Sunday, December 19, 2010

Winter Geese

There are lots of geese in American cities and suburbs. We see them grazing on lawns and flying overhead. Most of them are Canada geese, big birds 30 to 40 inches long that can weigh up to 20 pounds. The Canada goose has a black head and neck, grayish brown chest and body, a white patch under the tail, and a distinctive white chinstrap mark. I will say a lot more about Canada geese in a later post, but today I want to point out a similar looking but less common relative, the Brant goose.

Canada Geese, Branta canadensis, sporting handsome chinstraps. 

Brant geese are only about 25 inches long and weigh around three pounds. They are just a bit larger than mallard ducks. The Brant goose has a black head, neck, and chest. Seen from a distance it looks dark overall. Closer inspection shows a brown back, lighter underparts, and a patch of white below a short black tail. Their bills are relatively short. The broken white patch on a Brant's neck looks like a necklace or an incomplete collar. (Brant can be singular and plural like sheep, but it is also ok to say Brants.)

The Brant goose, Branta bernicla

Brant are primarily saltwater geese so they are not usually found far inland (although they take occasional forays to agricultural fields to snack on grains and grass.) They usually eat marine plants like eelgrass, sea lettuce, and other seaweeds. They have special glands that filter salt water from their systems and enable them to live on salty plants.

Brant geese breed far away in the northern tundra. They migrate thousands of mile to spend the winter along both coasts of North America. So if you see geese offshore during winter, take another look -- they might be brant. I took these photos of Canada geese and Brant in the same spot on the Brooklyn side of the East River near Fulton Ferry Landing under the Brooklyn Bridge. (The East River is a tidal estuary so it is comfortably salty for the Brant.)

Brant are accustomed to rough ocean water. I watched them doing something that Canada geese wouldn't even think about doing -- diving into the foamy waves caused by boat wakes crashing on rocks near the shore.

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