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A Vagrant Brant

12-1-17 pale-bellied brant 049A7777Brants are small geese that travel long distances (up to 3,000 miles) several thousand feet up in the air between their Arctic breeding grounds and their coastal wintering grounds. No other species of goose nests as far north, and few migrate as far. The subspecies that overwinters off the middle of the East Coast, the Atlantic or Pale-bellied Brant, typically migrates from northern Canada to James Bay, where it remains for several weeks building up fat reserves. From there most birds fly nonstop to their wintering grounds in Jamaica Bay and other nearby estuaries of greater NYC and New Jersey, arriving in late October and early November.

Occasionally migrating birds, often juveniles, veer a bit off course (often due to weather-related causes) and end up where they don’t belong. Brants are common winter residents in coastal areas during the winter, but are not often seen far from salt water. This fall a lone juvenile vagrant Pale-bellied Brant appeared one day on the shore of a lake in central Vermont, giving inlanders the opportunity to view a Brant up close. While adult birds have a very sophisticated mechanism for plotting their migration from one point to another and for getting back on course if they are displaced because of weather, first-year birds often lack this skill.

Had this Brant been blown off course in this manner 75 years ago, there would have been concern for its survival, as Brants used to feed almost exclusively on intertidal seagrass during the non-breeding season. However, in the 1930’s a disease devastated eelgrass and consequently the Brant population dropped. Brants that survived adapted to an alternative diet which included sea lettuce, saltmarsh grass and lawn grass, making it possible for a 21st century Brant to exist just fine in the interior of New England, at least long enough to refuel before continuing on its way.

12 responses

  1. Elizabeth Kilmarx

    A flock of brants used to hang out on the lawn every winter where I grew up by Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island – so not just NY and New Jersey.

    December 1, 2017 at 8:55 am

  2. Jo-Ann

    Saw my first Brant Goose the beginning of November feeding off the seaweed on Goose Rocks Beach in Maine. I was so excited

    December 1, 2017 at 9:07 am

  3. scott ellis

    I saw one of these birds last week on the banks of the CT river in White River Junction. It was unfazed by my presence and made no effort to stay away from another passerby with their dog. I had no idea what it was. Thank you for this post.

    December 1, 2017 at 9:10 am

  4. Alice Pratt

    The intricacies of nature.

    December 1, 2017 at 9:18 am

  5. Kathryn

    What a strikingly beautiful creature. It looks so sophisticated!

    December 1, 2017 at 10:02 am


    Thank YOU!!!!!!! For week in and week out. I, in fact, was a brant once long ago.

    December 1, 2017 at 2:02 pm

  7. Jim Tucker

    Thank you for sharing the heartwarming story of the wayward Brant!

    December 1, 2017 at 5:19 pm

  8. Interesting sighting and an amazing tale of adaptation. Imagine flying all that way non-stop!

    December 1, 2017 at 8:47 pm

  9. Fascinating post as always.

    December 2, 2017 at 3:29 pm

  10. Marie Winn

    Dear Mary Holland:

    I’ve long admired your blog, and now I’m a fan of your splendid calendar for 2018. I would like to comment on your subject for September that is labeled: “American Toad and Toadstools.” Generally the word “toadstool” is understood to be an inedible mushroom. But your picture shows a species I know well. It is very edible, indeed, delicious. When I was a child on a mushroom-hunting expedition with my [Czech] parents, finding a kremenacek [its Czech name] was cause for great celebration. It is certainly a bolete, a variant, I would say, of Boletus edulis.

    Sincerely, Marie Winn

    PS In a Czech Mushroom book [Pilat] it is named Krombholzia aurantiaca.

    December 3, 2017 at 1:15 pm

    • Hi Marie,
      I have never heard of the word “toadstool” being used to refer to an inedible mushroom, though that does make sense! Thank you for teaching me something today!

      December 3, 2017 at 3:26 pm

  11. For the last two years, we’ve had a juvenile Brant show up in Amherst, out in western Massachusetts, on a small pond at the University of Massachusetts. We’ve also had appearances at the Quabbin and a few other inland bodies of water out our way. I had not idea about the diet change in the 1930s, but it makes everything clear. Thanks for sharing.

    December 5, 2017 at 10:38 pm

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