Tundra Beans in Pink-footed Geese flocks

Once considered as the same species, superficially Tundra Beans and Pink-footed Geese share a number of features – generally a medium sized grey/brown goose with a darker brown head, becoming lighter down the neck towards the chest and mantle. The back area at rest has pale fringing, and the flanks gradually get darker towards the rear.

Picking out Tundra Beans in a large group of Pinks can be a daunting task for those not used to working through goose flocks, but once you become accustomed to the various separating features, they can become much easier given reasonable views (or when in “Bean range” as a friend once said to me). This post is just a few musings that I put together whilst looking at goose images and after reading some recent, excellent goose articles by other birders. It concentrates on the Tundra species as this is by far the most regular type of Bean Goose encountered away from traditional Taiga Bean wintering sites and the one most people are more likely to find. They are also closer to Pinks in size, shape and features, so in theory once you’ve mastered Tundras, a Taiga should be easier.

The key features to look for when finding and then assessing a potential Tundra Bean would be:

  • Bare part colours (legs then bill)
  • Bill and head size and structure
  • Mantle, scapulars, tertials and primary feathers colouration
  • Tail tip

To get a “good” Tundra it’s important to look at all 4 of these and tick them off, as there is some confusing variation within Pink-footed Geese.

Bare part colouration

If the legs of a group of geese are visible, a great start to picking up a Bean is looking for bright orange legs in amongst the pink. This does depend a bit on peoples ability to separate pink and orange – some find this obvious, but others less so (especially on white-fronted geese!). Tundra’s legs can look amazingly tangerine orange, and this is particularly noticeable when they have complimentary background such as dark soil or snow. For me, most Tundra finds start off with a glimpse of orange in amongst the moving bodies, necks and legs.

Even at distance (400m away) the legs can be very obvious
The orange showing well with a snowy background

More difficult can be the bill, as although this also has orange patches, it’s not as easy to see and sometimes appears less orange than the legs. Given closer views though, it becomes more obvious. Most Tundra have a smallish ring of orange below the nostril, towards the tip, with the colouration often extending slightly up the cutting edges of the bill. More unusually they can have extensive orange as shown in one of the images in the next section:

Typical Tundra Bean bill shape and orange patch

Potential pitfalls

Although a great starting point, orange legs are not a silver bullet. Pink-footed Geese can sometimes show them. This seems to be more regular in younger birds, where the pink colouration can have an orange wash, but bright orange legged birds do occur as adults as well as juveniles. These birds seem to be more regular than they were a number of years ago (or perhaps this is due to improved ID criteria, improved optics etc) and it is not unusual to find 2 or 3 individuals in goose flocks of 1,000 or so.

Orange legged Pink – small bill with pink colouration, small head, greyish back. Small looking

Key to dismissing these as Pinks is looking at the other features noted above and detailed in the paragraphs below. From a bare parts colouration perspective look at the bill colour – if it’s obviously pink then it’s not a Tundra Bean. If it’s a struggle to tell the colour then look at bill and head size (a Pink will have a weak bill and small head), back and wing feather colouration (Pinks generally appear paler backed with paler tertials/primaries), tail (Pinks will have a broad white tail tip) and general size and structure (Pinks are generally smaller, shorter and less imposing than Beans). In general, if it just looks like the surrounding Pinks, but has orange legs, its probably not a Bean – a bit like the Sparrowhawk/Goshawk analogy – if there are doubts, it probably isn’t one.

Sometimes, if the birds are feeding in longer grass or stubble, it may not be possible to see the legs, so a number of the other features noted below should be looked for and then pieced together to form a positive ID.

Bill and head size and structure

Tundra always look large headed and big billed. Even the smallest billed Tundra has an impressive sized and shaped bill compared to a Pink. Tundra have a large, deep based bill, conical in shape, sometimes quite stubby looking, with an almost roman nose like profile. Although longer, slimmer billed individuals do occur. On some birds, bills can look quite comical, almost as if they’re oversized and stuck on – seen well, one of these birds really couldn’t be mistaken for a Pinkfoot:

Typical bird on the left, a very orange coloured individual on the right – quite unusual
Longer and a bit more orange colouring than typical
Typical bill on the left, quite a long bill on the right with “stuck on” look

Compare those with some examples of Pinkfeet’s more delicate bill

Small bills and heads

Tundra have a steep forehead showing a marked angle with the bill base and a rather bulbous, angular head – the combination of the 2 making this area appear markedly larger than the Pinkfeet.

