Imagine a goose so cool it’s got a head and neck as black as Darth Vader, picks a mate with a matching white necklace, and won’t hang out with other geese or even have the word in its name.
The Brant goes to extremes – literally, when picking a place to hang out. In winter, Baja. Summer, Arctic coastline. In between, a brief spring appearance along some eastern beaches of Vancouver Island where birdwatching paparazzi can stalk them from a distance. This is a bird about a third the size of its more common cousin, the Canada Goose, and a heck of a lot more anti-social. Step a foot in their direction and they fly, ignoring the eel grass, sea lettuce, and herring roe they’ve flown so far for.
I wanted to find this goose that nests further north than any other goose species and migrates farther. I was willing to risk rock falls, avalanche and construction delays on the highways from Calgary to the Brant Wildlife Festival in Parksville and Qualicum Beach, British Columbia. Back on after two years of COVID-19 delays, the festival’s first weekend in April offered maximum likelihood of spotting Brant and the benefit of meeting bird experts at special events.
I arrived at the ocean near the Qualicum Beach Visitor Centre and scanned the rough seas. A large raft of surf scoters bobbed a short distance offshore, the black ducks tricking me into thinking I’d found Brant but a quick binocular scan revealed none of the sea goose.
Brant are a member of the goose family although calling them Brant Geese is a minor faux pas among keen birdwatchers. For most western Canadians their best chance of seeing Brant is during the spring migration when the birds stop along the beaches of Qualicum Beach and Parksville to refuel enroute to Arctic nesting grounds. As the tide goes out, tidal grasses are revealed and the Brant chow down, flying up whenever something or someone comes too close. Dogs are a particular problem so several beaches are closed to dogs for March and April.
Seeing no Brant I drove further north to Goose Spit Park in Comox, named for its shape, not saliva. Given the name, I thought it would be a good place to goose-watch. Furious winds beat the waves into an angry froth as a kite danced above the beach. My fingers struggled to keep my binoculars steady as I spotted a line of dark birds along the shoreline. It was Brant!
Heading back to the festival I took a hike with volunteer guides to the Little Qualicum River Estuary Regional Conservation Area and learned how habitat restoration benefits eel grass growth. Canada Geese are not native to Vancouver Island but since being introduced, they’ve overgrazed vegetation and in sensitive areas, some wetlands have been fenced to reduce Canada Geese access.
The tour over, I checked out other places animal lovers can enjoy. At the North Island Wildlife Recovery Centre, I chatted with Derek Downes, Animal Care Supervisor about their efforts to save injured birds. As I gazed at a barred owl that had lost part of a wing, Derek explained it would live there forever but birds with lesser injuries are given another chance in the wild with a release timed to maximize chances of survival. “We have to have reasonable prospect of success when we release. We need the bird to have a viable chance of finding a mate and reproducing” he explained.
Ready for a meal I headed to Qualicum Beach Cafe where I could watch ocean birds while waiting for my meal, probably not a normal criterion for most diners. However, the food was as good as the view. The restaurant features local ingredients and served up some of the tastiest food I’d eaten in two years.
With a full day of birdwatching adventures behind me, I headed to The Bayside Oceanfront Resort but I couldn’t put the binoculars down. Located above Parksville Beach, I was delighted to discover the largest flocks of Brant I’d yet to see visible from my room’s balcony. Dozens of birds flocked along the ebbing tide, eating and chasing each other along the sand. Brant are social birds, at least within their own species. They migrate together and will nest in loose colonies. They are monogamous and the male will defend a foraging area for his young in winter.
I watched a dog run towards the geese, its owner either unaware or uncaring of the signs forbidding dog walking on the beach during March and April. A couple of people wearing fluorescent vests strode towards the dog and its human. I’d learn later that they were volunteers striving to educate people on the need to let the birds rest without disturbance so they have the best chance of survival.
Festival organizers count Brant seen once each week. While I was there, 680 Brant were counted on Parksville Bay, another 604 were seen at Rathtrevor Beach further south. It was the highest count of the season but hopefully more birds would arrive. In past years thousands of Brant passed through the area. I left without seeing the full migration but happy I’d seen some of Canada’s coolest birds.
If you go:
Book a room on the ocean side of The Bayside Oceanfront Resort so you can wildlife-watch from your balcony. Spend a few minutes admiring local art at the new Bayside Gallery in the dining room.
Stop at Little Qualicum Cheeseworks for their self-guided dairy tour and see a robot milking cows! Tasty cheese available for purchase in the farm store.
Rest in the nature garden and shaded paths at the North Island Wildlife Recovery Centre.
Visit BC Bird Trail for info on other places of interest to nature lovers.
Check for more Parksville Qualicum Beach visitor information.
Carol Patterson travelled to Vancouver Island in April 2022. She was a guest of Bayside Oceanfront Resort and Qualicum Beach Cafe but they did not review or approve this article.