… Mount Vernon Style
January 15, 2019
Although this particular population group is less than 1 percent of the species, the spectacle they create each winter in the Skagit Valley is breathtaking.
The Snow Goose, scientific name Anser caerulescens, is a bird which breeds in the Arctic during summer but migrates south each winter. In the state of Washington flocks of the birds can be found in Snohomish, Island, Skagit, and Whatcom counties as well as on the Oregon border in Clark County.
I went scrambling to find out more information about the Snow Goose after witnessing them last week near Mount Vernon. First the facts about the birds from the Infallible Wikipedia:
“The snow goose has two color plumage morphs, white (snow) or gray/blue (blue), thus the common description as ‘snows’ and ‘blues’. White-morph birds are white except for black wing tips, but blue-morph geese have bluish-grey plumage replacing the white except on the head, neck and tail tip. The immature blue phase is drab or slate-gray with little to no white on the head, neck, or belly. Both snow and blue phases have rose-red feet and legs, and pink bills with black tomia (‘cutting edges’), giving them a black ‘grin patch’. The colors are not as bright on the feet, legs, and bill of immature birds. The head can be stained rusty-brown from minerals in the soil where they feed. They are very vocal and can often be heard from more than a mile away.”
The Infallible Wikipedia also informed me that there are approximately 5 MILLION birds of breeding age which migrate from the Arctic to some 15 distinct areas of the United States each winter.
In the Skagit Valley, according to the Audubon Society, there are upwards of 55,000 snow geese which spend the winter (Mid-October to early May) feeding on the decaying plants and roots left in the fertile fields. Additionally, approximately 8,000 Trumpeter and 2,000 Tundra Swans are also found near Mount Vernon.
The hubby and I ventured out last Thursday to see if we could find one of the flocks of the snow geese. In less than 10 miles from our home, we encountered a large group gathered just west of I-5 near to Conway. First, a word of caution, DO NOT under any circumstance stop along the Interstate to view the birds, as tempting as it may be. We were along a secondary road but saw a Washington State Patrolman stop to give a freeway bird gawker a bit of friendly advice.
We parked our car but even before we opened one of the doors we heard them: squawking and honking in their unique language. The noise overwhelms and defines the experience. I had no idea how mesmerizing it would be to watch the birds. From a distance, the geese seemed stationary. As we observed from up close, however, the flock seemed to be marching north, as they pecked at bits of leftover plant materials in the fallow ground. Then, as if by command, they turned and marched south, the strong wind ruffling their feathers and making it difficult to walk.
When, a short distance to the west, a train rumbled by and it’s loud horn sounded, the collective was disturbed and suddenly hundreds of birds fluttered into the air, ascending in a group and spiraling up and off to the west. It was, my hubby claimed as he compared it to the famous Albuquerque Balloon Festival, “Mass Ascension, Mount Vernon style.” The first group was followed by another which was followed by third and yet a fourth after that. Soon, only a small portion of the birds remained. And still we watched.
“Look, over there,” my hubby said some ten minutes later and pointed to the southwest.
Sure enough a dark blotch in the sky grew bigger and then we could make out hundreds of individuals all headed our way. Their arrival was quieter than their departure. Each bird, as it landed among the others, seemed like a graceful ballerina, wings spread to form an umbrella on either side, feet and legs outstretched, as each animal floated to earth.
The geese descended in flocks numbering in the hundreds. Wave after wave of the snow geese landed among the group already on the ground with each bird somehow finding a bare plot which they could occupy only to resume their marching up and down the fields.
It was with great reluctance that we departed that afternoon. But the experience only whetted my appetite for more. I have my sights set on next visiting the main area where the Tundra and Trumpeter swans gather at a spot called DeBay Slough just to the northeast of Mount Vernon. After that it may be in search of Eagles whose presence is felt among the geese as the former cull the flocks of the sick and weak. Up the North Cascades Highway (SR 20) at Rockport is the Bald Eagle Interpretive Center, open on weekends for people to learn and to view.
After the Snow Goose encounter I came away with one very clear thought. I now live in a magical place. From the tulip fields in the spring, to the ever changing and interesting Skagit River, to the thousands of birds in the winter, there is no shortage of things to see and do here in Mount Vernon.
I was unable to get my own video’s uploaded but found this one on the internet and, as far as I can tell, this is the same spot where we watched the birds last Thursday.
A bunch of links for those who want to visit and see the birds: