The Pied-billed Grebe – A Not So Mundane Bird

The bill on this Pied-billed Grebe still had the dark ring around it that is typical of the breeding season. This one was in a small pond in Magnuson Park and It was mid January. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The bill on this Pied-billed Grebe still had the dark ring around it that is typical of the breeding season. This one was in a small pond in Magnuson Park and it was mid-January. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A movement caught my eye on the chilly January day. The glimpse had come from under the leafless branches of some willows and cottonwoods where a small pond was tucked in a thicket. I froze but could see nothing until I slowly crouched down. There, floating on the water, was a football-sized mass of feathers, tan along the waterline and darker above. It had two black eyes that glared at me from a smallish head, probably wondering if I was friend or foe.  A tiny Pied-billed Grebe drifted less than 20 feet from me.

Typically, they slink away, so I decided to settle here and see what it would do. These grebes are permanent residents in the Puget Trough, but over much of the United States, they are migratory. People seldom see them flying because they travel at night and rarely fly to escape a disturbance. Usually, Pied-bills dive and swim away, often undetected. People on birding outings will often comment, “Oh, it’s just a grebe,” wanting I presume to see something more colorful, bigger, less mundane.

The distribution of Pied-billed Grebes in the Western Hemisphere as calculated from eBird Data by scientists at Cornel Laboratory of Ornithology.

Their distribution is fascinating with breeding populations in both North and South America. Although a few are in Hispaniola, Puerto Rico, and Central America, generally, a big geographic gap exists between those groups on each continent. 

The Pied-billed Grebe sat motionless in the water after surfacing from a dive. They are permanent residents in the Puget Sound area of Washington. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The Pied-billed Grebe sat motionless in the water after surfacing from a dive. They are permanent residents in the Puget Sound area of Washington. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

For North America, the animation of weekly abundance data from eBird showed that in January, Pied-bills were concentrated in Florida and along the Southeast coastal plains and across into Texas and Northeastern Mexico. Lots were also in the central valley of California and then a few here in Puget Sound. Some were scattered elsewhere, especially Central Mexico and near the Gulf of California. By March, birds had moved into the Great Plains and by late April had extended into the Canadian prairies, Central Washington, and British Columbia. Their numbers in the Southeast had plummeted by April, but those in central California remained pretty constant. In the fall, they started to head back toward the Gulf Coast.

https://ebird.org/science/status-and-trends/pibgre/abundance-map-weekly?forceLogin=true

In South America, the migration was in the opposite direction. In late January, lots were in Northeastern Brazil and then scattered to northern Argentina. As the year progressed, they migrated south to breed from Southern Brazil into Central Argentina. A few were also in Chile, Equator, and Columbia. Of all the grebe species in the Western Hemisphere, Pied-bills have the most extensive distribution. 

The pied-billed Grebe slowly turned in the calm waters at Magnuson Park. It then just sank into the water and disappeared. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The pied-billed Grebe slowly turned in the calm waters at Magnuson Park. It then just sank into the water and disappeared. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The one in Magnuson Park, a protected area in Seattle, slowly turned a complete circle while keeping one eye on me. Its back and sides had water droplets beaded on the feathers. Those feathers seemed slicked down but waterproof. The bill still had the black ring mid-way out and the bluish-white base. Usually, they lose that band, and the bill becomes more yellowish-brown in the non-breeding season. Perhaps, its breeding hormones were still flowing here in January.

The bird radiated a sense of pride, confidence. In Celtic mythology, the grebe guards the spirit world and helps humans find beauty where they otherwise might not. The contours of its body, the S-shape of its neck, the tautness of its muscles all projected splendor. 

Suddenly, the grebe just sank out of sight, hardly making a ripple. No dive, it just dropped as if it was a rock gently placed on the surface. The bird must have compressed its body feathers, squeezing out the trapped air, and tightened its chest muscles to make its air sacks smaller, decreasing its buoyancy.  

I shook my head as I got back to my feet. Birds are so marvelous.

