Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Episode 502 (12-9-19): Winter Brings Brant to Atlantic Coastal Waters

Click to listen to episode (3:28)

Sections below are the following:
Transcript of Audio
Audio Notes and Acknowledgments
Extra Information
Related Water Radio Episodes
For Virginia Teachers (Relevant SOLs, etc.).

Unless otherwise noted, all Web addresses mentioned were functional as of 12-6-19.


From the Cumberland Gap to the Atlantic Ocean, this is Virginia Water Radio for the week of December 9, 2019.

This week, we feature a faraway migrant mystery sound.  Have a listen for about 10 seconds, and see if you know this creature that migrates from Arctic shores to the mid-Atlantic coast for the winter.  And here’s a hint: the name rhymes, partially, with that of another, more legendary, winter traveler from the North Pole.

SOUNDS - ~10 sec

If you guessed the Brant, you’re right!  You don’t have to believe in Santa to appreciate the long trip that this relatively small and dark-colored goose makes from its summer breeding grounds in northern Canada and Greenland to wintering areas along the Atlantic from Massachusetts to North Carolina, including coastal Virginia and the Chesapeake Bay region.  That’s the pathway for eastern sub-populations of the species; western sub-populations migrate between Arctic parts of Canada and Alaska and the Pacific coastline.

One of eight species of goose native to North America, Brant live in a variety of saltwater or estuarine habitats, especially areas inhabited by its preferred aquatic plant food, Eelgrass [Zostera marina].  Brant will eat various other aquatic plants, too, and juveniles of the species will consume insects, crustaceans, and other animals.  But, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in New York, Brant are more dependent on a single food type than other geese species, and this dependence can make Brant more vulnerable than other geese to starvation in some years.

In the 1800s, John James Audubon described the Brant as, quote, “a shy bird, not easily approached; it swims well, and when wounded can dive with great expertness.”  Audubon also remarked that “the extent of the migrations of this species remains as yet unknown.”  Two hundred years later, the Cornell Lab can still note that, while the species has been widely studied, much is yet to be learned about the Brant.

Thanks to Lang Elliott for permission to use this week’s sounds, from the Stokes Field Guide to Bird Songs.  And we close by letting a bunch of Brant have the last call.

SOUNDS - ~4 sec


Virginia Water Radio is produced by the Virginia Water Resources Research Center, part of Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment.  For more Virginia water sounds, music, or information, visit us online at virginiawaterradio.org, or call the Water Center at (540) 231-5624.  Thanks to Stewart Scales for his banjo version of Cripple Creek to open and close this show.  In Blacksburg, I’m Alan Raflo, thanking you for listening, and wishing you health, wisdom, and good water.


The Brant sounds were from the Stokes Field Guide to Bird Songs-Eastern Region CD set, by Lang Elliott with Donald and Lillian Stokes (Time Warner Audio Books, copyright 1997), used with permission of Lang Elliott, whose work is available online at the “Music of Nature” Web site, http://www.musicofnature.org/.

Click here if you’d like to hear the full version (1 min./11 sec.) of the “Cripple Creek” arrangement/performance by Stewart Scales that opens and closes this episode.   More information about Mr. Scales and the group New Standard, with which Mr. Scales plays, is available online at http://newstandardbluegrass.com.


Brant Goose painting originally published between 1827 and 1838 by John James Audubon in Birds of America (plate CCCXCI [391]).   Image made available for public use by The National Audubon Society, online at https://www.audubon.org/birds-of-america; specific URL for the image is https://df0bd6h5ujoev.cloudfront.net/Plate-391-Brant-Goose-final.jpg.

Brant in defensive position in Alaska.  Photo by Tim Bowman, made available for public use by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's National Digital Library, online at http://digitalmedia.fws.gov, accessed 12-10-19.  Specific URL for the photo is https://digitalmedia.fws.gov/digital/collection/natdiglib/id/4267/rec/1.


The scientific name of the Brant is Branta bernicla.

Here are some points about Brant, excerpted from the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, “Fish and Wildlife Information Service/Brant,” online at http://vafwis.org/fwis/booklet.html?&bova=040119&Menu=_.Taxonomy&version=17596.

