So far this year, among the returning birds to Humboldt Bay, we’ve admitted several Brant (Branta bernicla) for care. In fact, we’ve treated more Brant this year, twelve, than we’d treated in 2012 (5), -13 (3), -14 (0), and -15 (1) combined. Brant are beautiful and strong sea geese, thriving on our winter coast. Even in illness they aren’t likely to be easily found. Most commonly, we find them on the beach, exhausted often so severely injured that the only care we can provide is a humane exit from suffering, a wing shattered and hanging, a leg bone fractured at multiple locations and useless now forever. Of the 21 Brant we’ve treated in the last five years, over 70% of them had injuries that were likely gunshot wounds.
Brant, like all ducks and geese, are legally hunted in season. While regulations vary by location, in most of California, two Brant can be killed legally each day for approximately five weeks each year, spread across November and December. Today, 15 December, is the last day of Brant season in Humboldt County in 2016. From now until Spring, when Brant depart for the high Arctic tundra where they’ll raise next year’s young, the hunting pressure is off. Now they only must rest, eat, loaf and become ready for the demands of migration and the workload of parenting.
These two geese were fortunate. Each was found on an ocean beach, one in Trinidad, the other near the Eel River’s mouth. Neither had been seriously injured. Both geese were exhausted and thin. A dietary staple of Brant is eelgrass (Zostera marina), especially after Pacific Herring (Clupea pallasii) have spawned, laying their eggs in the dense underwater plants from November through March along the California coast from Half Moon Bay to Crescent City’s harbor.
For the last two years, the commercial herring roe has been drastically below the average. In the 2015-16 season, in San Francisco Bay, the commercial catch was 66% of the allotted quota. While there have been large fluctuations in the Herring roe harvest over the last ten years, with ocean conditions largely the cause according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), the warmer surface temperatures that reduce ocean productivity may become the new normal. Any long term depletion of the Pacific Herring population will also have a negative impact on the entire ecosystem that they feed.
After three weeks in care, both of these geese were cleared for release. We returned them to Humboldt Bay. We don’t know yet how Herring are doing this year. We don’t really know if conditions are improving. We only know that the pressures that industrial society has put on Mother Earth are a burden for all. We ask the fish and the geese and the field and the sea to provide us our food just as we poison and maim the world that sustains them. We have our work cut out for us. With your support we struggle each day to help our neighbors here at home on the one wild world we know. Thank you for being a part of this life-saving work.
Humboldt Bay is a refuge in a changing world. Preserving wild habitat will only become more urgent.
A last long look… for more information on opportunities to see Brant locally, visit the Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge
all photos: Laura Corsiglia/Bird Ally X