The Pied-billed Grebe glared at me from a small pond in Magnuson Park. Water droplets were beaded across its back and sides. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The Pied-billed Grebe glared at me from a small pond in Magnuson Park. Water droplets were beaded across its back and sides. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A version of this essay first appeared in the Washington Ornithological Newsletter #184.

http://wos.org/documents/wosnws/wosnews184.pdf#page=8

Visitors from Mexico

Heermann's Gulls roost on the rocks by Edmonds Pier. (Thomas Bancroft)

Heermann’s Gulls roost on the rocks by Edmonds Pier. (Thomas Bancroft)

“What are those seagulls?” came from behind me, “They’re a lot darker than our ones back east.” Half a dozen birds stood on the gray rocks. Their bills were tucked under back feathers, and their eyes shut.

“Heerman’s,” I said, “visitors up from Mexico. They come up for the summer and fall.”

“Wow, so they are not Herring Gulls,” one of the three women said. It was the common gull near their New England home. They watched for another few seconds and then wandered on toward the Edmonds Pier. I probably should have pointed to the Glaucous-winged Gull that was on a different rock, but these Heerman’s had captured my imagination.

What possessed them to come north. These looked like adults. Their heads were heavily mottled, bill red with a black tip, typical winter plumage. Their dark gray backs and lighter gray undersides blended in with the rocks that had been used to make this seawall. I hadn’t noticed them when I first walked up the ramp. 

They were mostly sleeping. Occasionally, one would pull its bill out from under back feathers, look around a little and then tuck it back in, closing its eyes. They looked comfortable, content, with not a care in the world, while I wore a heavy sweatshirt, wind jacket, gloves, and was definitely cold on this November day.

In the breeding season, their head would be pure white, and a bright red ring would surround their dark eye. Maybe I’ll see breeding condition birds when I go to Baja in March. Over 90% of the world’s population breeds on one island, Isla Raza, in the Gulf of California. In much fewer numbers, a few nest on other islands in the Gulf or along the Baja Peninsula. So far, they have never successfully nested in the United States. But they sure like to move north following breeding. They come up the Pacific coast as far as British Columbia and even loop down into Puget Sound, staying into the fall before heading back south. Early November seemed late for them, and these individuals might soon have a yearning for more southern weather. 

During the breeding season, most are offshore feeders, chasing schools of herring, joining cormorants, pelicans, and boobies. They are excellent kleptoparasites, even grabbing a fish out of a pelican’s mouths. They must find something to eat here in Puget Sound, but I’ve only ever seen them roosting or cruising along the shoreline. Perhaps, they find schooling fish offshore here, too.

Three of them woke and took off, heading out over the water. The other ones looked around for a minute before they too left. 

Heermann's Gulls roost on the rocks by Edmonds Pier. (Thomas Bancroft)

Heermann’s Gulls roost on the rocks by Edmonds Pier. (Thomas Bancroft)

The Butcher Watchman

The Northern Shrike zipped overhead going behind me and landing on top of a leafless bush. (Thomas Bancroft)

The Northern Shrike zipped overhead going behind me and landing on top of a leafless bush. (Thomas Bancroft)

Movement caught my eye, and I glanced up through the windshield. The flight seemed labored, heavy, something a little different, unusual in this robin-sized bird. The individual was 15 feet above the ground and flew across the grass field along Rawlins Road. It came right over the car. Maybe, it was headed for a large bush behind me. I stopped in the middle of this dead-end road on Fir Island, jumping out.

Sitting on a top of the bare bush was the unmistakable silhouette of a Northern Shrike, a plump body, a big head, upward stance. It glared out across the fields, moving its head back and forth. Last week, my birding group had found a juvenile individual along the dikes, not a quarter-mile from this location. I moseyed back along the road, keeping my eyes averted. 

