Brant (Branta bernicla)
Brant were once a favorite game bird and thousands were shot every spring and fall during their migration. This constant persecution led to a drastic decrease in population size. Fortunately, brant are now protected by law and their current populations are relatively stable.
The brant’s name comes from the Ancient Norse ‘brandgas’, meaning ‘burnt goose’, referring to the dark colouration of this northern goose. It is a small goose, 55-65 cm in length, or about the size of a mallard duck. Its plumage is a simple, three-toned pattern: dark brown back and wings, white belly, tail and rump, and jet black breast, neck, head and bill. Adult geese also have a small fleck of white on the upper neck. When it dabbles in shallow water, turning upside-down to reach water weeds, the brant makes a remarkable transformation- a dark brown goose becomes a bright white rump and tail sticking up in the air! It can be distinguished from the Canada goose by its shorter neck, lack of white chin-strap, its dark breast and its characteristic four-note call. Some populations of the brant are also known as black brant or brent geese- these geese have a dark brown or black underparts.
The brant breeds on the Arctic coast, throughout the High Arctic islands, and in Siberia. There are several different populations of the Brant, each of which winters in a different location. The two western groups migrate to different portions of the Pacific coast of the United States; the eastern Low Arctic group flies south to the Atlantic coast of Canada; while the eastern High Arctic geese travel via Greenland to Ireland to winter!
The Brant nests singly or in loose colonies on low, coastal tundra, preferring small islets either along the coast or, occasionally, in ponds and lakes near the ocean. Its nest consists of a depression on open ground, sometimes raised up on a pile of mosses and lichens, and thickly lined with down. The female lays 4-8 grayish-white eggs, which she incubates for 22-26 days while the male guards the nest.
In the Arctic, the brant eats a variety of mosses, lichens and arctic plants, but in winter it feeds largely on common eel grass (Zostera marina) on tidal flats. Like most geese, brant are excellent swimmers, adapted to life on the water’s surface. Instead of diving, they feed during low tide by pulling the eel-grass up from the bottom. To allow for feeding during high tide, when the water is too deep for them to reach their favourite food under the water, they leave some floating at the surface. Often they linger in their wintering grounds until June, taking advantage of new vegetation in the south before returning north to breed.
During their migrations, brant do not fly in the loose ‘V’ formation used by most waterfowl, instead forming loose groups or stringing out in long lines. When flying over large bodies of water, they tend to fly only a few feet above the surface. When threatened in the water, they swim away rapidly with neck and head stretched out.