Winter along the Jersey Shore can sometimes be bleak, bitter and numb. But during the height of winter when windowpanes have frosted up and skies have a soft grey look is when a soft and soothing sound starts to waft within estuaries and back-bays from Raritan Bay down to Delaware Bay.
It sounds like a low relaxing rrrrotttt, or crrr-ooonnnkkkk, or even sometimes a mellow quack or a monosyllabic ronk. A laid-back and throaty sound that is unique to one of New Jersey’s smallest species of geese, so small that it’s only slightly larger than a mallard duck.
Atlantic brant (scientific name: Branta bernicla hrota), also known as a bay goose, are common sights and sounds in estuaries along the Jersey Shore during the winter. Yet while you may have heard their call, it’s a goose few people know well. It’s a bird with an almost certain mistaken identity and a goose that is sadly fading away.
To the causal seaside observer, brant appear like their more famous tarnished cousin, the Canada goose (scientific name: Branta canadensis). Stop and take a closer look though at some of those waterfowl. You may be pleasantly surprised to find a shy and small goose with a short stubby bill. Unlike a Canada goose, brant are not big forceful “honkers.” These birds tend to be timid and shy of humans, preferring to swim away when a person gets too close. A different way of doing things than their bigger Canadian cousins that prefer to make their presence known in suburban parks, airports, golf courses, and open meadows with much brash and often little bother for humans.
PHOTO: Atlantic Brant
The brant’s name comes from the Germanic Old Norse word “brandgas,” meaning “burnt goose.” It refers perfectly to their dark, blackish-gray appearance. But there are also greyish-white feathers below and a white patch of feathers around the neck, which resemble a tiny necklace. So low-key in color it’s not always noticeable to see the white neck plumage from a distance.
Atlantic Brant will arrive every autumn to the Jersey Shore and will spend much of the fall, winter and a good amount of spring in estuarine waters around New Jersey. Although they are cold loving creatures that breed in the high Arctic, brant seem to love the Jersey Shore as well. Studies by New Jersey Fish & Wildlife and others show that up to 70% of the wintering Atlantic brant population can be found along the Jersey Shore, including Sandy Hook Bay, Raritan Bay, Barnegat Bay, and the Great Egg Harbor. The second largest wintering population can be found nearby along the shores of Long Island, NY. This is the core wintering range for this waterfowl, where approximately 85% of the population winters.
Brant will use their time during the winter to rest and relax in a place where they can easily gather food. Remarkably, brant forage by using the tide cycles to work in their favor. At low tide, brant will pull up sea grasses and algae to the surface. During the next high tide, brant will then gobble up the floating plants as food. A tasty strategy for a bird that loves eating plant life from tidal waters.
But nothing lasts forever and brant need to be on their way by the end of May. Atlantic brant will migrate northward thousands of miles in large flocks over land and over water, including a nonstop flight over James Bay and the east side of Hudson Bay, two large bodies of saltwater in Canada that extend from the Arctic Ocean. The geese are long distance migrants and can fly nonstop for many miles and at altitudes of several thousand feet in the air to get where they want to go.
And where they want to go in late spring is to their summer breeding grounds way up in the eastern high Arctic. Much of the brant population will breed around the Foxe Basin, a shallow oceanic basin located north of Hudson Bay, Canada and in the eastern Arctic. Other important breeding colonies can be found on wet coastal tundra of the high Arctic on Southampton, Baffin (Cape Dominion), Prince Charles, Air Force and North Spicer Islands. Smaller numbers of Atlantic brant have also been observed on northern Baffin Island, in Committee Bay, and westward to Queen Maud Gulf. Some may even nest farther north on Ellesmere Island, the most northerly point of land in Canada, and which would make brant one of the most northerly nesting geese in the world.
Spring comes late in the high Arctic. When Atlantic brant arrive to their breeding grounds in early June, the birds frequently find large patches of snow still on the ground. The Arctic does not usually warm up (if you can call temperatures in the 40s or 50s F a warm-up) until typically mid-June, though snow can occur at any time of the year and sea ice may surround islands for most of the year.
Brant are monogamous, forming lifelong pair bonds at three years of age. So instead of using limited time during a short summer season trying to find mate, brant will use their first days in the Arctic to make a nest. A brant’s nest is often nothing more than a shallow depression on the ground lined with moss and located close to a high-water mark in coastal areas. Once eggs are laid, usually three to five cream or pale-yellow eggs, they will be incubated by the mother for 24 to 26 day. The female will continue to line the nest with moss and down to help keep eggs warm.
In the Arctic, brant will forage on a variety of mosses, lichens, sedges, grasses, including eelgrass where found; along with a few aquatic insects, mollusks, and worms for protein. To survive in this strictly saltwater environment, Brant are able to drink saltwater, as they have effective salt glands located at the base of the bill to filter excess salt from the blood stream.
Yet for all their adaptations and resilience, life is not easy in the high Arctic to raise a family, and the stress seems to be getting to the brant. The population of Atlantic brant is in decline. Over the last several years, wildlife biologists are noticing there are fewer young in the population during winter surveys of Atlantic Brant in the Mid-Atlantic. The lack of young birds suggests something could be going drastically wrong for nesting brant on their Arctic breeding grounds.
But exactly what could cause this decline? Scientists at the University of Delaware have been trying to answer this question for several years. It began in 1979 when Ken Abraham, an adjunct professor at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario, and a longtime waterfowl biologist first set up a camp in the coastal tundra. In the first year of his research, 455 brant nests were observed, but in 2014 Clark Nissley, a graduate student, and a team of three researchers from the University of Delaware, observed only 44. And of those 44, only two were successful.
