Honk If You Love Snow Geese

Author: Whidbey Camano Land Trust | 02/18/19
       

Snow Geese

Snow geese off Fir Island Road near Conway in Skagit County in February 2019. Photo by Julie Boyd.

This is the time of year when many Island County birders – serious and recreational – are drawn to make the drive to Skagit County. Why? For the sensory pleasure of witnessing the wonder of the hundreds of swans and the thousands of Snow Geese that make the farm fields of the Skagit Valley and the Samish Flats their winter home.

Two species of swan are to be encountered. Trumpeter Swan is by far the more common of the two. These are big, bold birds with long necks – long enough that they tend to bend onto the backs of the birds when at rest – and bills that taper to points that appear to poke their owners in the eye. True to their name, the call of the Trumpeter Swan sounds every bit like a cheap tin horn.

Mixed in with the trumpeters are likely to be at least a few Tundra Swan. The neck of this species tends to be shorter – and thus held more upright – then Trumpeter Swans, and there is space between the points of the bill and the eye – space that usually shows some bright yellow. These difference can be difficult to distinguish in the field. It is a good idea to check a good bird book before heading out.

Although they can be impressive, the numbers of swans cannot compare to the thousands of Snow Geese that also winter in Skagit County. The experience of encountering one of these flocks, either on the ground or in the air, is magical. What adds even more interest is that these Snow Geese are members of a sub-set of Asian Snow Geese whose summer home is Wrangel, an island off the far Northeast coast of Russia.

“It’s almost worthy of being a “Seven Wonders of the World” event,” said Jill Hein, who’s been regularly visiting and photographing the birds every year since moving to Whidbey Island in 2004 and coming to see them since 1978.

She visited again this month and estimated she saw 8,000-10,000 geese.

“Magical. Perfect timing,” Hein said. “We were in front of one small farmhouse. To the west of of the house the field was full of geese, and to the south across the road it was full of geese. They never stay still, a moving mass of feathers, and talking all the time.”

The Snow Geese start arriving in the area in October and stay generally through March feeding on the farm fields before flying north to their breeding ground on the Arctic tundra. Pairs mate for life. The Trumpeter and Tundra Swans generally start arriving here in November and stay till the end of March.

All three species can all be found in small numbers in the fall on Whidbey. Look especially on and around Dugualla Lake next to the Land Trust’s Dugualla Flats Preserve in the fall.

Although rarely found on Camano Island, Trumpeter Swans and Snow Geese are seen in fields in Stanwood.

But to get the full experience, you have to visit the farm fields in Skagit County. Check fields next to the Fir Island Game Reserve off Fir Island Road near Conway. There is a parking area there (Discover Pass is required). Or view other farm fields in the general vicinity in the Skagit Valley.

Also, come see us at the Stanwood-Camano Snow Goose & Birding Festival in Stanwood. We’ll be there Saturday, Feb. 23 to field your questions about the Land Trust. We hope to visit with you!