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Harbingers of Spring

National Geographic: Snow geese are harbingers of the changing seasons. They fly south for the winter in huge, honking flocks that may appear as a "V" formation or simply as a large "snowstorm" of white birds. They spend the colder seasons in southern coastal marshes, bays, wet grasslands, and fields.

Frenzy! Snow Geese on the Skagit

In most years, daffodils and crocuses are up by mid-February in the Pacific Northwest, and a week ago we saw the first skunk cabbage in our local woods. Spring is in the air!

Trumpeter Swans and Cascade Sunrise

February is when the spring bird migrations are most intense on both the Atlantic and Pacific Flyway, and when living back east in Maryland we often traveled out to Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge to view waterfowl. Here in Washington State, the timing is consistent for migrating Tundra swans, Trumpeter swans, and some 60,000 lesser snow geese. So predictable that for many years my friend Chris and I (as board members of the Whatcom Land Trust) would schedule early season fundraising kayak trips along the Lower Skagit River to view the birds. Cold air, cold water, gourmet homemade lunches and often brilliant sunlight and thousands of murmurating snow geese was the kickoff to a great season on the water (murmuration is when an entire flock takes off and fly and roll together).

In flight, Skagit Farmlands

This year the snow geese were a bit late (or most likely I was impatient) and I spent my early trips to the Skagit area watching swans, bald eagles, northern harriers, enjoying amazing sunrises, and just getting out of the house. Not too shabby! At the start of March the waiting paid off and the snow geese arrived in large numbers.

Wetlands cover about two percent of Washington State, and all are essential wildlife habitat for feeding, nesting, cover, or breeding for birds, amphibians, reptiles, salmon and more. So why do so many snow geese congregate in the Skagit Flatlands?

Flight! Snow Geese on the Skagit

Snow geese spend most of their time on open tundra in the Arctic, and most of the five to six-pound geese we see in the Skagit were born on Russia’s Wrangel Island, the northernmost nesting area for 100 migratory bird species. Snow geese numbers on Wrangle Island in the mid-1970’s had dropped to as little as 50,000 but have rebounded and today number some 300,000. About 60% of Wrangel Island snow geese settle in the Frasier and Skagit valleys during winter months. has a lot of information and a great map of the migration routes.

Incoming! Snow Geese on the Skagit

Current science is that the Skagit provides a shorter migration distance, and a longer snow free season. And that in addition to traditional marshland habitat and available salt marsh plants, recent programs providing supplemental feeding on local farmland and on crops such as winter “green” crops (wheat, winter rye grass, potatoes, and corn) play a key role in the reproductive success of the geese wintering in this area.

In addition to the area’s natural attributes, there have been a number of creative partnerships between state agencies and local farmers to support and grow snow goose habitat. One example is the 225-acre Fir Island Farms State Fish and Wildlife Reserve, located within a 12,000-acre marsh, tideland, and estuarine Skagit Wildlife Area preserve intensively managed for salmon-rearing habitat and waterfowl. This acreage is closed to hunting and is planted and harvested under a Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife cooperative lease agreement with a local farmer to provide winter wheat cover for the lesser snow geese. The farmer’s adjacent planted acreage is treated as a game reserve.

Swarm! Snow Geese on the Skagit

Want to go?

· Get there early. Snow geese spend their nights sleeping in Skagit Bay. At sunrise, you can see clouds of geese taking off and heading to nearby farmlands.

· You will need a Washington State Discovery Pass to park.

· While your chances of being eaten or gored by snow geese is low, like any wildlife you need to respect their needs. Minimize motion and leave safe viewing margins.

· Respect private land. Remember those partnerships talked about earlier, this is your opportunity.

For more information on local birding areas, go to Skagit Audubon Society or North Cascades Audubon Society.

Want to distinguish between Northwest swans and geese, check out this page on ebird.

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