Physical Description

“The adult neck and head are black, except for a broken white crescent on each side of the neck.  The bill is black and the eye is brown.  The chest and foreback are black, sharply defined against the breast and sides.  The back and scapulars are brown with the feathers vaguely tipped with lighter brown.  The rump is dusky brown to dusky, with the sides of the rump white.  The forebreast and sides are pale ashy-gray, and the feathers of the sides are slightly browner, and broadly tipped with white.  The breast, belly and flanks are pale grayish to light grayish-brown.  The feet are black, and the tail is black….”

Nesting Habitat and Behavior

“This species breeds in Arctic North America, Arctic islands, northern Canada, [and] Greenland off- shore islands, river deltas, marshy uplands, and tundra lakes.  This species is seldom far from the coast.  They use marshy ground, sandy beaches, talus slopes, coastal sedge tundra, lowland coastal tundra just above the high tide line, low islands of tundra lakes and dry inland slopes covered with vegetation, low grass-covered flats dissected by tidal streams, [and] grassy islands and grassy slopes of low mountains near the coast.  The nest site is always in the open, on offshore or lake islands, or on low lying land. …The nest cover is low, thick, grass or sedge mat vegetation. They nest in colonies. …The nest is initially a depression formed in soggy earth. Sedges are molded around the scrape and down is later added. …The young are led to tidal flats or pools where they consume quantities of insects as well as grass….”

Winter Habitat (of Eastern Sub-populations)

“Non-breeding habitat is on the Atlantic Coast from Massachusetts to North Carolina.  They are coastal but also occur in lower Chesapeake Bay, the mouth of Chesapeake Bay, Chincoteague Bay, Gargathy Bay, and Accomack County.  Most of the time the 8000 that winter in Virginia are concentrated in Back Bay, [other] bays, tidal flats with abundant pondweed growth, mudflats, …lagoons, estuaries, saltmarshes, islands, …marine habitat, and shallow expanses of saltwater.  They are most abundant on Chesapeake Bay on the barrier beach side of the bays. They may be in shallow areas of brackish water.  They are gregarious, and often form large rafts on open water while feeding and resting.  They rest on sandbars, and roost on banks or on water near the feeding grounds.”


“This species forages in water, mud, and fields.  It immerses the head and neck and grazes or up-ends. This species prefers to feed in bays, shallow plant filled waters on the leeward side of barrier islands, spits, and sandbars and grassy fields.  This species feeds at low tide and does not dive. …The juveniles eat insects, grass, larvae, small crustaceans, sedge, marine invertebrates, mosquito larvae, and pondweed.  Eelgrass is the primary food, and they have been recently feeding extensively on sea lettuce due to the destruction of eelgrass beds.   They may also graze on saltmarsh pastures. Other foods include moss, lichens, algae, sea lettuce, widgeon grass, …sedge, [and other materials]. …Animal foods are taken accidentally and include fish eggs, worms, snails, amphipods, insects, crustaceans, and clams.  When saltmarshes and bays freeze over, they will graze on grass planted in yards.”


Used for Audio

John James Audubon, “Brant Goose,” from Birds of America (1827-1838), Plate 391, accessed at the Audubon Web site, online at https://www.audubon.org/birds-of-america/brant-goose.

Cornell University Lab of Ornithology, “All About Birds,” online at http://www.allaboutbirds.org.  The Brant entry is online at https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Brant/.

Chesapeake Bay Program, “Eelgrass,” online at https://www.chesapeakebay.net/discover/field-guide/entry/eelgrass.

Cornell University Lab of Ornithology and American Ornithologists’ Union, “Birds of North America Online,” online at http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna (subscription required).  The Brant entry is online at https://birdsna.org/Species-Account/bna/species/brant; this is the source for the Cornell Lab information mentioned in the audio about Brant’s dependence on Eelgrass and more yet to be learned about Brant.

Encyclopedia Britannica, “Brant,” online at https://www.britannica.com/animal/brant-bird; and “Goose,” online at https://www.britannica.com/animal/goose-bird.

Maryland Biodiversity Project, “Brant,” online at https://www.marylandbiodiversity.com/viewSpecies.php?species=905.  This site offers several photographs of Brant.

Chandler S. Robbins et al., A Guide to Field Identification of Birds of North America, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2001.

Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, “Fish and Wildlife Information Service,” online at http://vafwis.org/fwis/?Title=VaFWIS+Species+Information+By+Name&vUT=Visitor.  The Brant entry is online at https://vafwis.dgif.virginia.gov/fwis/booklet.html?&bova=040046&Menu=_.Taxonomy&version=18235.

