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Environment

Snow geese and winter waterfowl flock to Skagit fields and skies

Thousands of white birds fill a lush green field.
Bellamy Pailthorp
/
KNKX
Snow geese are regular winter visitors to the Skagit River Valley, where they find abundant food in farm fields and estuaries.

One of the Northwest’s great natural treasures is the abundant flocks of winter waterfowl that come here in the colder months – and are easy to spot on open fields. Hit the road for Skagit County, and odds are good that you’ll find some.

Choose a wildlife area that’s known to attract them, such as Fir Island Farm Reserve or Wylie Slough, and enjoy the drive as you look for a splash of white in the distance. Smaller groups are most likely trumpeter swans.

On an open field near Port Susan Bay, with the snowcapped Olympics and a rustic red barn as the backdrop, hundreds and then thousands of big white snow geese kept landing, arriving from the water in the distance.

“Boy, they just keep pouring in,” said Libby Mills, a naturalist and field trip coordinator for the Skagit Audubon Society. She said they appeared to be feeding on tender green grass. Their sheer numbers were astonishing.

“I would guess this flock might be 10,000 geese,” Mills said.

For her, the snowy white color of their feathers covering the landscape are an annual harbinger of winter.

“But also, they just remind me what a great place we live in here for watching birds in winter,” she said.

Snow geese are easy to recognize and highly visible as they feed on leftovers in the farm fields of the Skagit and Stillaguamish flats. They come all the way from Wrangel Island in Russia.

“And to imagine them doing this flight — in some snow geese, they’ve recorded them flying three days nonstop during migration — coming all the way from northern Siberia and choosing these agricultural lands to spend the winter. It just seems like a real honor for us,” Mills said.

To honor the birds, she says, don’t bother them. Find a safe place to pull off the road and observe from a distance. Don’t trespass on private land. Start about 100 yards from the wildlife and use binoculars or a scope if you can to get a better view.

“If you just stay patient, you can watch a lot of interesting behavior,” she said. “Really coming and sitting and watching — wear plenty of warm clothes and you can have a great time.”

If you’re lucky, as we were, the birds will slowly move in your direction, allowing a closer look at how they fly and land. Enjoy those moments.

“You can really see the way the wings work and how they sort of tip back and rotate their wings as they're coming in for a landing,” Mills said.

“The light coming through their tail feathers is beautiful.”  

One thing keen observers might also notice this year is a slightly less snowy-white hue to the flock. State officials say as much as a third of the record numbers they’re seeing this year are young goslings, which remain gray in their first year.

Climate change is changing the look of winter birding in the Skagit. Wrangel Island is in one of the fastest-warming areas of the Arctic, says Kyle Spragens with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, and that has opened up more nesting areas and led to a baby boom.

“And so what we're seeing now, what we've seen in the last three years, is high proportions of those gray birds in the flock, indicating there's been a really strong production from the breeding areas,Spragens said.

He says the population of migrating snow geese that come to the Skagit has risen dramatically, to about 130,000 birds. And about a third of those are young. That’s not the case with populations that breed in other parts of the Arctic.

Snow geese remain in western Washington through April.

Skagit Valley snow geese