(February 2008 photo by Jim Clark)
Guy Smith of Alki Point has been watching brant geese come and go since he moved there in 1993. His personal observations together with source data from Ducks Unlimited (DU), Washington Brant Foundation, and Audubon field guides have led to the following story. Guy knows that his perspective is weighted toward Alki Point and he apologizes to those readers whose favorite brant watching beaches are not recognized by name in the story.
By Guy Smith
Special to West Seattle Blog
Sometime during the week of Thanksgiving this year, as happens every year, you should see the first of “our” brant geese return from their nesting grounds in the Arctic. Our brant will winter along Beach Drive, Alki Point, and other West Seattle tidelands before leaving again in May.
During the first week of every May, the bulk of the local brant geese population leaves the western shores of Alki bound for their breeding grounds in the Arctic. They travel with other Pacific brant, or black brant, and are nicknamed for their under-bellies which are noticeably darker than those of their Atlantic brant cousins.
These small tidewater geese of about 3 pounds hang around far past the time when you would expect them to leave, with the weather having been warmish for a long spell. But they have always waited this way.
It must be in their genes to wait until the Arctic snow has had a chance to clear to the point where nests can be built. If nests can’t be built, egg materials will be reabsorbed by the female and no eggs will be laid that year. It’s easy to conclude that those geese whose personal clocks lead them to arrive at just the right time have flourished over time, while those with different clocks have not laid eggs at all, or, have produced hatchlings late which didn’t fledge in time to join the fall migration.
(WSB photo from Alki last April – unidentified sunbasker oblivious to the flotilla of brant behind him)
While our brant await the first week in May, they are busy feeding and getting their flight muscles in shape for the trip north. Each January, when small local flocks work their way around to the north side of Alki Point — after spending December south of the point — they spend most of the day eating eelgrass, swallowing pebbles to grind their meals, and preening. As the days grow longer, they mingle with larger flocks and fly low over the water in long undulating lines, testing their wings. They become flighty, taking off unexpectedly and flying a short distance before re-landing. In strong southerlies, they like to sit out just west of Alki Point and ride the whitecaps.
In late April, they collect in flocks of up to 300 along the shore north of Alki Point, which seems to be a staging area as brant from southern parts of the sound collect to start the big migration. Our brant are part of the roughly 15,000 that winter in Puget Sound, which make up about 14 percent of the world’s population of Pacific brant. They are the only major concentration outside of the roughly 90,000 that winter in Baja Mexico. (There are conflicting counts, etc, by different agencies).
As spring progresses, the brant become very talkative, with calls that are more soft croaks than honks. Geese are mated up, and in flocks small enough to count accurately, their numbers are always even. On occasion there will be a loner; a social misfit off by itself oblivious to the activities in flocks around it. In the final days before departure, it seems that the geese are calmer and not flighty as before. Then, one morning in the first week of May, they are gone; leaving behind only immature seagulls, crows and maybe a flock or two of Western grebes on the water. In another few weeks, all mature marine bird species that migrate will have left for their respective breeding grounds and the waters near Alki will be largely barren until the birds return.
Both Pacific and Atlantic brant arrive at their breeding grounds in early June. They make their nests from large masses of moss and down on snow free tundra in the coastal Alaskan, Canadian, and Russian Arctic. They nest in small loose colonies near tidal sloughs and channels, laying 3-5 dull-white eggs.
(U.S. Geological Survey photo of brant family, taken in Alaska)
In the land of the midnight sun, the broods are active around the clock and spend up to 20 hours a day feeding. Both parents care for the brood and aggressively defend it against predators, even though the young are precocial, that is, they are active and able to move freely after hatching and require little parental care. They grow fast and reach flight stage in about 50 days.
Pacific brant leave the breeding grounds in late August, moving to Izembek Lagoon on the Alaska Peninsula. There they spend September and October feeding on eelgrass. By October, virtually the entire world’s population of Pacific brant is found at Izembek.
(US Fish and Wildlife Service photo from Izembek)
In early November they start south. The departure is spectacular, with more than 100,000 birds present one day and gone the next; except for a small, hardy concentration of about 2,000 that winter at Izembek (which you can visit online by going here).
This map from DU shows the respective Pacific and Atlantic brant ranges and flyways
Our brant are great flyers, but are nothing compared to their Pacific brant brethren, which fly nonstop from Alaska to Baja Mexico in a mind-boggling time of 50 to 60 hours over a distance of 3,000 miles. They all leave Izembek in early November, but our brant; in contrast, dally along the way for about 3 weeks before they finally touch down in our area. To spend that much time, one would guess that our brant take the coastal route shown on the chart.
Atlantic brant also leave their nesting area at the end of August. But they spend September and October in James Bay before proceeding to their wintering areas on the east coast where about 72 percent winter in New Jersey, with the remainder along the seaboard from Long Island Sound south to Virginia.
The first bird species usually return to Alki waters in October, with cormorants, seagulls, grebes, surf scoters, goldeneye, buffleheads, and others leading the way. Finally, during the week of Thanksgiving as if by clockwork, our brant and their young will wing into the shore north of Alki Point, make a pass, then bank south around the point to the waters along West Seattle, where they start the cycle again.
Find out more about brant at the Washington Brant Foundation website.