A Good Day for Birds

A flock of snow geese with Mt. Baker as backdrop

A large proportion of this flock are gray-feathered young birds. Note one wears a collar.

    January and February are soggy months in northwest Washington. The ground gets so saturated the bluffs and hillsides slide under their own weight. Rainwater can’t soak into the flat fields of the Skagit and Stillaguamish Deltas, and it can’t run away, so it lies in a silver sheen beneath the sprouting grass or between furrows.

    The birds love it. Fields become shallow lakes where flocks of ducks preen and dabble. Harriers swoop in search of field mice forced from their burrows. Blue herons hold solitary vigil along the drainage ditches while hundreds of swans muddy their plumage foraging in plowed fields.

    We aren’t expert birders, but we’ve noticed some birds are doing things differently this year. Only a few snow geese spent the winter around Stanwood, compared to the usual thousands. There are far more trumpeter and tundra swans than usual. But we’re told that there are plenty of snow geese in fields farther north. Maybe they just don’t like to share their territory.

    Be that as it may, when the first day of February dawns sunny and bright, we join dozens of other motorists and cyclists on the narrow back roads of the Skagit Delta. Spring is in the air although a chill wind blows streamers of fog inland. New growth is sprouting, pussy willows blooming, alder catkins heavy tasseled with about-to-be-released pollen. Birds and birders are out in force.

    Nearing the village of Edison, we see cars stopped along both sides of the road. Spotting scopes and telephoto lenses aim toward the leafless alders. Eagles, so many I lose count, perch in the trees and pose for the cameras. Why so many? Next weekend Edison holds a birding festival. Maybe the eagles got word and are awaiting the festivities. (For more about the festival, go to http://edisonbirdfestival.com/2013-calendar.)

Of the 5 eagles in this shot, 4 are young ones.

The Snow Geese are Back!

     Recently, a morning fog mass crept across Skagit Bay and the farms on the delta below us. For a few moments the bank’s leading edge paused at the northern reach of Port Susan and the mouth of the Stillaguamish River. We watched the fog swallow the farms along the shore and blot out Camano Island. Soon it swirled into the treetops on our hillside.

    When we stepped outside, we heard disembodied voices gabbling in the fog. The Lesser Snow Geese were back!
    Later, we drove to the Rexville store on Fir Island, one of our favorite places for lunch, passing a large flock of snow geese grazing in a field. While we waited for our order, Rexville’s proprietor told us he’d recently talked with a Russian ornithologist who studies the birds at their nesting grounds on Wrangell Island, not the Wrangell Island in Alaska’s panhandle, but the Russian island in the Arctic Ocean north of Siberia. He passed on some interesting facts he’d learned from the visiting scientist.

The orange faces show this family group has been feeding in the iron-rich soil of the salt marshes.

    Some of the Wrangell Island geese winter in California. The rest winter locally and would show up soon. The Lesser Snow Geese we’d seen, the proprietor informed us, would not stay. They would feed and rest for a while, then fly on. 

    Snow geese usually mate for life and can live from 10 to 20 years in the wild. They raise three or four young every year. During the summer, they molt and can’t fly. The Russian expert described how most of the geese prefer the tundra at one end of the island for their nesting sites, though quite a few nest at the other end. When the goslings get strong enough, the whole of the smaller group (thousands of parents and young) set out walking to join the geese at the other end of the island, at least 40 miles away, even struggling across a rugged mountain range. On the way, many lose their lives to Arctic foxes and other predators but the flock keeps going.

    The snow geese who winter here in the deltas of the Stillaguamish and Skagit Rivers are part of the Fraser-Skagit population, and move back and forth between the estuaries of the Skagit and Fraser Rivers. A sanctuary has been established in the center of the Fraser estuary for the compact white birds with the black wing tips and pink bills and feet.  About half of the wintering geese can be seen swirling over the farm fields and intertidal marshes of the sanctuary from mid-October to mid-December, and again from mid-March to mid-April. The other half fly on to the Skagit Delta, where they will be joined by the rest of the flock from mid-December to mid-March.

    In January, 2010, the two flocks totaled 75,500 birds. Researchers estimated that forty percent that year were young birds, identified by their grayer plumage. The following January, there were only about 65,000 birds with very few young. The nesting season in Siberia had been poor.

    Snow geese feed on the intertidal marsh plants of the estuaries, such as bulrush and sedges, using their strong bills to dig up roots and rhizomes. Visitors will notice the head feathers of geese who have been uprooting marsh plants have been stained orange by the iron-rich soil.

    In the fall, farmers plant grass cover, not only for soil enrichment, but for the geese and other wildlife. The geese will also eat any unharvested crops, including leftover potatoes in the field. One of the Northwest’s most spectacular sights is a large, dense flock of snow geese marching across level farm fields in close formation, feeding as they go. If a bald eagle (or dog, or person) comes too close, the geese will take flight, then swirl down in another location like a storm of noisy snowflakes.

    Scientists working on Wrangell Island have banded some birds with colored neck collars and fitted others with radio transmitters to aid in population and migration studies. If you come to watch our winter visitors and notice any marked birds, you can assist the ongoing international research projects by reporting your observations to The British Columbia Waterfowl Society, 5191 Robertson Road, Delta, BC V4K 3N2. Phone: 604-946-6980