Sure enough, dark eye mask, the bill with a stout hook and a large tooth, black wings, scalloped cream breast feather, this was a perfect plumage juvenile. It was alert, hunting, but seemed to be ignoring me. This was my fifth trip to the Skagit in two weeks, and on each trip, we had spotted a Northern Shrike. On one trip, it was at Wiley Slough, on another at Hayton Reserve, once in the Samish Flats, and then here. These were probably four different individuals, and all had been juvenile birds. Possibly, this was turning into an irruptive year for shrikes.

These birds nest across Northern Canada and Alaska, coming south in winter. Most winters a few can be found in Washington, but in some years, vast numbers will come south. Perhaps, this happens when they have had an exceptionally successful nesting year or when northern winters become particularly hard, or food supplies low. 

These are voracious predators, capable of taking small birds and mammals. They store prey by sticking it on thorns or barbwire, coming back later to eat more of it. Often, they sit and wait for a prey item to show itself before darting off the perch. This species occurs in Europe and Asia, too.

The bird bolted from the branch, dropping down to just above the field and flying rapidly away from me. I couldn’t tell if it was chasing something or just heading to another hunting spot. It probably makes the rounds of a series of good lookouts. Their scientific name is Lanius excubitor, which translates as “Butcher Watchman.”

The scaupy cream plumage of the young Northern Shrike showed clearly as it sat erict, hunting from the top of the bush. (Thomas Bancroft)

The cream plumage of the young Northern Shrike showed clearly as it sat erect, hunting from the top of the bush. (Thomas Bancroft)

The Grace of the Trumpeter Swan

(Thomas Bancroft)

A pair of Trumpeter Swans fly overhead on their way to join a larger flock roosting on Fir Island in Skagit County. (Thomas Bancroft)

The low-pitched trumpet came from behind us. Turning, I spotted two large white birds that then flew right over us. Their translucent flight feathers glowed in the early morning sun. Their wingspan, more than 6-foot, created a moving shadow across Fir Island. Long white necks extended in front of solid bodies, and elephantine black legs and feet were tucked tight against their underside. More than 25 pounds each, these Trumpeter Swans flew with grace, style, and dignity.

The pair circled the field a quarter-mile east of our location, then set their wings, dropped their black feet, and landed without a stumble among several hundred swans. A few trumpets and calls drifted toward me from the crowd. Most of these largest of North America’s waterfowl seemed to be resting on the green grass.

The trachea in these birds is more than three feet long, about a half-inch in diameter, and has a volume three to four times what one might expect for a bird this size. The trachea folds back and forth in the chest and creates the resonating chamber for the beautiful call that caught my attention.

(Thomas Bancroft)

Four Trumpeter Swans bank to fly out from a roosting area on Fir Island in Skagit County. (Thomas Bancroft)

In the summer of 1968, I flew with my sister from Pennsylvania to Yellowstone National Park. Finding a Trumpeter Swan was a priority, I wanted to be able to brag to my high school birding buddies about the western birds we discovered, including this rare swan. In the 1800s and early 1900s, hunting decimated Trumpeter Swans populations. They were shot for their skins, flight feathers, and undoubtedly meat.

In 1935, only 69 birds were known to exist, although probably some undiscovered flocks occurred in remote parts of Canada and Alaska. In 2005, a continent-wide survey estimated that the population had grown to more than 34,000, a conservation success. Stopping the hunt and protecting habitat were critical, but also the birds adapted to wintering on agricultural lands, accessing novel food items. In winter, lead poisoning and collisions with power lines are now the major mortality issue.

These birds looked stunning through my spotting scope. Dirty-gray, full-grown cygnets accompanied many pairs. We had seen half a dozen flocks of similar size already that morning. In 1968, my sister and I searched Yellowstone for several days and found only two individuals. They swam on the far side of a small river, and our view was through thick vegetation.

Managers have introduced the species into several eastern states where they now breed. A few even winter in birding spots that I visited in Western Pennsylvania and Ohio as a high school student. Scientists at Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology have analyzed eBird data to provide a much more refined abundance map than are currently available in birding guides or on other websites.

https://ebird.org/science/status-and-trends/truswa/abundance-map

It shows that the Salish Sea and south into Oregon are important wintering areas for our west coast population. These birds then migrate through British Columbia to breeding grounds in Canada and Alaska. The Central Rockies population had expanded substantially from the range in 1968, and birds are found in a band from the northern prairies across the Great Lakes.

