Snow geese travel far for winter months

If you’ve driven past farmland in Skagit County, you may have seen thousands of lesser snow geese, which migrate annually from their breeding grounds on Wrangel Island off the northeast coast of Siberia for warmer winters in this region.

The birds arrive in mid-October, after flying 3,000 miles in large noisy flocks of loose U-formations across the Bering Strait to Alaska, then down the B.C. coast to winter near the Fraser River in Canada or the Skagit River — in numbers of 90,000 to 120,000 birds.

“It’s one of those breath-taking experiences,” says Ferndale-area resident Paul Woodcock, president of the North Cascades Audubon Society, describing the experience of seeing thousands of the birds in flight.

While they commonly winter to the north and to the south, their presence in Whatcom County is rare.

These days, their numbers in the Skagit-Fraser deltas are high, given that the population of snow geese had plummeted to dangerous lows just two decades ago. But conservation efforts and warming temperatures in their nesting grounds in the Artic have led to such a dramatic turnaround that the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife says there is an overabundance of these geese. (The state department oversees a limited hunt of the birds.)

And that’s a concern for farmers because the geese, which are voracious eaters, are feeding more and more on winter cover crops, such as winter wheat and winter rye grass, because their main diet of native delta marsh plants, especially the three-square bulrush, has declined.

These sub-species of snow geese have two different types of plumage; the ones wintering in Skagit County are white, except for their black wing tips. The feathers on their faces are stained red-orange from feeding in iron-rich earth.

The blue-phase or blue-morph snow geese have white on their heads and the front of their necks, with dark gray-brown bodies.

Both have pink bills, dark-pink legs and a black patch on their bills that resembles a grin. The sexes look alike, though the males are generally larger.

The white geese goslings are yellow, while those of the blues are nearly black.

Adults weigh 4 to 5 pounds, and are two feet tall with a wing span of nearly five feet. Most mate for life, which can be up to eight years.

The female lays two to six eggs in a nest that the geese have scraped in the ground and lined with plants and down feathers.

By early May they will return to Wrangel Island, where they will nest in spring and summer.

Sources: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife; birdweb.org; Cornell Lab of Ornithology at www.birds.cornell.edu; and Canadian Wildlife Service; “Birds of Washington,” edited by Terence R. Wahl, Bill Tweit and Steven G. Mlodinow