'Tis the season for snow geese and other wintering birds
by REBECCA BAILEY
Photographs by CURT GIVEN/GIVEN PHOTOGRAPHY
It was unexpected. The rise of feathered chaos as a huge mass of white birds lifted off in unison from a farmer's field accompanied by their crazy cacophony of honking. Conversation was impossible. I laughed out loud, knowing it was a one-of-a-kind moment.
I was standing along a rural road in the Skagit flats area watching a thousand plus flock of snow geese feed and rest in a farmer's field. I can only guess that the flying chaos was caused by some unseen predator.
Every winter I take this fun little day-trip, really an adventure, which always reaps BIG rewards.
The best part is that you can do it in a few hours and end the day feeling quite satisfied while enjoying a cozy dinner at one of the charming little cafes or brew pubs in La Conner, Bow-Edison, Conway or Mount Vernon.
So, bundle up, fill your thermos and pack your sense of adventure for a glorious day of viewing some pretty spectacular birds that spend the winter in the Skagit flats area, located about 90 minutes north of Seattle, just east of Mount Vernon.
Snow geese, swans, snowy owls, and eagles are at the top of your list.
Approximately 65,00 snow geese make epic migrations from the Canadian and northern Alaska tundra to spend the winter here in Washington state. Two other distinct populations of snow geese migrate to eastern and central areas of the U.S., as well.The geese begin arriving in November and stay until late March.
And, as you can imagine, they put on quite a show.
These splendid birds congregate and feed in large areas of the Skagit flatlands, which is a large floodplain of nice fertile land. The flats are made up primarily of farm fields, brackish marshes, creeks and tidelands that border Puget Sound inlets. And the birds love it.
The area is marked with many crisscrossing farm roads and huge flocks of snow geese can be seen in the fields anywhere along these roads. See where to find the birds below.
The geese spend their nights in the bays near La Conner. For an extra thrill, you can stand on the dikes that border these bays and watch group after group of geese fly inland to rest and feed for the day. Quite a beautiful sight at sunrise.
A great number of trumpeter and tundra swans spend the winter in the flats, too. About 10,000 of these migrate from northern areas. These graceful birds congregate in smaller groups, but are no less fascinating to watch. It seems to me that they really love foraging in the mud. Their beaks are often covered with long tendrils of muddy grass. If you're interested in distinguishing the difference between a tundra and trumpeter swan, check out Sibley guides.
As you cruise the farm roads, you might be lucky enough to spot a Snowy Owl. These are large beautiful birds whose feathers are mostly white, helping them blend into the frosty ground. They migrate here from the arctic tundra. You can often find them sitting in a farmer's field or perched on a piece of driftwood near water. They stand perfectly still, usually sleeping from their nocturnal activities.
Although Bald eagles and hawks are common in the Skagit flats, it feels anything but common when you spot one. Their wing spans and flying talent are always amazingly acrobatic. You'll probably see eagles and hawks throughout the flats as you cruise the roads.
Hope you are inspired to take on this little adventure...it's so worth it.
Where to find the birds
Start by taking exit 221, Conway/La Conner and drive west about .2 miles to Pioneer Highway and Fir Island Road. Turn right onto Fir Island road and cruise the next 5 miles looking for geese and swans. Good viewing can often be seen at the Fir Island Farm/Hayton Reserve and the Snow Goose Produce Market. Your chances are pretty good at seeing wintering flocks somewhere in this area. If not, continue to cruise other Fir island roads, including Moore and Polson. Overall, you can explore the grid of roads that are bordered by Mount Vernon to the east, La Conner to the west and SR-20 to the north.
Once you've found the geese and swans, head to the Padilla Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve for some great eagle viewing. (Although you may have seen one by now because they fly all around the flats.) But for a nearly sure thing, head north to SR 20. Cross the highway at the Farmhouse Inn onto Bayview-Edsion Road and head north for several miles to the reserve.
You can watch for all kinds of waterfowl as the road follows Padilla Bay or get out and walk the Padila Bay Shore Trail. Once you reach the interpretive center you may see eagles in the tall trees across the road from the center.
This is a great place for a restroom stop and the center has awesome displays. If you still have not seen eagles, try the March Point area. Head back to SR-20 and turn right (west). Follow a few miles to March Point. You can often see eagles perched on old pilings out in the bay or tall trees on the point.
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