Birds of a Feather

Last winter we met the Lesser Snow Geese (Chen caerulescens) of Fir Island, Washington.  They are back again, of course, following the migratory urges which have compelled them for millennia.  Their home is Wrangel Island, a tiny dot in the Arctic Ocean just off the Siberian coast.  Every fall, they make the 2,500 mile (4,000 km) journey to North America where they will spend the winter.  While here, the 30,000 to 70,000 birds of the Wrangel Island flock will divide their time between the Skagit and Fraser River deltas.  You can set the calendar by their arrival in mid-October.  This annual event literally puts Fir Island in the Skagit River delta on the map.

In summer, the farms of Fir Island produce crops which include feed corn, broccoli, cabbage, wheat, potatoes and cucumbers.  After harvest, winter wheat and other cover crops are planted to provide habitat for the geese.  Until the following spring, the geese are given right of tenancy to the island.  The flocks will freely move from field to field where they will feed and socialize.  These movements are accompanied by wonderful symphonies of woodwind sounds.  Visitors witnessing the spectacle will be treated to a magnificent wildlife experience.

Adults are all white with black tails and wing tips.  Juvenile birds are brownish colored. The dark morph or "Blue Goose" form does not occur in this flock.  On occasion, I have spotted people dressed from head to toe in white coveralls walking among the geese.  I believe these have been wildlife biologists collecting data.  Apparently, the white camouflage puts the birds at ease.

It is a very special moment to witness one of the larger flocks taking flight.  They will rise from the field in a spiral pattern.  In sunlight, there will be a sparkling effect.  Imagine a slow-motion, glittering white tornado lifting into the air.  The largest gatherings occur here during midwinter.  As many as 10,000 to 20,000 birds might congregate in a single flock.  I will be checking back in early January to try and catch this.

These photos were taken at the Fir Island Farms Reserve unit managed by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.  I have found this to be one of the best spots to observe the geese.  You might also spot Tundra Swans, Trumpeter Swans and Bald Eagles visiting the site.  Look for the Fish and Wildlife sign on Fir Island Road, about 3 miles (5 km) west of Conway, Washington.