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The snow geese are back
Western Washington’s snow geese population spends the summer breeding on Wrangel Island in Siberian Russia. They return in October to forage on farmlands in the broad flat estuaries of Skagit and Snohomish counties. Last winter, a record 150,000 snow geese settled into these wintering grounds.
Most years, I’m pulled north to see the immense snow geese flocks in the Skagit River valley, typically in the range of 55,000 geese. This year was no exception. A couple of weekends ago, my husband and some birding friends set out to find the snow geese. We headed for Fir Island, part of the expansive Skagit Flats west and south of Mount Vernon.
As the name suggests, these mid-sized geese are pure white with an accent of black wingtips. In the fall, the white flocks are peppered with grayish bodies, the juvenile snow geese. They lose their gray plumage by late winter and look very similar to the adults.
The Fish and Wildlife Department has established the Hayton Snow Goose Preserve off Fir Island Road. No hunting is allowed at the reserve, although it is allowed on other parts of the Skagit Flats.
When we arrived at the preserve, the flocks appeared like long white comforters spread across the flat brown fields. Geese were feeding right next to the fence, practically begging at our feet. The birds weren’t concerned about us. However, they seemed alert for aerial predators.
Earlier that day, someone had asked me if a bald eagle could take out a snow goose, and I’d said something like, “Oh, I doubt it. An eagle would go after smaller prey.”
Not for the first time, I was proven dead wrong.
Shortly after we arrived, an adult bald eagle flew toward the field and caused the flock of several thousand birds to lift into the air, forming a blizzard of geese cackling an urgent warning.
We watched the eagle first soar lazily over the clouds of anxious geese, then dive into the middle of the maelstrom. It headed for an unsuspecting goose and knocked it down with its talons. The goose tumbled to the ground and a moan went out from the viewers. But, hold on, our unlucky goose was able to take off again before the eagle could land on it. For the next several seconds we watched an eagle-goose chase.
“Oh, the eagle is gaining!”
“Now the goose is pulling away.”
As we cheered, the goose escaped and merged with the rest of the flock. From our viewpoint, the next few moments were a flurry of thousands of frantic white bodies and a stealth black attacker sweeping through the swirling geese.
Again the eagle dive-bombed a goose and sent it plummeting to the earth. We have no idea if it was the same escapee or a new victim.
This time the eagle plunged down on top of the grounded goose and dug its talons in. Through our scope, we could see the goose wildly jabbing at the eagle, and the eagle pecking at the goose. Soon white feathers caught the breeze and lifted off. And the eagle’s yellow beak turned bright red as it began to feast.
The rest of the geese flew off to a distant field. Within a few moments, the warning calls evaporated as the geese’s heads dropped down to continue foraging.
Naturalists often call what we watched a National Geographic moment. Observing predator-prey interaction, particularly when the predator wins, can be sobering and unsettling. We were all rooting for the goose to live, and some had to avert their binoculars when the outcome became apparent.
It was of some consolation to me to know that we have an overabundance of snow geese. The birds are culled because their numbers have increased and their food base can’t sustain such large flocks.
I can’t promise a hunt scene like we watched, but I can guarantee spectacular bird-viewing in the Skagit Valley now that the snow geese have returned. Take your binoculars, scopes and cameras to capture images of the massive flocks.
Or just take yourself and let the scene of thousands of white geese across the fields fill your soul.
Frances Wood can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. She is the author of “Brushed by Feathers: A Year of Birdwatching in the West.”