Mantle, scapulars, tertials and primary feathers colouration

The upper body area of Tundra Beans is generally much browner and somewhat darker in colour and shade than a typical Pink – when in a distant group, this feature can sometimes be used to pick them out when trying to line up a camera for a photo. The white fringing in this area is usual much more obvious in a Pinkfoot, and combined with the frost tinged colour can make them look very pale in certain lights.

Back right – dark back area compared to the Pinks
Front middle pair – again, much darker than the Pinks
Even in duller light the dark colour and reduced pale fringing can be quite obvious

Another feature I have noted is that the tertials, primaries etc can in certain lights look very dark and almost as if they have been coated in oil. This gives them a glossy character that Pinks never seem to show.

An almost oiled look to the scapulars, tertials etc feathers on the upper back half of the bird

Potential pitfalls

Not all Pinks have that classic “frosted” greyish looking mantle and some can look a lot browner. However, when compared side to side, even the brownest looking Pinks don’t appear as dark as a Bean when observed in real time (sometimes pictures can make them look similar depending on light and angle).

Tail tip

Tundra Beans have an almost entirely very dark tail, with white uppertail coverts and only a very thin band of white at the tail tip. A Pinkfoot’s tail is similar in pattern, but the dark element is paler and the white tip is a lot broader. The tail tip is variable within Pinkfeet, and some can show a narrower white band, but it is never as narrow or contrasty as that shown in Beans. This feature can be very obvious when geese are coming into land as they almost hover just before touchdown, but is also viewable when they are on the ground and walking around. Scanning through landing geese with bins is a very good way to pick up a Bean as not only does the tail look darker but also the wings are uniformly dark, lacking any silvery wash.

Very dark tails with narrow white tips when compared with the Pink in the middle

These flight shots although dark due to poor light show a classic suite of features including block head and strong bill, darker upperwings with no frosting, obvious pale bars on the upperwing, dark tail with thin pale tip and dark underwings.

Dark upperwing and obvious pale bars
Very dark underwing, block head, large bill with classic Tundra pattern
Very dark tail with narrow white terminal band

Other features

Tundra are a slightly larger, longer necked & legged and more imposing goose than Pinkfeet – although not always obvious, most of the time this size difference is apparent in the field, and is enhanced by the large head and bill already discussed. The body can often appear longer and more slender than the dumpy looking Pinks. The slender body accentuates the leg length and often makes Tundra Bean look much leggier than the surrounding Pinks – see the photo of the juvenile below.

Towering above the Pinks – the difference in head size is quite noticeable in this bird
Giving the impression of large, big billed geese, the front bird showing the long slender body

Juveniles/1st winters

The above points are still valid for young birds, although sometimes the orange colour can be less obvious. This fresh juvenile from autumn 2020 stands out from the neighbouring Pinks – what a bird!

Fresh juvenile – Orange colouration, long legged, slender bodied and large billed

Potential hybrids?

The 2 species breed in different areas and I can find no documented proof of hybrid occurrence. However, this bird I watched in autumn 2020 was the closest I have come to one. This bird had bright orange legs, an orange bill patch and was very brown backed, but it had a relatively slender bill, small head and wide white tail band. It certainly wasn’t a pure Bean for me (although one seasoned Bean watcher from the continent thought it was within variation), and it didn’t look quite right for a pure Pink either. Perhaps it was a Pink with a perfect storm of Bean like features, or maybe it was a hybrid. A very interesting bird whatever it was and I enjoyed watching it over several hours across 2 days. Hopefully not too many more encounters of birds like this in the future.

Bright orange legs, but wide white tail band
Orange toned bill patch, but a smallish head/bill
Dark backed

This bird aside, given good views, picking out Tundra Beans becomes reasonably easy with practice. If you’ve not tried it before, give it a go – there is little more relaxing than working through a large flock of geese.