Something new & rare
What looks like a small Canada goose, but isn’t one?
After 15 years of writing about nature, it is a rare and wonderful time when I can introduce you to a new species. Sometimes I do this the instant I am able, but other times I must restrain my excitement and plan for the future. And what am I planning for, you ask? I plan for a time just like this; a time when we are deep in the winter doldrums and there is nothing going on. The weather is warm, the snow is gone for the most part and things are very, very quiet out there. So, into the vault I go and out I come with a true jewel of the avian world.
The brant (branta bernicula) is a small goose that may not be widely known to birders who seldom stray from home. I have been watching birds since I first took an ornithology class in 1988 and there is only one time that I think I heard a small flock of brants flying overhead. They have a very distinctive “chur” call that made me freeze in my tracks while raking leaves in the yard one day.
Birders who live on the coast, however, may find brants much more familiar. I have actually laid eyes on birds that I was able to positively identify as brants only twice and both times I was at the ocean. The first time was in 2004 at the Sachuest National Wildlife Refuge in Newport, R.I. The second time was in 2010 at Jones Beach on Long Island, N.Y. I had cameras with me both times, but as often seems to be the case, I was much luckier the second time around.
To the eye of a beginner, the brant often seems to be a Canada goose, but a closer look shows that there is only a superficial resemblance between the two birds. The brant is only 27 inches in length, with a 42-inch wingspan. The common Canada goose (which is the race we have in our area) has a body length of 45 inches and a wingspan of 60 inches. I would say it is fair to characterize the brant as being half the size of a Canada goose.
Both birds have a black head and neck, but the black feathers of the brant extend much farther down to the body. I was lucky enough to find a small flock of brants on land while I was at Jones Beach and was able to get a perfect profile shot of one bird as it grazed on grasses. Note how the black feathers start to extend down the body and end in a straight line. The black feathers of a Canada goose do not extend nearly this far.
In fact, if you were to find brants and Canada geese in the water, you would still see this obvious difference between them. The black feathers of brants extend all the way to the waterline, whereas those of the Canada goose stop well short of the water.
Then there is the matter of decorative splashes of white feathers upon those regal black fields. The Canada goose is very well known for its bold white cheeks, which can be seen from a great distance. The brant, on the other hand, has a much more subdued splattering of white feathers on the throat. The amount of white seems to vary from one bird to another with the boldest markings being rather substantial and the most subdued being barely present. You can actually see this difference in the two brant photos I have provided.
Once the eye has been properly trained, it is easy to distinguish the two species. But, the common palette of black, brown and white used by both birds is enough to earn the brant the nickname “saltwater cousin of the Canada.” This (you guessed it) is because the brant is a saltwater species in the wintertime. In fact, the entire eastern population of this species congregates on the East Coast with the greatest concentration between New Jersey and North Carolina. During the breeding season, however, the brant has the most northern distribution of any goose.
These birds fly as far north as land can be found in Canada and Greenland. They seldom nest far from water and they graze on the low plants of the arctic. However, brant are also “true sea geese” in the sense that they have salt glands that allow them to drink salt water and feed on ocean plants without injury.
The females fashion a bowl-shaped depression in the ground and line it with whatever soft plant material is at hand. Then a generous lining of down is added and a clutch of three to five creamy white eggs is laid. The female alone will incubate the eggs for about 24 days and when the precocial goslings hatch, they are guarded by both parents. The job of male brants appears to be dominated by the concept of protecting nests, eggs and offspring from harm. By the way, brant goslings are gray in color while those of Canada geese are a more predictable yellow. Both are equally adorable, however.
Once the short breeding season of the arctic comes to a close, the birds must find their way to the shelter of the south. It is at this point that tradition takes over. Here in North America, there are two distinct flyways that migratory birds observe. Either you are a West Coast bird and you head for the Pacific coast, or you are an East Coast bird and you head for the Atlantic. The birds intermingle on the breeding grounds, but there appear to be distinct plumages between the two groups.
Once the birds arrive on the wintering grounds, they are required to shift their diet from land plants to one that is more readily available during the winter. Up until the 1930s, this winter food was eelgrass, which covered the bottom of shallow coastal waters with a lush carpet of thick, wavy green. The plant was so abundant that it was sometimes considered a nuisance, but then something changed in the environment.
Prior to 1930, the eelgrass beds were lush and extensive. They served as a source of food for untold numbers of animals and they served as nurseries for all manner of aquatic species. Even humans found various uses for the grass. As with any abundant species, there were interactions with predators and diseases, but the eelgrass thrived. Then, in 1931, the tables turned.
Suddenly, the eelgrass went into a sharp and alarming decline. At first the cause was not well understood, but eventually the culprit was identified as a particular type of slime mold. For some reason the mold was able to get the upper hand and, in fairly short order ,about 90 percent of the eelgrass was destroyed. Today, there are areas of eelgrass that appear to be resistant to the slime mold and restorations are under way, but we are nowhere near the abundance found before the 1930s.
As one might expect, a species that relied heavily on such an abundant food source would itself decline along with its food. Today, the numbers of brant are about 80 percent less than they were 80 years ago. The loss of eelgrass has been an ecological disaster. In that magical world of imagination, I would go back in time and give eelgrass immunity from all harm. I would also restore the American chestnut to the landscape, but that is a story for another day.
If you find yourself itching for something to do during the winter doldrums, why not take a road trip to the coast and see if you can’t spot yourself a brant? The farther south you go, the more likely you are to find them, but it might not be completely unpleasant to travel along the coast and survey the clam chowder at the same time. That actually sounds to good that I might try it myself.
Bill Danielson has worked as a naturalist for 16 years. In that time, he has been a national park ranger, a wildlife biologist and a field researcher. He currently works as a high school chemistry and biology teacher. To contact Bill, or to learn more about his writing, visit