Tag Archives: migration

Brant Migration Time

When I look out from my house I see, far away, the opposite shore of Comox Bay. This day I drove around to the far side of the bay to see the brant,  annual visitors who always stop in our area on their northern migration.

The brant like to feed mainly on eel grass (probably called that because of its long flat shape) that grows in shallow tidal areas. The little sea geese don’t often come ashore to walk around. They are safer in the water, away from people and their dogs running along the beach.

Because of this, they are often too far away to offer good clear photographs, but I tried to hold the camera steady and took five times as many photos as I needed in the hope that a few of them would be usable. The brant I was trying to photograph are the last row of what looks like rocks way out in the water in the photo below.I walked out as far as I could and tried again.

Here is a small portion of the flock, zoomed in and snapped up with a shaky hand.

You can see (below) that some are tipped up, reaching for grasses to feed on, while others are alert and watching for danger.

Among the brant I noticed several widgeons dabbling around. I see four in the photo below. The ducks and geese don’t seem to mind each other’s company.

You may also see, if you look closely, that the brant near the top middle of the photo below has a piece of grass in his bill. They are still in water that is shallow enough to be exposed at low tide, allowing the eel grass to grow.

At high tide, this grass is out of reach of the brant so when they happen to fly past a beach on their way north and want to stop to rest and feed, it is best when the tide is low and it is daytime so they can feed. If the tide happens to be high when they need to rest and feed, they find much less food accessible to keep up their strength on the long journey north.

In our area, the brant stay for many days, feeding and building up their strength for the continued flight north.

I have often wondered how the geese decide that it is time to continue the migration north, but however they communicate this major decision, it is an amazing sight to see. Hundreds, sometimes thousands, of brant geese leave the bay and head up high in the sky to continue the trip north to their annual nesting area. I love to hear the distant  nasal honking of these flocks as they share with each other the excitement of traveling onward.

The photo above shows a wood carving of a nesting black brant done by our friend Bruce Glover. (The other bird is a duck decoy that has nothing to do with the brant except for sharing shelf space in our house.)

Brant Time

The arrow in the photo below points at the roof of our house, just above the white house on the hillside. From there we can see, with the help of a spotting scope, that the black brant (Branta bernicla nigricans) are on the far shore of the bay.

They come here every spring to rest and feed and gather their strength.

We drove around the bay to the beach where the brant are congregating. A friend had told us that the day before, there were many more, and we think some may have left already on their long migration to the north to nest.

Here they are, sitting at the edge of the water in a place where they can see danger approaching from land or the water.

They come from as far away as the Baja coast of Mexico, and will go all the way up the continent to Alaska where summer daylight hours are very long and the food is plentiful for raising their young in the short weeks of summer, so they will be ready to make the long migration back south in the fall, to winter in Mexico again.Here, in one of many staging areas on the east coast of Vancouver Island, they gather at first in small flocks, gradually joining up into bigger flocks as they are closer to leaving for the north.

I’ve often wondered how they decide when it is time for the flocks of thousands to lift off and begin the journey. Who says, “Okay folks, it’s time for liftoff”? Looks like plenty of discussion going on here. The widgeon in the background are being kept out of the loop. See them in the background with their pale heads?

Notice that these geese are similar to the Canada goose but they don’t have the white cheek patches or the long necks. If you saw them side by side you’d see they are quite different.

If you go walking on the beaches at this time of year, please be sure to keep your dog on a leash. When the brant are disturbed repeatedly, it prevents them from feeding. They need daylight hours and low tides to feed on the eel grass they prefer above most other food. If they can’t feed, their bodies will not have the reserves they need for the long flight ahead. Emaciated birds don’t have healthy clutches and this results in weaker young and lower numbers of brant.

You can do your bit to help keep the brant population healthy. Keep your dogs on a leash at brant time.

Black Brant (Branta nigricans)

Brant at Goose Spit


Every year around the month of March, the black brant arrive in the Comox Valley.

What’s a brant, you ask? Well, let me tell you a little bit about these small sea geese of the Pacific Coast.

They breed in the Arctic in early summer. In the fall migration, they fly great distances offshore, rarely stopping on the way to their wintering grounds, which can be as far south as Baja California.

The brant visit our coast on their return, during their northern spring migration. At this time it is important for the birds to “fuel up” for their trip to the Arctic breeding ground.

Some of our beaches provide eel grass, one of their favourite foods. The occurrence of eel grass beds is limited along the coast, so feeding opportunities are precious. When the migration coincides with the spawning of the herring, the eel grass is often loaded with herring eggs, adding to the richness of the birds’ protein intake and helping them build their fat reserves. A thin bird on the breeding ground will lay fewer eggs.

You can see brant in the shallow waters near the beach as they feed on the eel grass and herring spawn. Please don’t go too close when viewing them, and above all don’t allow your pets to chase them as this disrupts their opportunity to feed.

When you observe these birds you’ll be fascinated by their sounds, their antics, and their habits. Watch for birds flying in an undulating line close to the surface of the water when they’re traveling, or in a flock (as pictured) if they have been scared up or are milling around looking for a new landing place. Listen for their gutteral, almost nasally call, “Gr-r-r,  gr-r-r, gr-r-r.” We’re so fortunate to have them visit us, we should do what we can to be aware of them and do our best to help keep their population healthy.

Except for the old hunting decoy on the far bottom left and the taxidermy mount above it, the brant in the display case shown below were all carved by local wildlife artist Bruce Glover. My apologies for the amateur photos which reflect the lighting in the room.

Bruce Glover, Vancouver Island carver.

The standing brant to the left is not carved but mounted (taxidermy). It has a light underbelly and is an Atlantic brant that returned south with the Pacific brant rather than the Atlantics.