Sunday, January 2, 2011

Lesser Snow Goose

Mount Baker, Washington and Skagit Valley Snow Geese

At first you hear them in the distance.  As they come closer the sounds become a symphony, 10,000 woodwinds tuning up.  The geese are coming!  In the winter cold, nature aficionados rush to pull off their gloves and get their cameras ready.

The Lesser Snow Goose (Chen caerulescens) is one of the miracles of the planet.  They are an international treasure.  The Wrangel Island Flock nests in the Siberian Arctic of Russia.  From October to April, however, the flock comes to North America to spend the winter.  You can set the cosmic clock by their arrivals and departures.  They divide their time between the Skagit and Fraser River deltas, moving between them.  The geese are citizens of three countries.

Snow Geese Wintering on Fir Island

Most of Fir Island, Washington, the Skagit delta, is diked to protect working farms.  The habitat also includes salt marshes and wetlands along the Skagit Bay shoreline.  Various produce crops and feed corn are grown in the summer.  After harvest, winter wheat and other cover crops are planted to provide food and habitat for the geese.  A section of the island has been set aside as a shared wildlife reserve.

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Their numbers can be staggering and difficult to perceive.  At times, up to 20,000 birds will gather providing a spectacular wildlife experience.  Tourists and nature buffs come from all over the Northwest to see them.  Locally, the geese are much-loved and appear as a logo for many businesses.  For me, Fir Island Road is part of my daily commute to work.  I believe the metal triangles and spinners are hung on the power lines to prevent the geese from flying into them.

Snow Goose Blizzard

Snow Geese occur in different colors which include white, blue-grays and browns.  The Wrangel Island/Skagit/Fraser birds are all white with black wing tips and tail feathers.  Juveniles will carry some light brown on their backs and wings.  In sunlight, there is a sparkling effect when the birds are in flight.  One distinguishing feature of this flock is orange staining on their faces.  They acquire this while feeding in iron-rich soils.

Orange Facial Stains Distinguish Wrangel Island Geese

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