Naturalist (2021-12)

photo of trumpeter swans

Let It Snow

By this time every year, thousands of Snow GeeseTrumpeter Swans and Tundra Swans have found their way to the fertile fields, estuaries and tide flats of the Skagit Valley, where they spend the winter grazing on native delta salt marsh plants, as well as farmland residue crops and winter cover crops. White, plump birds, dot the grey winter landscape.

flock of snow geese

Snow Geese flocks are very large and noisy, the male and female both cackle and honk loudly all day and night long. Snow Geese can be differentiated from the swans by their black wingtips, shorter necks and dark, pink bills with a black grin patch and reddish feet.

Every September, Snow Geese leave their summer home in the Arctic tundra of Russia’s Wrangel Island — where they breed and raise their young — and enter the pacific flyway to make the 3000-mile journey to the pacific northwest. Most stay here until April, but some only stopover before continuing their trek south to the central valley of California.

Trumpeter and Tundra Swans are not far behind and start arriving to the Skagit Valley in November through mid-March, from their summer home in the tundra of Alaska and northern Canada. The best time to view the swans is late December to February. 

Trumpeter Swans are the biggest native North American waterfowl, stretching 6 feet in length and weighing more than 25 pounds, almost twice the size of the smaller Tundra Swans. Trumpeter swans are more common in the PNW but Tundra swans can be found intermixed in Trumpeter flocks. It’s fun to view a flock (with binoculars or scope) and try to pick out the Tundra Swans if any are present.

All these “snow birds” are a sight to behold, especially the Snow Geese, when the entire flock alights into the air in a huge, cacophonous, swirling whiteout, it is breathtaking. Birdwatchers come to the Skagit Valley from near and far to see and photograph the geese and swans. But they are not always easy to locate–the birds are transient, flying from field to field in search of food or to escape predators. 

snow geese

A few favorite spots are Wylie Slough and Fir Island Farm Reserve and the Johnson-Debay Swan reserve, part of the Skagit Bay wildlife area. They can also be spotted in the fields along the backroads of Fir Island through the valley to La Conner. A helpful App to keep up with bird sightings and locations is eBird.

— essay and photos by Lucienne Miodonski, Class of 2021, except the photo below by Mark Brylinski

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