Northwest Birdingby Joe Meche

Published on Thu, Apr 10, 2003
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Northwest Birding
by Joe Meche

What is a Brant?

As the first-ever Brant Festival weekend drew near, I told more and more people about the exciting events, speakers, displays, and field trips that were on the festival schedule. In spite of all my efforts to generate interest, the question that I heard most often was, �What the heck is a Brant?� It seems that more than a few of the people who were excited about this annual Brant Festival in Blaine and Birch Bay didn�t really have a clear idea about the bird we�d be celebrating. With this in mind, perhaps a little background would be helpful.

The Brant is a small, stocky sea goose that breeds farther north than any other member of the goose family. The Brant is about the size of the common Mallard, about 25 inches long, and has a wingspan of 42 inches. The western subspecies, Branta bernicla nigricans, formerly known as the Black Brant, has a black head and neck with a dark belly. Adults have a white patch around the front of the neck that appears almost to form a necklace. Overall, the pacific form of Brant is darker than its atlantic cousin.

Brant nest and breed on the wet coastal tundra of the high Arctic and lay from three to five eggs in a nest made of seaweed, grasses, and down. The young hatch after an incubation period of 22 to 26 days and leave the nest after one to two days to begin feeding in the long days of the Arctic summer. Because of the long days, the young feed almost continually and fledge after 40-50 days.

Brant flocks are quite gregarious and usually travel in long, ragged formations, as opposed to the usual �V� formations of other goose species. Brant also fly considerably lower than other geese. In the fall, Brant migration is nothing short of spectacular since Brant are known to leave their breeding grounds and fly non-stop for 50 hours to their wintering grounds in Baja, California. Their northbound migration in the spring includes stopovers to feed on eelgrass and sea lettuce, their main dietary staples.

These stopovers are designed for resting and feeding to restore energy prior to moving northward. Brant not only require eelgrass when feeding but also gravel beaches where they ingest small pieces of gravel and grit to aid in digestion.

Brant are very sensitive to the loss of both of these requirements. During 1978-79, Brant utilized the accreted gravel bar at the end of Semiahmoo Spit in Drayton Harbor. This gravel bar was eventually dredged and replaced by a marina.

The birds now tend to concentrate southeast of the marina or, most recently, on the outside of the spit between the county park and Semiahmoo Resort, as well as on the open waters of Birch Bay. The largest concentrations of Brant in this area occur between February and May, with peak numbers usually occurring around mid-April, coincidental to the annual herring spawn, which adds protein to their diet.

As with many birds, Brant are an indicator species and reflect changes that adversely affect their traditional customs and habitats. The most obvious changes are wrought by man.

Flocks that numbered about 30,000 in the 1970s have declined to less than 6,000 today. The loss of food and critical habitat are the main factors in the decline.

It was a real treat for me to observe as many as 2,000 Brant actively feeding and socializing on the outer shoreline of Semiahmoo Spit on March 7 of this year. Let�s hope they�ve heard about it and hang around for the annual Washington Brant Festival, the first-ever, on April 12-13 at Semiahmoo Resort.

It's all about BIRDS

The area that encompasses Drayton Harbor, Semiahmoo Bay and Birch Bay includes some of the state�s highest winter counts of a variety of bird species. The numbers of birds counted on several scientific surveys were instrumental in Drayton Harbor and Semiahmoo Bay being named one of 53 Important Bird Areas in Washington two years ago. By the same criteria, this bird-rich part of western Whatcom County now anchors the Cascade Loop of the Great Washington State Birding Trail.

The rich, sheltered marine habitats of these areas hosted incredible numbers of birds this past February and March. While other parts of the state were reporting �two loons here� and �four loons there,� there were as many as 2,000 loons of at least three species in local waters. A one-day estimate of Pacific Loons alone was 1,500! I�ve been observing birds in this area for 26 years and can�t remember seeing larger concentrations at any time in those years. It was a concentration of birds that makes you think what it must have been like in the good old days. The wooded, upland habitats and open meadows of the area are also great for a variety of birds.

The following are just a few of the more than 250 species that can be found in the area.

Common Loon.
The Common Loon is the most recognizable of the birds that winter in the embayments of Whatcom county. This loon, known as the Great Northern Diver in some parts of the world, is a large, heavy bird that winters on salt water and moves inland in spring to nest and breed on fresh water lakes and ponds.

Those swirling clouds of shorebirds that you might have seen in winter above the flats at Marine Park and on the north end of Birch Bay are more than likely Dunlin, the most common and most abundant of the shorebirds that winter here.

Bald Eagle.
Within view from the end of Semiahmoo Spit are at least three Bald Eagle nests. These are the nests of our resident Bald Eagles, which continue to produce one to two young per nest each year. The old weathered snag on Semiahmoo Spit has been a favorite perch for Bald Eagles for many years. For many visitors to the Spit, the eagles serve as an unofficial welcoming committee.

Common Tern.
These Terns are seen in the area only during migration, but the numbers that show up in the spring and fall can be spectacular. Common Terns arrive in swirling masses in spring and can be seen diving for fish in the protected waters of Drayton Harbor.

Double-crested Cormorant.
The most numerous of the three Cormorant species found locally, these Cormorants nest in large numbers on the breakwater surrounding the waterfront at Blaine.

Northern Pintail.
The Pintail is often the most-numerous of the ducks that winter in Drayton Harbor. The south end of Drayton Harbor, along Drayton Harbor Road, can be nothing but shore-to-shore Pintails at times.

Great Blue Heron.
The common Great Blue Heron is a year-round resident of Whatcom county and several large rookeries are within easy flying distance of the rich marine estuaries of Drayton Harbor. During the spring, when there are young nestlings to be fed, it�s not uncommon to see between 50 and 100 Great Blues prowling the shallows.

Great Horned Owl.
One of the most successful and ferocious of raptors, the Great Horned Owl is a common year-round resident of the north county. The wooded uplands of Birch Bay state park are ideal habitat for these owls.

Harlequin Duck.
The Harlequin is a beautiful sea duck that many consider to rival the Wood Duck in its extraordinary beauty. Harlequins are found mostly on salt water but fly upstream on rivers to breed and raise their young.

Glaucous-winged Gull.
Of all the gulls that frequent the area, the Glaucous-winged is the most numerous. They nest in many locations in the area and share a good part of the harbor breakwater with the Cormorants.

If you�re interested in finding a pastime that can last a lifetime, consider learning about birds. We live in one of the finest areas for bird watching in the country.

For more information on how to get started, contact the Birding Programs Coordinator for the North Cascades Audubon Society, Joe Meche, at

Out and About at the Brant Festival

Friday, April 11 6 - 8 p.m.
• Art and Info Displays, Semiahmoo Resort

Saturday, April 12
• 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Registration, Semiahmoo Resort 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Brant orientations, Semiahmoo Resort
• 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Viewing stations at various locations
• 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Swarovski Optiks Demo Tent, Birch Bay State Park
• 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Kid�s Activities, Semiahmoo Park
• 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Maritime Museum, Semiahmoo Park
• 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Raptor Display, Semiahmoo Resort
• 5:30 - 6:30 p.m. Social, No-Host Bar, Semiahmoo Resort
• 6:30 - 8 p.m. Banquet, Raffle/Auction at Semiahmoo Resort. Tickets cost $45 and are available at various locations.

Sunday, April 13
• 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Registration, Info, Displays, Semiahmoo Resort
• 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Brant Orientation, Semiahmoo Resort
• 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Viewing stations, various locations
• 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Maritime Museum, Semiahmoo Park