Hugh and I waited until the end of duck hunting season to drive into Skagit Valley’s Fir Island. We were hoping to find one of the massive flocks of Snow Geese who winter around the island after a long migration south. When hunting season ends in late January, there’s a precious small window before the geese fly home to breed and nest — and where geese and bird watchers and photographers can appreciate the relative serenity, free of nearby shotgun fire.
So, we meandered toward La Conner, a bit dismayed at first that the landscape revealed not one swan or goose. We expected more tufts of white and feathers dotting the sidelines. The fields rolled out from the road like giant bolts of green plaid, without a speck of Snow Goose or Trumpeter Swan.
We knew of a turnoff where a viewing might be had. Leaving the main drag, we could see the barest flutterings of Starlings — maybe a few white wing spans on the horizon. The binoculars were [accidentally] in the trunk, and the expanse of fields was blocked by the trees, barns and homes nestling the byway. Until we hit the end of the road, we had no idea who would be there.
Passing the last farm house, we heard the rancor at first. Then, we saw it: a field so thick with the alabaster backs of Snow Geese, the earth looked like tundra. We estimated 10,000 or more geese foraging in the one field, with clusters of geese popping up at the far side, in sputters of flight.
We parked, using the car as blind to get acclimated. A few photographers were already planted by the road with their tripods, so as the geese became accustomed to me, I slipped outside with my tripod, too.
I’ve seen Snow Geese in the Sacramento Delta of California (same flyway) . . . and Tundra Swans wallowing in the flooded fields along Highway 12 near Rio Vista. But I wasn’t fully prepared for the magnitude of this flock and the accompanying soundtrack of its life. The sound of flocking snow geese is sometimes described as a “cacophony,” a “symphony,” a “storm” — a “baying of hounds,” a “noise blizzard.” The sound, in fact, varies. There’s a comfortable warbling of goose grumbles and calls as the birds graze, punctuated by escalations that bubble up in sections of the flock. Then, there is the silence — a sudden, dead halt to the goose voices. It’s just a blip, a clipped hesitation, a warning.
What follows the silence is more than a storm. It’s a boom. It’s an eruption of wings that ignites the sky in a white blaze. The flighted mayhem is so organized and brilliant, it’s choreography — wingtip to wingtip in squadron maneuvers that should collide but never do — where thousands of feathered souls alight in unison, twirl across Cumulus backdrops, then drop down in formation like white petals.
Seattle Times video of Snow Geese, shot in the same area:
I’ve pointed my lens into flocks of birds before, and the challenge is, in fact, knowing where to point in that undulating mass. I’d just packed up my tripod to move down the road for a better view. I didn’t realize the first goose uprising would now swell above us. A brief moment of silence, then every single Snow Goose on the ground, launched into the air above us.
I shot some frames through the open window, as the force of wingbeats rocked the car. Green goose missiles splattered across our windshield and hood. I regret, now, not looking out the back window to see how the other photographers were faring, if they’d taken cover, or if they’d just come to understand that goose droppings on the head were the price of a good photo. I may have been accidentally lucky — or I may have missed my rite of passage into the Snow Goose photography club.
Snow Geese form lifelong, monogamous bonds, with both parents defending the nest, and the male defending the female from other interested males. There’s a blue color morph of Snow Goose, distinguished by a dark body and white head — with intermediate stages of plumage and coloring among juvenile geese.
Snow Geese use all of the North American flyways to travel between their breeding and their wintering grounds. On the West Coast, the geese tend to concentrate in the Fraser River Delta in B.C., the Skagit Valley area of Washington, then farther south in Oregon and in the Sacramento Delta and Central Valley of California. Snow Geese have learned to exploit the availability of food in agriculture fields, but also forage in marshes and aquatic areas for a variety of plants.
If you’re in the Washington area, there’s an annual Port Susan Snow Goose and Birding Festival on February 26 and 27 this year. Most events require pre-registration, so check the website if you want to attend. One of the events is a guided bus tour to Snow Goose viewing locations near Stanwood.