A pair and two full-grown gray cygnets began running, head and neck extended while flapping their wings. They quickly became airborne, banking to the left while climbing up over the flock, before turning to fly north away from us.

See: Fink, D., T. Auer, A. Johnston, M. Strimas-Mackey, M. Iliff, and S. Kelling. Ebird Status and Trends. Version: November 2018. https://ebird.org/science/status-and-trends.Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York.

A family of Trumpeter Swans rests on a green field.

Fall Colors at Magnuson Park

The fall color of Red Osier Dogwood
Red Osier Dogwood

The morning took on a yellow cast from the soft light filtering through the cottonwoods and willows. It made me stop, gaze, and listen. The fog had just lifted, but a sweet smell lingered around the Frog Ponds. Song Sparrows and Spotted Towhees flitted through the underbrush, not stopping long enough for a look. The red osier dogwood glistened as it swayed in the light breeze. The tension dissolved from my body. With a few crows chattering about the day, I strolled through the fall colors.

The yellow-Pink leaves on a Currant at Magnuson Park.
Currant Bush in Fall

Migration of the Rufous Hummingbird

The marsh at Stillwater Wildlife area in Western Washington.

A flash of reddish-orange zipped by and dashed into the bushes at the trail’s edge. A dozen birders had come to Stillwater Wildlife Area on a beautiful early May morning. Red-winged Blackbirds, Marsh Wrens, and Black-capped Chickadees sang all around, but our concentration was on this flitting glimpse.

“Look, there it’s sitting on top of that branch,” Stewart pointed through a small opening, “a male Rufous Hummingbird.”

The motionless bird stared across the marsh; it then looked one way and the other, totally ignoring our goggling eyes. Quickly, two spotting scopes focused on the male who was searching for possible intruders.

“That’s my first Rufous of the year,” Gordie said. They had only just arrived in the Puget Sound basin, and this one had chosen Stillwater for its breeding territory. He was busy defending this space as well as looking for a prospective mate.

The range of the Rufous Hummingbird determined by modeling eBird data. Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology.

Recently, Cornel Laboratory of Ornithology has started to use data collected by birders to understand the distribution and movement patterns of birds throughout the year. The eBird program has been running for more than a decade and now covers the entire globe. Sufficient data have been recorded in North America to allow some fascinating analyses for a few species.

Rufous Hummingbirds take a clockwise migration path on their annual trek. In the spring, they head north from Mexico along the western side of Mexico, through California, and into their breeding range. In the summer and fall, they move south through the Rocky Mountains into Texas and southern Mexico. The distribution map Cornell has produced now provides a finer resolution understanding of this species range.

Also, Cornell created an animation of this hummingbird’s distribution throughout the year. You can watch these little birds begin their northward travels, settle in for breeding, and then head back south. Imagine, a bird whose weight is only a little heavier than a half teaspoon of table salt can do this monumental loop.

https://ebird.org/science/status-and-trends/rufhum/abundance-map-weekly

Keep birding and keep entering your sightings into eBird. We have much to learn about the natural world and its fascinating inhabitants.

 

A version of this essay appeared in WOS Newsletter 177: http://wos.org/documents/wosnws/wosnews177.pdf

 

Fink, D., T. Auer, A. Johnston, M. Strimas-Mackey, M. Iliff, and S. Kelling. eBird Status and Trends. Version: . https://ebird.org/science/status-and-trends. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York.

 

Black Oystercatchers at March Point

Two Black Oystercatchers amble along the shore of Padilla Bay enjoying the last afternoon sun on this winter day. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Two Black Oystercatchers amble along the shore of Padilla Bay enjoying the last afternoon sun on this winter day. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

“Oh, look, two Black Oystercatchers are in the rocks,” Craig said. One bird stood on a seaweed-covered rock a foot above the water. The other waded in the shallows; the gentle swash was only coming an inch up its tarsi. My three buddies and I had been scanning Padilla Bay for 20 minutes, watching the Surf Scoters, Common Goldeneyes, and Buffleheads that were feeding offshore. Our three spotting scopes had been straining to find a loon, murrelet, or grebe while right, almost at our feet, were these two black birds that blended into the rubble in spite of their long red bills.

