Although Atlantic Brant are a familiar sight in the chilly winter waters of New York Harbor, it’s a goose I think few people know. A bird with an almost certain identity complex.
To the causal winter beach observer, Brant appear like their more tarnished cousin, infamously known as Canada goose. People think the estuary is loaded with Canada geese, but take a closer look and some of those geese may be a shy and small bay goose recognized as Brant.
In fact, Atlantic Brant are quite different from a Canada goose. Brant are not big forceful “honkers.” They utter a gentler call that sounds like a low rrrrotttt, or crrr-ooonnnkkkk, or even sometimes a mellow quack. A more softer and throaty call that is a familiar sound of winter in New York Harbor.
Brant are small dark geese, essentially a dark-feathered bird with a small “necklace” of white feathers, so soft in color it’s not noticeable from a distance. The birds tend to be timid and shy of humans, preferring to swim away when a person get’s too close. A different way of doing things than their bigger Canadian cousins that prefer to make their presence known in parks, golf courses, and open meadows with much brash and little bother for humans at times
Being a salty bay goose, though, Brant can be a bit brassy when it comes to foraging for food. The birds prefer to find a meal in flocks by wading in shallow waters, sometimes squabbling over a meal, especially for tasty eelgrass. But with little eelgrass in New York Harbor, how do Brant survive?
The birds learned many years ago, relying solely on eelgrass could be dangerous. A die-off of eelgrass along the Atlantic Coast during the 1930s caused Brant numbers to decline dramatically. Since then the birds have modified their diet to add variety.
Brant will forage on a diversity of aquatic plants including sea lettuce and green algae. Occasionally coming onto tidal flats or up onto the water’s edge during the winter to forage on grasses and sedges when aquatic plants are scarce.
Don’t let their wary demur fool you. Brant are hardy, heavy-duty birds. These amusing geese are no domestic chickens when it comes to flight.
No other goose nests as far north as the Brant, and few migrate as far. The birds are long distance migrants that will nest in the chilly coastal tundra of the high Arctic near Baffin Island. Brant provide a strong natural connection between New York Harbor and north of the Arctic Circle, an extremely cold place.
Brant will fly nearly non-stop and at altitudes of several thousand feet above much of northeastern Canada including over Hudson Bay and James Bay, two large bodies of saltwater that extend from the Arctic Ocean and combine to be well over 800 miles long. Once their summer breeding season has completed sometime in September, the Brant will begin another long, winged migration southward, flying in unorganized flocks to return back to New York Harbor and nearby metropolitan waters around mid to late October.
Brant will spend much of the fall, winter and a good amount of spring in local waters. Studies by New Jersey Fish & Wildlife show that around 70% of the wintering Brant population can be found along the Jersey Shore, including Sandy Hook Bay, Raritan Bay, and Navesink River, with the second largest wintering population found along the south shore of Long Island, NY. Coastal Virginia is the third area with the largest winter population of Brant.
The birds will depart New York Harbor sometime around late May, but when they arrive to the tundra, they frequently find an area that does not warm up or thaw out until typically mid-June, though snow can occur at any time of the year and sea ice surrounds the island for most of the year.
With little food available on the ground or in the water, the birds will use stored body fat from food foraged during early spring and at various migration stopover sites to stay warm until plants start to mature in July. Along with the midnight sun, the birds will promptly produce eggs and raise a family, the next generation of Brant.
New York Harbor is not only habitat for Brant to feed and fatten up, it’s a place where single birds can find a date. Brant have a short window to nest and raise young, as winter usually returns to the high Arctic around late September. The birds need to be already paired and ready to go to lay eggs quickly when they arrive to the tundra. It’s no surprise that many adult Brant will mate for life unless one mate is lost.
With such a stressful breeding season, I’m guessing the overwintering period in New York Harbor is not so tense. Here the birds can rest and relax by letting their bigger feathered friends, like the Canada geese, take all the heat for being a messy bird. Now you know better the Brant of New York Harbor.