As hard as it is to find good news about waterfowl these days, with duck habitat declining throughout the Chesapeake region, folks are voicing a novel complaint along the oceanside in Maryland and Virginia. To wit:
"We're up to our necks in brant."
That might not thrill traditional waterfowlers who consider brant dumb, undersized geese without much table appeal. But after two days of pursuing these graceful, Arctic visitors here and in Ocean City, Md., I'm a convert.
In the first place, it's nice to hear a little enthusiasm at sunrise, instead of the usual round of excuses and I-don't-knows that precedes most Eastern Shore goose hunts.
"Oh, you'll get your (four-bird) limits today," said Andy Linton as our party of four pushed his skiff off into a cold dawn in the Chincoteague marsh. "I don't have any worry about that. We've killed 48 brant in the last two days."
Likewise, Mace Stanfield, who guides duck, goose and brant parties behind Assateague National Seashore just south of Ocean City, had been all optimism when we set off the day before. He rattled off enough yarns of thundering recent success to set my heart pounding before the first bird flew.
So what's a brant? To hear one calling, you'd think it was a goose gargling Listerine or a loon in the midst of an adolescent voice-change crisis. To duplicate the brant's eerie cry, you make a rising, goose-type "Ahh-RONK" while rolling your tongue in a guttural trill. It comes out "Grrrrrr-INK," except Linton gets mad at the "INK."
"You're ringing it at the end there," he told me sternly.
As far as anyone knows, no commercial brant call exists, so everyone gets to try calling by mouth, with varying success and no evident risk. "It's pretty hard to scare brant off, anyway, once they've made up their minds," said Linton.
Brant are dark-headed, duck-sized birds that look like Canada geese without the white cheek patch. They fly low, with a wingbeat half the speed of a duck's, and when a small flock cups wings and pitches in toward your decoys there is something breathtakingly prehistoric about the steady, purposeful advance.
The brant phenomenon is an up-and-down thing along the mid-Atlantic flyway that has little to do with local conditions. When a mess of brant winter over, as now, it reflects good nesting in distant Arctic places such as Ellsmere Island, Foxe Basin and the Queen Maude Lowlands.
"If they get a thaw there by June 15, brant can make their nests and get good production," said Maryland waterfowl specialist Larry Hindman, "but with a late thaw they might not nest at all."
Hindman said last year's Atlantic Flyway total of nearly 150,000 brant was the highest in 15 years, triple the population in 1977 and 1978, when hunting was closed. The increase and reopening of hunting season reflects seven straight years of good-to-excellent nesting, he said.
One appeal of brant is that they are true denizens of the deep marsh. Unlike Canada and snow geese, which generally have switched to a diet of corn and soybeans in farm fields, brant still dine almost exclusively on the abundant submerged eel grasses of Sinepuxent and Chincoteague bays.
So instead of tramping into a corn field, brant hunters go by skiff into the shallow bays behind the ocean dunes and seek out areas of thick eel grass. The birds move around on different tides; the hunter needs only to get one step ahead and set up blind and decoys. Then the confusion begins.
"We have a saying around here -- 'crazy as a brant,' " said Linton. "You don't know what they're going to do. Four or five flocks might fly right by and never give you a look, then the next bunch comes from the same place and flies straight into your decoys like they never had any idea in the world of doing anything else."
In truth, we saw mostly the ones that flew right by during our stormy day in the marsh. Then again, when the occasional flock came in your correspondent must confess to difficulties, which is to say he couldn't have hit the Goodyear blimp with a bazooka.
Yet we still came out with a handsome bag of brant, saw thousands more, and watched black ducks, pintails, mallards, snow geese, Canada geese, buffleheads and sea ducks buzzing around.
It was a lot like duck hunting.
I have not yet cooked a brant but did clean four, which looked and smelled like excellent table fare. Linton says they are as good to eat as any duck. The bad reputation, he and Stanfield said, developed during winters when eel grass was scarce and brant ate sea lettuce, a noxious algae.
There are public hunting areas in both Maryland and Virginia where brant abound, though most sites require four-wheel-drives or boats to get to. For information, write Assateague Island National Seashore, Rt. 2, Box 294, Berlin, Md. 21811; or Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, Box 62, Chincoteague, Va. 23336. Brant season closes Jan. 18 in Virginia, Jan. 4 in Maryland.
Stanfield and Linton guide for snow geese, ducks and Canada geese in addition to brant. Both were good company. Write Stanfield at 1631 Secretariat Dr., Annapolis, Md. 21401; Linton at Rt. 1, Box 364, Chincoteague, Va. 23336.