Snow geese visit the Skagit in impressive numbers during the winter months, with annual counts often exceeding 50,000. Their tendency to gather in large flocks, along with their stark coloration and boisterous voices, makes for spectacular displays as they move from field to field in search of forage or sometimes to evade hunting eagles (see Snow geese videos here).
Like many of the other species of waterfowl and shorebirds which winter on the valley’s farmlands, tideflats, estuaries and bays, these birds spend the rest of the year en route to and in the Arctic, where they raise their young in large colonies on the open tundra before returning again to these wintering grounds. In fact, most of the Snow geese wintering in the Skagit were born abroad on Russia’s Wrangel Island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the northernmost nesting ground for 100 migratory bird species. The island also has the largest population of Pacific walruses and the highest concentration of polar bear dens in the world.
The Wrangel Island snow goose population “represents the last major snow goose population breeding in Asia and the primary Russian goose population that winters in North America” (Pacific Flyway Council). The number of geese nesting on Wrangel Island and subsequently wintering in the Pacific Northwest has increased greatly over the past half-century. In the mid-1970s, the Snow goose population on Wrangel Island declined to a little over 50,000 birds, with approximately 12,000 birds wintering in the Skagit and Fraser valleys combined. However, since then Snow goose population has risen significantly with as many as 300,000 returning to the island in recent years.
Research conducted in the 1960s indicated that 80-90% of Wrangel Island Snow Geese migrating along the Pacific Coast made temporary stopovers in the Puget Sound before heading further south to California’s Central Valley, while the remaining 10-20% stayed here for the entire winter. However, over time those numbers began to shift, with more and more stayed here for the entire winter. Today, researchers estimate that around 60% of the Pacific Coast migratory group from Wrangel Island settle in the Frasier and Skagit valleys for winter.
Some theories have emerged regarding the reasons for the increasing numbers of Snow Geese in the Skagit Valley. It is believed that the shorter migration distance (compared to the Central Valley of California) and recent forage behavior adaptation outside the traditional marshland habitat (feeding on residual crops such as potatoes and corn) play a key role in the reproductive success of the geese. Russian scientist Vasiliy Baranyuk found that the geese who spent the winter in the Skagit Valley where much larger than the ones which only stopped over on the way to California.
Climate change has also been mentioned as factor for both the improved breeding success of the geese on Wrangell Island (thanks to a longer snow-free season) and for the selection of a more northern wintering ground (Puget Sound vs California), as the climate here has proven more accommodating. The consensus seems to be that the most influential factors have been the shortened migration route from the Puget Sound to Wrangel Island, expanded foraging behavior and habitat in their wintering grounds, and better conditions on Wrangel Island (fewer predators/disruptors and longer breeding season).
During the winter months you can often hear the large cacophonous flocks before you see them. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Snow geese are “possibly the noisiest of all waterfowl. Their main call, made by both males and females, is a nasal, one-syllable honk given at any hour of the day or night, at any time of year, in the air or on the ground.”
Snow Geese, Farming & Hunting
Snow geese graze on native, delta salt marsh plants, especially the three-square bulrush. The tidelands in the lower Skagit delta can no longer support the ever-growing snow goose population. To supplement their diet, snow geese feed on winter “green” crops on farmed lands in and around the Skagit and Stillaguamish River deltas. Snow geese, in mass, can easily clear winter cover crops, sometimes doing irreparable damage. Late winter and early spring crops of winter rye grass and winter wheat are particularly vulnerable.
Wildlife managers and local landowners are challenged to not only encourage responsible hunting and viewing of these birds, but to develop ways to mitigate their impacts on farming and the vitality of lower Skagit and Stillaguamish Valley agriculture. The Snow Goose Quality Hunt Program was created with Washington Migratory Bird Stamp funding and partnership between area farmers and WDFW. It is currently funded by those who purchase Washington hunting licenses and through the United States Department of Agriculture Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Improvement Program (VPA-HIP).
The Hayton Snow Goose Reserve on Fir Island is a respite zone from hunting and winter disturbance. They act as focal points where the snow geese base their winter activity. They are closed to hunting, but open in some areas for viewing and photography.
Sources: Migration Routes and Stopovers of North Puget Sound Snow Geese, P. Frank Stevick, 2017; Pacific Coast Flyway Management Plan for Wrangel Island Population of Lesser Snow Goose, 2006, Snow Goose Quality Hunt Program (SGQHP), Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife.