Brant geese: a favorite among bird watchers, hunters in Western Washington
Walk along the Three Crabs property north of Sequim in the early months of the year, and you may hear the distinctive “ronks” and “cruks” of brant geese.
The property, located in the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s (WDFW) Dungeness Wildlife Area Unit, is one of wildlife biologist Shelly Ament’s favorite places to view the striking sea birds.
“I’ve been down there and have seen hundreds of brant,” said Ament, who works for WDFW’s Coastal Region encompassing Clallam County. “If the tide is right, they’ll be right along the shoreline. You can watch them feeding, sit there with binoculars, and have an amazing wildlife viewing experience.”
Two brant geese stocks are found in Washington during winter. Black brant are generally found in Clallam and Pacific counties, and western High Arctic brant — also called gray-bellied brant — are typically found in Skagit and Whatcom counties. Together these two stocks are managed as the Pacific brant population.
Brant are short-legged, up to 25 inches long, and weigh a little over 3 pounds. The two types are not currently recognized as separate subspecies. Both have black heads and necks separated by a white ring, or necklace, but the belly is paler on the western High Arctic, creating a more distinct color contrast.
These migratory geese winter in coastal bays, estuaries, and lagoons. They are one of the species bringing together conservation efforts by the United States, Canada, and Mexico through the Pacific Flyway Council, which forges cooperation among public wildlife agencies to protect and conserve migratory birds in western North America.
Washington bird watchers can find brant throughout the Coastal and North Puget Sound regions. WDFW Waterfowl Section Manager Kyle Spragens said Alki Beach southwest of Seattle and the Nisqually Reach Nature Center northeast of Olympia are great brant-viewing spots during spring migration.
Hikers in the Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge, which was established to protect species like brant, can see the geese on the inside of the bay, Ament said. Other viewing spots include Sequim Bay, the Point Hudson Marina in Port Townsend, and Birch Bay State Park north of Bellingham.
WDFW wildlife biologist Anthony Novack, whose district includes Pacific County, said the best place to view them in Willapa Bay is the Tokeland Marina.
“We get them passing through even as late as mid-May along the coast,” he said.
When viewing and photographing brant and other wildlife, practice caution and respect to keep yourself and animals safe. For tips, check out this blog post or WDFW’s ethical wildlife viewing page. Learn more about wildlife viewing at WDFW’s website.
Western High Arctic brant breed in Canada on the Queen Elizabeth Islands before migrating to the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska in the fall.
Maynard Axelson with the Washington Brant Foundation said he’s traveled to Alaska several times to help band brant geese at a research camp.
“Students would identify all the nesting pairs in their locations, and, incredibly, the same birds would return year after year and nest in almost the same exact spot after flying their annual 10,000-mile migration down the coast and back,” he said.
Marking information indicates the north Puget Sound area is the major wintering area for western High Arctic brant. Recently, though, more brant have been wintering in Alaska.
Western High Arctic brant have smaller populations, and their distribution is more concentrated than black brant. Factors affecting population status and distribution are currently unknown.
In addition to being an interesting sight for local birders and wildlife watchers across Western Washington’s coastal bays, brant have a dedicated following among waterfowl hunters from western Alaska to Baja, Mexico. They are typically hunted over decoy strings in bays via small layout boats or kayaks, or from blinds set up on tidal estuaries and mudflats.
Axelson has been involved with the sea geese for decades.
“Brant have long been noted for some of their specialized characteristics,” he said. “They have a long history in tribal culture as a food source, and their elaborate down has been used for centuries in clothing. They are also a favorite of hunters, as they have a strong social structure which makes them very anxious to come into decoys. They seem to have their own identity also, as most people say they are going duck hunting, goose hunting, or brant hunting, even though brant are a goose.”
Washington brant hunters must have a migratory bird hunting authorization and complete a brant harvest record card, as WDFW closely monitors harvest. Brant hunting season dates are predetermined for Clallam, Pacific, and Whatcom counties. For Skagit County, WDFW conducts aerial surveys to count brant and determine if numbers are sufficient to allow hunting.
The difference in season setting is because Skagit County has higher numbers of western High Arctic brant and more brant hunters than the other counties. Western High Arctic Brant, which are less common than Pacific black brant, are identified as a Species of Greatest Conservation Need under the State Wildlife Action Plan.
This year’s general hunting season runs selected dates through January, with a Youth, Veteran, and Active Military opportunity in early February. Refer to WDFW’s recent news release for details.
Brant are widely renowned table fare, which probably has to do with their unique diet.
Unlike most other goose species that are terrestrial and come inland for food, brant are sea geese that spend most of their time on the water, surviving on eelgrass and other aquatic vegetation like sea lettuce. They visit sandbars to ingest rock and sand fragments, which help them to digest the eel grass.
“Most terrestrial geese, like Canada, cackling, and snow geese, have benefited from some supplementary foods, like agricultural fields — potatoes, barley, peas,” Spragens said. “In contrast, brant are one of two goose species in the world — the other being emperor geese in Alaska — that are still almost exclusively reliant on their natural food source.”
Changes in water temperature and salinity, as well as sea level rise and severe winter weather, may affect food availability for brant. Their habitat and foraging requirements make them likely to exhibit moderate sensitivity to climate change.
Spragens estimates that there are approximately 500 brant hunters in Washington. The activity depends on tide levels; brant hunting is almost impossible without a boat.
“To some, that challenge is what’s attractive about it; to others, it’s more about tradition,” Spragens said. “But those people that are in it, there’s nothing they would rather do.”