The Black Oystercatcher rests on one foot along Padilla Bay. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The Black Oystercatcher rests on one foot along Padilla Bay. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The Oystercatchers moseyed toward the right. One stopped to bathe in three inches of water, then flew to a small rock where it started to preen. The other ambled around the edge, probing into the debris but without putting much energy into it. They both seemed to be enjoying the late afternoon sun on this 45-degree February day.

Mt. Baker presides over Padilla Bay. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Mt. Baker presides over Padilla Bay. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Glacier Peak shows among the closer mountains. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Glacier Peak shows among the closer mountains. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Mt. Baker rose in the north above Padilla Bay and had overlooked our journey like a god watching the peasants work. “We should get a picture of the oystercatchers with Mt Baker,” Bruce said. Craig already down on one knee held his phone vertically and was snapping amazing photos. Their red bills glistened while the volcano sparkled in the distance.

“Look, there’s Glacier Peak through the gap,” Craig pointed east across the water. A white pyramid rose above the Douglas firs on the east side of Padilla Bay. “The Peak is way back and only visible in a few places.” We had been discussing all the snow-covered peaks on this cloudless day; my friends knew them while I was working on learning their names.

Our gaze returned to the Oystercatchers who had drifted another dozen yards down the surf’s edge. “Let’s stop at one more place around the point before we head back,” I said. Bruce, Gordie, and I had left Seattle early this morning and birded the Stillaguamish Flats before heading north to meet Craig on Fir Island. Identifying fifty bird species had warmed our souls on this chilly winter day.

 (G. Thomas Bancroft)

(G. Thomas Bancroft)

A Spring Mourning at Magnuson Park

An Oregon Junco, a race of the Dark-eyed Junco, sings from a red alder branch along the pond's edge at Magnuson Park in Seattle. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

An Oregon Junco, a race of the Dark-eyed Junco, sings from a red alder branch along the pond’s edge at Magnuson Park in Seattle. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A light mist hit the window shield as I turned into Seattle’s Magnuson Park. Thick clouds covered the sky, and a light breeze made it chilly, but the birds were singing on this Monday morning a little after dawn. A musical, high pitch-chipping trill came from the alders just as I entered the trail around the ponds. A male junco sat about 5 feet down from the top on a side branch, right beside the trunk of an alder sapling. He’d leaned his head back, opened his bill slightly, and let lose a rapid tempo song. I imagined him saying “Spring is here and this is my territory!”

 

 

The male Gadwall extends its head to take a drink as the females swims away. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The male Gadwall extends its head to take a drink as the females swims away. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A Great Blue Heron rests its head along the side of its body in the early morning. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A Great Blue Heron rests its head along the side of its body in the early morning. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Buffleheads, green-winged teal, gadwalls, mallards and pied-billed grebes floated lazily in the still water, slight movements of their bodies causing concentric ripples to spiral out. The buffleheads dove, surfaced, and dove again, searching for food. Each dive was acrobatic as they almost jump up to plunge head first into the water. Even though it was now 7 AM, one great-blue heron still had not woken up. His head held down by his right side for the entire time I watched.

Songs sparrows alternated between their “maids-maids-maids-put-on-your-tea-kettle-ettle-ettle” and “Madge; Madge; Madge pick beetles off; the water’s hot” songs. Several sang simultaneously, not letting the other hog the morning airtime. Numerous red-winged blackbirds perched high in trees or on cattails giving their harsh gurgling trill.

