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Sounds of Winter: Brant in the Bay

The following is a blog entry from naturalist Joe Reynolds:

With snow along the shoreline, and people wearing heavy coats, hats, and gloves once more, it’s clear that winter is here and so are the sounds of winter.

For me, one of the more natural sounds this time of year are from birds. Though, not all bird calls are the same. Every winter a hardy species of waterfowl arrives from the tundra to provide a wintertime tune along the coast.

It's the soft, throaty, gurgle calls of Brant, a small bay goose closely related to the Canada Geese. Unlike the familiar forceful honk of their cousin, though, Brant utter a gentler call that sounds like a low rrrrotttt, or crrr-ooonnnkkkk, or even sometimes a mellow quack.

These whimsical sounds will never be heard in a holiday song, but along with the whistle of wind and the crunching of snow, they make up the amazing diversity of natural sounds during winter near Lower New York, Raritan Bay, Sandy Hook Bay, and surrounding waters. It's one of the joys of life.

As the tidal waters of the bay continue to draw different waterfowl species southward as far as open water can be found, populations of Brant and their quirky calls are continuing to spread. As of now, Brant seem to be favoring the shallow coves in Jamaica Bay, Sandy Hook Bay, the Navesink River, and the mud flats in South Amboy.

The birds are easy to spot. Brant are small, dark geese, with a short-bill and a short-neck. They have black heads, black bills, black necks, and black legs. Most other parts of the body are contrasting colors of brown, white, pale brown, or blackish-brown. The most striking identification feature on this bird is a row of white feathers around its neck.

It's not unlike the bright white patch of feathers on the cheek of a Canada Goose. Brant, though, have pearly white feathers on their neck. The neck feathers look like a  partly broken collar or as noted birder, David Allen Sibley, likes to call it, a small white "necklace."

Brant are long-distance migrants. In fact, they have one of the longest migrations of any waterfowl, often travelling in excess of 3,000 miles from their breeding grounds in salt marshes near the Arctic Ocean to arrive to our busy New York metropolitan waters around mid to late October. No other goose nests as far north as the Brant.

Once their breeding season is done sometime in September, the birds will begin their long, winged migration southward, flying in unorganized flocks.

They 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.

Brant will remain in and around New York Harbor all winter to rest and feed on aquatic plants in shallow waters, including sea lettuce and other green algae. If waters are especially icy, the birds may move upland to feed on grass. If the winter is really cold and icy, the geese might move farther south to Barnegat Bay, Delaware Bay or other points south.

Although Brant will overwinter in large flocks along the Atlantic Coast from Massachusetts to North Carolina, recent studies by New Jersey Fish & Wildlife show that around 70 percent of the wintering Brant population occurs in New Jersey, with the second largest wintering population found along the south shore of Long Island, NY.

The last official survey of Brant in 2002 estimated the population of wintering Brant around 181,000 birds in the tidal waters of New York and New Jersey. Virginia was the third state with the largest winter population of Brant with approximately 14,355 birds.

Come spring, Brant are usually one of the last migrants to return to their nesting sites in the Arctic Circle, particularly in the Foxe Basin west of Baffin Island. Much of this coastal tundra does not warm up until sometime in mid-June.

With little food available up there, the birds  are in no rush to take wing. They usually stay around to fatten up. They will use this stored body fat to produce eggs, and to sustain themselves during incubation.

Brant will depart the metropolitan waters of New York and New Jersey sometime around late May, with the last of the Brant seen soon after Memorial Day weekend. Since the birds are late to leave, this means that much of their pair bonding will be done right here.

Since Brant have a short window to nest and raise their young, as winter usually returns to the high Arctic around mid-September, the birds need to be already paired and ready to lay eggs quickly when they arrive to the tundra. No surprise, many adult Brant will mate for life unless one mate is lost.

The breeding season up in the tundra is not an easy time for Brant. I am guessing the overwintering period is less stressfu. It might be one of the few pleasures the geese  get. This could especially be true in the rich tidal waters of New York and New Jersey, a reason why so many Brant overwinter here.

In sight of bright city lights, the birds can rest, relax, have a meal, and communicate with each other by way of their whimsical, soft, gurgle calls - sounds of winter swimming downstream from New York City.

For more information, pictures and year-round sightings of wildlife in or near Sandy Hook Bay, Raritan Bay, and Lower New York Bay, please check out my blog entitled, Nature on the Edge of New York City at http://natureontheedgenyc.blogspot.com/

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