For More Information about Birds in Virginia and Elsewhere

Cornell University Lab of Ornithology, “Merlin Photo ID.”  The application for mobile devices allows users to submit a bird photograph to get identification of the bird.  Information is available online at http://merlin.allaboutbirds.org/.

Cornell University Lab of Ornithology and the Audubon Society, “eBird,” online at http://ebird.org/content/ebird/.  Here you can find locations of species observations made by contributors, and you can sign up to contribute your own observations.

Angus Phillips, Brant are a Breed Apart, But They’re Abundant, The Washington Post, 12/22/85.

Stan Tekiela, Birds of Virginia Field Guide, Adventure Publications, Inc., Cambridge, Minn., 2002.

Virginia Society of Ornithology, online at http://www.virginiabirds.org/.  The Society is non-profit organization dedicated to the study, conservation, and enjoyment of birds in the Commonwealth.

Xeno-canto Foundation Web site, online at http://www.xeno-canto.org/.  The site provides bird songs from around the world.


All Water Radio episodes are listed by category at the Index link above (http://www.virginiawaterradio.org/p/index.html).  See particularly the “Birds” subject category.

Following are links to other episodes focusing on types of geese.

Episode 138, 11-26-12 – on Snow Geese.
Episode 335, 9-26-16 – on Canada Geese.


The episode—the audio, extra information, or sources—may help with the following Virginia Standards of Learning (SOLs).

2010 Science SOLs

Grades K-6 Earth Resources Theme
4.9 – Va. natural resources, including watersheds, water resources, and organisms.
6.9 – public policy decisions related to the environment (including resource management and conservation, land use decisions, hazard mitigation, cost/benefit assessments).

Grades K-6 Life Processes Theme
K.7 – basic needs and processes of plants and animals.
1.5 – animals’ basic needs and distinguishing characteristics.
2.4 – life cycles.
3.4 – behavioral and physiological adaptations.

Grades K-6 Living Systems Theme
2.5 – living things as part of a system, including habitats.
3.5 – food webs.
3.6 – ecosystems, communities, populations, shared resources.
4.5 – ecosystem interactions and human influences on ecosystem.
6.7 – natural processes and human interactions that affect watershed systems; Va. watersheds, water bodies, and wetlands; health and safety issues; and water monitoring.

Life Science Course
LS.4 – organisms’ classification based on features.
LS.6 – ecosystem interactions, including the water cycle, other cycles, and energy flow.
LS.8 – community and population interactions, including food webs, niches, symbiotic relationships.
LS.9 – adaptations for particular ecosystems’ biotic and abiotic factors, including characteristics of land, marine, and freshwater environments.
LS.10 – changes over time in ecosystems, communities, and populations, and factors affecting those changes, including climate changes and catastrophic disturbances.
LS.11 – relationships between ecosystem dynamics and human activity.

Biology Course
BIO.1 – current applications to reinforce science concepts.
BIO.8 – dynamic equilibria and interactions within populations, communities, and ecosystems; including nutrient cycling, succession, effects of natural events and human activities, and analysis of the flora, fauna, and microorganisms of Virginia ecosystems.

Virginia’s SOLs are available from the Virginia Department of Education, online at http://www.doe.virginia.gov/testing/.

Following are links to Water Radio episodes (various topics) designed especially for certain K-12 grade levels.

Episode 250, 1-26-15 – on boiling, for kindergarten through 3rd grade.
Episode 255, 3-2-15 – on density, for 5th and 6th grade.
Episode 282, 9-21-15 – on living vs. non-living, for kindergarten.
Episode 309, 3-28-16 – on temperature regulation in animals, for kindergarten through 12th grade.
Episode 333, 9-12-16 – on dissolved gases, especially dissolved oxygen in aquatic habitats, for 5th grade.
Episode 403, 1-15-18 – on freezing and ice, for kindergarten through 3rd grade.
Episode 404, 1-22-18 – on ice on ponds and lakes, for 4th through 8th grade.
Episode 406, 2-5-18 – on ice on rivers, for middle school.
Episode 407, 2-12-18 – on snow chemistry and physics, for high school. Episode 483, 7-29-19 – on buoyancy and drag, for middle school and high school.