Riding through the Skagit Valley around Fir Island, Conway and La Conner, we've almost always been treated to the sight of huge flocks of thousands of snow geese.
This year, however, the flocks have been few and far between, and it hasn’t been just my imagination. A couple of readers have thought the same and wanted to know where they have gone.
I called Don Krage, long-time waterfowl section manager for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife and an expert on the comings and goings of snow geese.
The department and its counterpart in British Columbia fly winter aerial surveys in the Skagit and Fraser valleys and lump those two areas together in the count.
“The count in mid-December was similar to last year’s but the distribution was different,” Krage said. Most of the geese were still in the Fraser Valley and Washington’s geese were in Port Susan Bay, not around Fir Island.
Last winter the two valleys hosted 70,000 to 75,000 geese. In December, the number was about 70,000.
Two weeks ago, that situation started to change as an influx of Fraser Valley geese began to re-stock their traditional feeding grounds.
A number of factors went into the unusual shift away from Skagit and Whatcom counties, including weather and food availability, Krage said.
A rainy summer affected the crops on Fir Island, ruining some of them. The fields were in poor condition and some farmers didn’t plant cover crops that attract geese and swans.
If the geese aren’t feeding in the fields, they’re feeding along the intertidal areas of the shoreline, including Port Susan Bay.
“They’re feeding on three-square bulrush, a sedge native in the salt marshes,” Krage said.
At night, snow geese roost on the water, most in Skagit and Port Susan bays.
It also seemed to me that there were fewer juveniles (the grayish birds) than I remember.
“This year there are hardly any juveniles. Last year we had 40 percent juveniles.”
The breeding areas on Wrangell Island, off Russia’s mainland, had very poor conditions (snow, cold) in June and July, so the nesting was poor.
“A lot of (the 120,000 birds) birds didn’t even bother to nest. They just molted and returned.”
Tens of thousands of those birds winter in Oregon and California.
In Washington on a normal year, Skagit and Whatcom counties have the largest number of snow geese in the Northwest, most concentrated in the Skagit Valley but also found in the Everett area.
Snow geese can be found in smaller populations in the Vancouver, Wash., lowlands, including Vancouver Lake; small groups scatter along Willapa Bay; and more than 3,000 wintering on Oregon’s Sauvie Island on the Columbia River.
Snow geese can also be seen in the Elma area. Tundra swans like slugs, snails, insects, crayfish and plants, particularly the native wapato, a tuber that grows at Ridgefield National Wildlife Area and Franz Lake near Washougal.
Outside of hunters, snow geese have few predators except for the occasional coyote and eagles, often seen perched near flocks, waiting for an opportunity to scoop up a meal.
The Fir Island Farms/Hayton Snow Goose Reserve Unit is on in the south side of Fir Island and offers the best viewing opportunities. There is no hunting and an excellent viewing section off the main road.
Take Exit 221 (Lake McMurray/Conway) off Interstate 5 and turn left. Turn right on Fir Island Road and drive 3.2 miles. Turn left at the state Department of Fish and Wildlife sign. Drive one-half mile to the parking area where the restroom is open in winter.
Columnist Sharon Wootton can be reached at 360-468-3964 or www.songandword.com.