For the Birds Radio Program: New Jersey Brant

Original Air Date: Nov. 7, 1997

Laura got a lifer at Cape May!

Duration: 3′44″


From cassette—date is definite.

A couple of weeks ago I went to Cape May, New Jersey, to sample the fall migration on the ocean. I was just there for one drizzly, windy day, with the ocean too choppy to have many birds near shore, but scanning the sky, I found thousands of distant sea ducks flying along the eastern horizon—tiny gray dots winging along, some in huge masses, others in long lines. They were so far away that even through my scope I couldn’t tell which species they were, though by their shape I could tell they were mostly scoters. It didn’t much matter—there were so many, coming endlessly, that the sheer numbers of them were more important than their specific identities. Suddenly, still looking through the scope, I noticed one group of birds come in closer. These had a noticeably slower wingbeat than any of the ducks, and I suddenly saw with delight that they weren’t ducks at all, but geese. And with growing excitement, I realized that the one species of goose I was most likely to see on the ocean was a species I’d never seen before in my life, the Brant.

So I kept my scope trained on them, and as they drew closer, I could pick out their field marks—the pale underside and dark upperparts; dark, smoky neck with just a small hint of a necklace, devoid of the white cheek patches of Canada Geese. These were lifers!

They drew in fairly close, though still much easier to see through the scope than my binoculars, and suddenly all came down to alight in the surf. They were still far enough away that I couldn’t have identified them through my binoculars, but it was fun seeing them bob in the water. I was with a friend who’s new to birding, and right when I finally relinquished the scope so he could see them, they suddenly decided to take off, and all he got to see was their back ends as they flew away.

The rain started picking up, and we were getting sick of trying to keep binocular and scope lenses dry, and decided to head to Atlantic City for some indoor fun. We entered the city on a busy highway which crossed a bridge over the Intracoastal Waterway, and swimming right there, right beside a huge banner reading “Welcome to Atlantic City,” were hundreds of Brant, swimming together close enough to identify with the naked eye. Although he’s new to birding, Chris instantly, without a moment’s hesitation, pulled the car over and stopped so we could enjoy this surprising and delightful treat at leisure.

Brants were the last really common species I was missing from my lifelist. They’re a common winter visitor to the Atlantic coast from New Jersey to North Carolina, but I’ve never been in that area of the country during winter. Come spring, they head up to Arctic Canada and Alaska, where they eat grasses, mosses, and the stalks and leaves of arctic plants, but through the winter they limit themselves to saltwater plants, and have salt glands to keep their blood salinity at a safe level. Like people at a blackjack table in Atlantic City, Brant have had their ups and downs. Before the 1930s, they ate eelgrass during winter, but when the Atlantic coastal eelgrass disappeared, the Brant population crashed. They recovered a bit through the 1960s, but then their numbers plummeted again. Now they’re back on the upswing. I lost $4.00 in slot machines in Atlantic City, but getting this long, satisfying look at Brant made me feel like a big-time winner.