Winter means snow, especially in Whatcom County, home of the Mt. Baker Ski Area, where a world record 1,140 inches – that’s 95 feet – of the white stuff fell during the 1998-99 winter season.
“(Snow) basically is rain that’s been frozen,” said Johnny Burg, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Seattle. “When the temperature is below freezing, water crystallizes and it can form snowflakes. When the temperature is at or below freezing, we can get snow.”
Snow lends its name to all manner of plants and animals, from snowy owls to snowshoe rabbits, to snow geese and snowberries.
▪ “In the mountains, snow is pretty common. Here in the lowlands, we get snow, but it doesn’t stick around very long,” Burg said.
▪ Although some research disputes it, the saying that “No two snowflakes are alike” is likely true, according to National Geographic magazine.
▪ Sleet is a mix of rain and snow.
▪ “Rain that freezes on contact, that’s freezing rain,” Burg said. “It’s falling as rain, but we’ve had many days of cold weather, so the ground is cold. It can get nasty.”
But harsh winter weather can also be beautiful, said Burg, who grew up in the Midwest and had his first posting as a meteorologist in Barrow, Alaska.
“Watching the snow, it tends to get quiet,” he said. “To see the land turn white, it gives a sense of purity, like a fresh slate.”
▪ Want to learn more about snow? Check the Mt. Baker Ski Area’s Snow Report online, the National Weather Service forecast page for Bellingham or the Environment Canada forecast for lower British Columbia.
Whether they know it or not, most Whatcom County residents have seen snowberries – the round, white, bead-like fruits that grow in thickets along roads and trails.
“You can find them pretty much any roadside where they have ditches,” Bay Renaud at Plantas Nativa, a native plant nursery in Bellingham. “It’s pretty common, one of the most common shrubs were have.”
▪ Watch the kids. Snowberries are semi-poisonous. “They won’t kill you, but they will make you sick,” Renaud said. Ingesting the berries causes mild vomiting and slight sedation in children, said the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.
▪ In spring, they form a “white, nondescript type of flower,” Renaud said.
▪ “Each berry has two seeds inside,” he said.
▪ “It’s winter food for ground mammals. They break them open like sunflower seeds,” Renaud said.
▪ Common snowberry bush is important for shelter and food for various large birds and small mammals, says the Natural Resources Conservation Service said.
▪ See them along the South Bay Trail from Boulevard Park in Bellingham or by the the side of road on Squalicum Parkway
▪ “My Wild Things call them ‘pop berries!’ ” said Holly Roger of Wild Whatcom. “We squish them to hear them pop.”
Winter in Northwest Washington means birds – and lots of them – arriving to Western Washington on the great West Coast migratory route called the Pacific Flyway.
Dozens of species spend the season in Whatcom and Skagit counties, traveling from colder areas across the globe. Among the most recognizable birds are snow geese – stout, white birds with black wingtips that flock in the bare agricultural fields of coastal Skagit County.
▪ They make an impressive sight on the ground or in flight.
▪ “This is world-renowned birding here,” said Glen Alexander, former education coordinator at the Breazeale Interpretive Center.
▪ Tourists and local residents alike enjoy driving the area’s backroads, searching for huge flocks of white birds that sometimes number in the hundreds if not thousands.
▪ Joe Meche of Bellingham, a birder and past president of the North Cascades Audubon Society, said snow geese feed on the leavings of harvested fields.
▪ “The single best place to see (snow geese) is Fir Island,” Meche said.
▪ Drive Interstate 5 south from Bellingham, exit at Conway (exit 221), go west and look for seas of white birds in the fields.
▪ Snow geese shouldn’t be disturbed. It’s preferable to watch from your car through binoculars, because the birds often are on private land. Rural roads can be hazardous, and it’s advisable to pull off the road entirely, use your hazard lights and keep an eye on small children.
▪ Visitors to the Skagit Wildlife Area on Fir Island will need a state Discover Pass, available online at discoverpass.wa.gov for $11 (day use) and $33 (annual).