Time running out to see wintering swans, snow geese in Skagit County

Kimberly Cauvel, Skagit Valley Herald, Mount Vernon, Wash.
·3 min read

Feb. 22—White-winged waterfowl that cluster in agricultural areas throughout Western Washington should still be around another few weeks.

They include snow geese with black-tipped wings, and the larger and more audibly distinct trumpeter and tundra swans. They are found in Skagit County in the fall and winter months.

For the swans, 60% of about 17,800 counted this year were seen in Skagit County, according to an annual survey conducted by the state Department of Fish & Wildlife, Northwest Swan Conservation Association, other partner organizations and volunteers.

Martha Jordan, executive director of the Northwest Swan Conservation Association who has long studied the massive migratory birds, said even after decades of peering at them through binoculars, capturing photos of them and occasionally traveling to their nesting lands in the north, she's encountered recent surprises.

A few notable moments include her observation of leucistic swans — those whose skin or feathers don't produce the usual color seen in the species — seeing a swan with "school bus-yellow" legs, and coming upon a dead swan with brighter white feathers than she'd ever seen.

"The feathers were just like glowing white," Jordan said of the swan carcass found near Carnation, in King County. She also noted that the feet and bill weren't the typical grayish-black seen in the species.

If alive, this swan might have blended in with the flock, whereas leucistic swans are usually spotted by their discolored legs, which Jordan said have been seen in various colors including shades of yellow and red.

Whether on the lookout for such oddities or just to see and hear snow geese, trumpeter and tundra swans, Jordan said it's worth a winter drive to see the birds in western Skagit County.

Flocks are typically found in agricultural fields on Fir Island, from around Conway to around La Conner.

The birds feast on crops that serve as replacements for wetland plants no longer available in large quantities because of human development.

"In the early 1900s the wetlands were still bigger, natural. ... Where all these habitats were, we've built houses or diked it," Jordan said.

Jordan said as many as 80% of visiting swans now depend on land where food is grown for cattle.

Although farmers and the broader community cater to the birds and encourage visitors to come see them, Jordan says it's important that private property and the wildlife be shown respect.

Jordan urges those who pull over along occupied fields stay in their vehicles or at least along the road.

"Private property is private property. These fields are not your land," she said. "You walking into the field, that's an issue."

Approaching the birds can also have an impact on the birds' feeding activity, which could harm their ability to survive their flights to Alaska and other areas of the Arctic.

"If you are getting the wildlife to move away from you, you are doing wildlife a huge disservice," Jordan said. "They need to feed heavily and put on weight so they can make the long migration north ... and they need to arrive in the breeding grounds in their top condition."

Snow geese, the majority of which breed on Wrangel Island in Russia, usually begin to depart Western Washington at the end of February. The trumpeter and tundra swans generally begin to depart in March.

With wildlife, though, there's no guaranteed timeline or behavior.

"Animals do what animals do," Jordan said.

This winter she said trumpeter swans arrived early — in late October.

"They came three weeks early and I have no idea what they are going to do next," Jordan said. "They did something that we've never seen them do before."

— Reporter Kimberly Cauvel: 360-416-2199, kcauvel@skagitpublishing.com, Twitter: @Kimberly_SVH, Facebook.com/bykimberlycauvel