for building a bigger score! The birding organisation in this country with perhaps the greatest authority is the British Ornithological Union (BOU) and it’s they who decide how big or small the UK list should be. It’s their list that I use – even when it hurts! And boy did it hurt yesterday, when finally I tracked down a Black Brant, that has been in the Cley area for the past few weeks. Black Brant is the American version of our Brent Goose – subtly different in appearance but not yet deemed by the BOU to be a separate species – so not a ‘tick’. Ironically the liberal birding lobby advocate that Brent Goose is split into four separate species! Depending on how the next few weeks go and my pursuit of the magic 300, I might have to re-evaluate my position!

But for now the different, but not yet recognised as a separate species, Black Brant:


As can been seen in these digipics, Black Brant are darker on the back and belly than the accompanying Brent geese, of the dark bellied race, bernicla. (which breed in Russia), they have distinctive white ‘flames’ on their flanks and the white ‘necklace’ is broad, joining in the front.



The pale bellied race, horta (Svalbard & Greenland) generally winter on the west coast – we saw one in Cornwall recently. Less than a handful of Black Brant arrive to winter in the UK each year.

This entry was posted in Birding.

2 comments on “The Listers Dilemma

  1. Martin Coates says:

    Even the Americans recognise Brant and Brent as ‘different’ but dont break the latter down any further (as far as I am aware). Surprisingly after Cornwall i found i hadnt split Brents either but ticked Brant the moment I could find one!There is always the ‘Roger view’ on listing of course which will get you to 300 in no time at all..

  2. TrevorOnTour says:

    I’ll put you and Roger in the ‘radical’ or possibly ‘reckless’ camp then…

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