Brant In Japan, people greet spring by admiring the cherry blossoms, or Sakura. In Port Townsend, people look for the first Red-flowering Currant blossoms and listen for the nighttime chorus of tree frogs. But a few people consider “Brant scoping” a highlight of spring, and they keep track of banded individual geese. This episode explores our local Brant, bird banding, and those of us who look for banded Brant.
2. Brant in Flight What are Brant (Branta bernicla)? Smaller than a Canada Goose, the Brant is a black and white goose with a black head, a short bill, and a small white necklace. Its wingspan reaches 42 inches. Unlike the Canada Goose, the Brant is a coastal goose. Brant are quite social, almost always in a flock, foraging together, swimming together, and flying together. If you listen carefully, they chatter together. One field guide describes it as “a soft, gargling rrot or cronk,” and another as “a low, rolling, slightly upslurred raunk-raunk.” Personally, I consider it a rather magical soft murmur. Even in flight, they maintain their chatter, as you can see in the center bird in this photo. These birds were spooked by the blast from Point Hudson’s monthly emergency tsunami test, so they all departed at once over the bay, only to return a few minutes later.
3. Brant with Eelgrass Brant breed on the high Arctic tundra, and are mostly monogamous. Port Townsend research zoologist Geoffrey Hammerson told me, “I was excited one day when I saw two banded Brant staying close together–and it was the same two (male and female) that I had seen together the previous year. They were banded as adults on the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge on the same day several years earlier and were at least eight years old when I saw them the second time.” Females lay three to five pale beige eggs in a fluffy feather nest right on the tundra. Most fly south as far as Baja California to spend winters in estuaries, sheltered bays, and beaches. Like Popeye, they love nutritious green food, and they thrive with an abundance of eelgrass (Zostera marina)…
4. Brant with Sea Lettuce …and sea lettuce (Ulva species). The best places to find up to 450 birds locally are the beaches of Port Townsend’s Point Hudson and Fort Flagler’s lower campground. It’s fun to watch them ignore the red and brown seaweeds, and gather any green sea lettuce or eelgrass on the shore or, since they can’t dive, they “dabble” head first to grab it in shallow water.
5. Brant 0R2 A couple years ago at Fort Flagler, I photographed a few Brant, and later cropped my photo and noticed one had bands on both legs. It’s a bit blurry, but you can read 0R2 on the green and white band.
6. Certificate Following a friend’s advice, I reported it to the U.S. Geological Survey: www.reportband.gov and five days later, received my first online Certificate of Appreciation. It turns out that we in Port Townsend share our Brant with a community of 446 residents over 1,800 miles from here! 0R2 was a three-year-old male, banded as a gosling by John Pearce near Nuiqsut on a delta of the Colville River by Alaska’s Beaufort Sea coast: http://www.north-slope.org/our-communities/nuiqsut
7. Brant I learned that the North American Bird Banding Program studies the movement, survival, and behavior of birds. Since 1904, 60 million birds representing hundreds of species have been banded in North America, and four million bands have been recovered and reported. In the last ten years, USGS biologists have banded about 10,000 individual birds in annual banding drives. Why do they band Brant? They want to know if the Brant population is affected by competitive pressure from Snow Geese as that population continues to expand. Resighting reports help the USGS learn about migratory behavior, such as wintering area usage, migration timing, and mixing/immigration among populations.
8. Brant =5V Last month I photographed my second green and white banded Brant, this time at Point Hudson. Four days later, my certificate told me that John Pearce also banded this female, =5V, also in Nuiqsut, but a year later, and as an adult. I emailed some questions to Pearce at the USGS Alaska Science Center, and he referred me to Vijay Patil, the USGS wildlife biologist currently in charge of the Brant banding program on the North Slope.
9. Map of 0R2 and =5V’s Banding Location Patil emailed me a map with the location of my Brants’ banding on The Colville Delta, describing it as “a maze of river channels and small islands. Because of the permafrost soils, the ground is poorly drained and dotted by polygonal ponds. It also supports lush freshwater sedge meadows, and expansive salt marshes along the coast, which are a popular feeding ground for geese with young goslings because of the high Nitrogen content and digestibility of the vegetation.” I’d never heard of the Colville Delta, but Patil told me, “A wide array of waterbirds (geese, ducks, and shorebirds) come to the Colville each summer to nest, traveling from wintering grounds as close as southern Alaska and as far away as China, Japan, and New Zealand.” That includes about 5,000 Brant!
10. Brant *P3 and *7L by Hillary Smith My friend Hillary Smith is another Brant enthusiast. She told me she had photographed =5V last winter, and a few times this year. She even named =5V! Her brother, who is especially interested in indigenous cultures, named her Niglingak, the Inupiaq word for Brant. Hillary also saw one pair (*P3 and *L7) together twice. Her certificates told her they were banded the same day in Nuiqsut, and both male, so she wonders if perhaps they are brothers.
11. Brant at Pt. Hudson The research zoologist quoted above, Geoffrey Hammerson, has registered about 40 different banded Brant over the years, and several in multiple years. Most are from breeding areas on the north slope of Alaska, including Nuiqsut, or on the Yukon Delta. I emailed him to ask if he’d ever seen =5V or 0R2. He replied, “I was out yesterday at Pt. Hudson and saw 2TL, the fourth year in a row! A 10-year-old. I saw =5V in 2019 and 2021 but have not spotted 0R2.” Geoff is co-author of the magnificent book Pacific Flyway: Waterbird Migration from the Arctic to Tierra del Fuego. This book includes stunning photos of Brant foraging and nesting in the Izembek Lagoon National Wildlife Refuge in the Alaska Arctic. Geoff tells tells of one Brant tagged in north central Russia who flew to Morro Bay, California— about 4,800 miles! Geoff also writes in Pacific Flyway of a male Brant, TS5, he saw in Port Townsend from 2012 to 2017 that was banded in 1992 on Banks Island in Western Arctic Canada. Geoff learned that TS5 died the same week he saw him in 2017, and estimates his lifetime migrations totaled over 183,000 miles.
12. Brant sign Please be careful not to disturb Brant when they’re foraging, preening, or resting, all important preparations to fly north. All these photos were taken with a zoom lens and then cropped. If you want to observe Brant, please use a scope or good binoculars from a respectful distance, and follow the advice on these Pt. Hudson signs to “let them live!” You can report banded birds to US©GS here: www.reportband.gov, and also post photos on iNaturalist’s Banded Birds project: https://www.inaturalist.org/projects/banded-birds, where I added my two Brant, a Caspian Tern, and a Canada Goose with a red and white neck band. This week I’ll add four more Brant with black and white bands. I can’t wait to receive my certificates to learn all the details!
All photos by Wendy Feltham – ©2022 All Rights Reserved