The sad story of a vagrant Brant

Arctic visitor drew "kindred spirits" and "good hearts" from Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana on a four-month journey that ended this week.

I was scrolling through a birding Facebook group last weekend when I noticed that a Brant had been seen in Lafayette, Ind. It’s been a few weeks since a lone Brant, a rare visitor from the Arctic and the Atlantic Coast, had been seen near Chicago’s Montrose Harbor. I wondered, is this the same Brant?

The saga of the Brant started in Manitowoc, Wis., on Nov. 1. Charles Sontag was on his daily walk on the Manitowoc lakefront when he saw the diminutive goose, which appeared to be injured from a run-in with hunters. The bird recuperated over the next few weeks, to the point where Sontag says it wasn’t apparent that it had ever been injured. Sontag wrote about the experience for a local newspaper.

“The Brant story really tweaked the interest of a lot of people here,” Sontag told me. “We had many individuals go out and stay with it during the morning and afternoon. It was very reassuring to see the kindred spirits and the good hearts interested in the welfare of this goose species.”

The Brant was reported from Manitowoc through Dec. 29, when it presumably began moving south. It was seen in Illinois, in Winthrop Harbor, Waukegan and Wilmette, on Jan. 2, before being re-found at Montrose Harbor on Jan. 3. There it associated with a large flock of Canada Geese and pleased many with its attractive appearance as it munched on turf grass near the harbor. It was last seen there on Jan. 26.

The story in the Hoosier State began about a week ago. A Brant was first reported via Reddit, before a young birder named Lars Hovde confirmed an ID in-person on Feb. 11. The goose went on to become something of a local celebrity in Lafayette, ending up on television there. The Brant had been feeding in an open area along a road, again associating with Canada Geese. It was one of the few patches of grass amid much snow. It’s believed to be the same bird because pictures from all locations show that it was missing a primary feather from its left wing (thanks to current Chicago birder and former Indiana birder Terry Walsh for pointing this out).

"When they are found in Indiana, they are commonly found on Lake Michigan or large bodies like Lake Monroe [near Bloomington]," Purdue Wildlife Professor Barny Dunning told WLFI. "They're not usually found in a patch of grass along Route 52."

Unfortunately, the sad news came Monday that the Brant had been hit by a car. Another birder, Fritz Davis, was in the area to photograph Snow Buntings and Lapland Longspurs near Tate & Lyle, an ingredient manufacturer. This is in southern Lafayette, not far from I-65.

“As I passed T&L, I noticed a dead bird in the exit lane and thought that it looked like the Brant,” Davis shared with me. “The carcass was in good shape, but it had clearly been hit by a vehicle.”

Davis collected the specimen to provide it to Purdue University, which has a small bird collection.

I asked Sontag, a retired professor from the University of Wisconsin, for his insight into the goose’s wanderings. As often is the case, vagrants’ stories are shrouded in mystery.

“We think what probably happened is that it got off course when it left the Arctic last summer,” he says. “They migrate south out of the Arctic Circle on either side of the Hudson Bay and then they vector to the east to go on the Atlantic Coast. This bird obviously didn’t vector east but went south. It was probably influenced by a storm system.”

All too often, the unfamiliar environs heighten their mortality rate. It’s bittersweet, because birds like the Brant bring so much joy to observers.

“Even as a child growing up, I realized what was so delightful in seeing a very rare bird,” Sontag says, “but when we see these rare treats it usually means the bird is not going to survive its misguided journey.”

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