It turns out that brant are not the only ones trying to raise a family during the short northern summers in the high Arctic. Clark Nissley and other wildlife scientists suggest that two other species of geese could be negatively impacting the brants’ nesting success.
Snow geese (scientific name: Chen caerulescens) and Cackling geese (scientific name: Branta hutchinsii), both of which arrive to the same nesting sites in the Arctic before brant, repeatedly eat high quality existing vegetation. This frequently leaves less nutritious plant food available for successful nest initiation, egg laying or individual health for Atlantic brant.
Snow geese and Cackling geese have also rapidly taken over brant nesting areas in the last 20 years due to increasing populations in North America due to improved food supply from forested land being converted to agriculture. These two species of geese seem to be actively pushing brant off the best or preferred coastal nesting sites, which leads to a reduction in nest commencement and fledging rates.
Atlantic brant appear to be losing habitat from bigger or more aggressive birds. Snow and Cackling geese are gradually pushing brant to the margins of an already harsh ecosystem.
In addition to competition, predation is another constant problem for Atlantic brant.
A University of Delaware study tells us that when brant are forced to nest farther away from the water in lower quality sites due to competition, they are vulnerable to predators, including Arctic foxes, herring gulls and parasitic jaegers, that prey on their nests during incubation or incubation breaks when an adult female brant leaves a nest to forage. The predators are potentially drawn to the nesting areas because of the influx of Snow and Cackling geese. These predators might normally only affect the brant in low levels, but if high densities of Cackling geese or Snow geese draw these predators in, then the brant may be suffering secondarily as a result.
Adult brant must also defend their young against persistent attacks from hungry animals including Parasitic jaegers and Glaucous gulls, which are two large avian predators of the chilly north that often seek quick and easy meals of baby brant. Incessant attacks regularly mean that female brant must go hungry in order to guard a nest from a raid.
But Arctic foxes are the worst. Scientists with the University of Delaware tell us that foxes are the most serious predator to the brant, taking a number of eggs from nests. Using time-lapse and motion-sensing cameras, the crew found that out of the 42 failed brant nests, they were able to pinpoint what caused the failure for 28 of the nests, and 23 of those nests failed due to fox predation.
Down along the Jersey Shore there are threats to Atlantic brant as well. Coastal development, poor water quality, improperly discarded fishing line and gear, and various forms of small plastic waste all contribute to polluting the brant’s estuarine winter home and degrading their sources of food. Atlantic brant are also hunted for sport in both New York and New Jersey, though under strict regulations.
The biggest threat to Atlantic brant’s winter home seems to be the degradation of their habitats, especially wetlands. A 2005 paper published in Global Change Biology by David H.Ward and others entitled, “North American Brant: effects of changes in habitat and climate on population dynamics” suggests that anthropogenic changes to marine wetlands have caused brant to abandon or alter their food preferences during migration and winter from native plants in natural habitats to plants in cultivated fields. This is why brant will occasionally be observed coming onto tidal flats or up onto the water’s edge to forage on grasses and sedges when aquatic plants and algae are scarce, which seems to be taking place more often.
Unfortunately, distress and declining populations are nothing new for brant. In the early 1930s, a wasting disease decimated almost all of the Atlantic Coast's eelgrass, which up to that time had amounted to about 80 percent of the brant’s diet. This resulted in the bird’s population taking a severe decline over several years. The birds rebounded, however, by turning to other food sources for their survival, including sea lettuce and additional marine algae, which had always been part of their diet but just in smaller quantities.
Additionally, in the early 1970s a serve cold snap triggered the population of brant to decline dramatically. Intense cold temperatures in the high Arctic caused ice and snow to cover breeding sites until July. This resulted in almost total nest failure for several years.
In the 1960s, the population of brant was estimated at 200,000. In 1972, the population dropped to 73,000, and was estimated to be only about 40,000 in 1973. Surveys in 1971 revealed that around 7 per cent of the wintering population of brant was made up of young birds. This figure dropped to less than one percent the following year, indicating almost no nesting success.
It’s data like this that seems to be remarkably similarly to current findings. An April 28, 2016 edition of Science Daily reports that while brant did have a better nesting success in 2015 than in 2014, this was still not likely enough to rebound the low population. Their nest success was only 17 percent in 2015 compared to 6 percent in 2014.
Will Atlantic brant be able to rebound once again as they have in the past? For the last ten years members of Save Coastal Wildlife have been observing decreasing populations of wintering brant every year along the Jersey Shore, especially around the Sandy Hook Bay-Raritan Bay complex. Brant show fidelity to both wintering and breeding areas. What were once flocks into the thousands, have turned into the hundreds and sometimes even into the dozens. It will be interesting to see what the future holds for this shy sea goose and their sweet soothing voice of winter, which might be on the verge of being lost for future generations of people along the Jersey Shore to take pleasure from listening.
Although more research still needs to be done to help answer the mysteries of the decline of Atlantic brant and their long-distance migrations, people can help by protecting their winter habitat along the Jersey Shore.
Here are a few ways to help:
- Pick up all litter and dispose in appropriate trash containers.
- Use “living shoreline” practices to help stabilize an eroding or degraded coastline.
- Avoid damaging wetlands if you are expanding your home or installing a shed.
- Use non-toxic products for household cleaning.
- Get involved and join activities that help to protect and restore local wetlands and estuaries.
To find more information about coastal wildlife, including waterfowl, please visit the website for Save Coastal Wildlife, a wildlife conservation nonprofit organization dedicated to educating people about the preservation and protection of coastal wildlife along the Jersey Shore at www.savecoastalwildlife.org