A Song Sparrow looks down just after giving its sweet spring song. He moved to a new branch and continued to sing for several minutes before flying into the bushes. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A Song Sparrow looks down just after giving its sweet spring song. He moved to a new branch and continued to sing for several minutes before flying into the bushes. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

 

 

 

Spring had arrived at last. Migrating yellow-rumped warblers darted everywhere, and even a few frogs croaked from the pond’s edge. Smelling deep, the damp air was fresh and alive, invigorating my soul. New leaves popped out on the tips of branching casting a green glow to the landscape. Time for breakfast and heading to work.

A male Red-winged Blackbird gives its harsh song to declare it owns this section of the marsh. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A male Red-winged Blackbird gives its harsh song to declare it owns this section of the marsh. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Tree Swallows at Wylie Slough

Tree swallows have blue-green back plumage and a black eye mask. Their undersides are white. Note how long the primaries are on this bird, extending to beyond the tail when folded. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Tree swallows have blue-green back plumage and a black eye mask. Their undersides are white. Note how long the primaries are on this bird, extending to beyond the tail when folded. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A clear sweet high pitch whistle came through the air. It sounded a little like a whine that moved into a gurgle and then to a chirp. The soft sound began again after a short pause. The sun was out and the air cool as I walked along the dike at Wylie Slough in Skagit County. It was only the third week of March, and I was surprised to hear the song of a Tree Swallow at this time in Washington. I scanned the branches for this small insectivores bird. They call from a perch near a possible nesting cavity.

The white underside of the Tree Swallow shows clearly as this bird grips to a small twig. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The white underside of the Tree Swallow shows clearly as this bird grips to a small twig. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

An iridescent green streak shot from a branch, its long pointed wings propelling the bird forward. The swallow began to do acrobatic twists and turns as it attempted to catch insects on the wing. The bird flew out over the marsh, only a few feet above the brown vegetation, looped around a dead tree that rose out of the shallow water, twisting to the right and out of sight.

Wylie Slough is near the outlet of a Skagit River branch. A few years ago, this area was restored to tidal wetlands, removing dikes that had allowed part of it to be farmed, reestablishing tidal flow, and creating habitat for salmon and wetland birds. The dike runs several miles through this wetland and provides excellent viewing of the restoring wetlands.

A tree swallow giving its high pitch song near a nest box along Wylie Slough in Skagit County, Washington. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A tree swallow giving its high pitch song near a nest box along Wylie Slough in Skagit County, Washington. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The tree swallow flew in past my head, only a dozen feet away, and landed on a dead branch, looking away from me. The bird began to preen its feathers, twisting its head to grab individual feathers with its delicate bill and pull them through, straightening the barbules, making sure the feather functioned properly. The swallow crunched its neck in contortions to preen feathers along its back.

A tree swallow peers down from a perch on a dead snag at Wylie Slough along the Skagit River. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A tree swallow peers down from a perch on a dead snag at Wylie Slough along the Skagit River. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A second bird alighted just inches from the first and began to sing softly, a mated pair. A small wooden bird box was attached to the trunk of a red alder 10 feet off the ground. The pair had appropriated this location for a future nest. Several woodpecker holes were in the dead trees, and this pair could choose to use one of them. I left the pair resting on the branch and continued down the dike.

A nesting box hung from another tree at eye level, and I stopped to watch if this one had a prospecting pair. Two minutes later, a swallow swooped low over the open water beyond the tree, twisting a few times, before flying onto a knot above the box. It sat, staring down at me, bending its head to the side as if it wasn’t sure what I was. The bird stayed only a second before dashing off in the opposite direction, but in less than a minute it returned, quickly followed by a second one. One bird flew down from the perch to hang on the side of the box, sticking its head in and out of the hole, but never fully entering the cavity, before it flew out on a foraging trip.

Over the next week or so, many more tree swallows will return to this wetland. The abundant dead trees in the recently flooded fields should be full of woodpecker holes and would provide many places for swallows to nest. If sites are available, tree swallows will nest in dense numbers, just defending the cavity and a small space around it. I stopped to listen to a bird give its high pitch song, thinking that spring is rapidly progressing in Washington. In two days, it will be the spring equinox.

A tree swallow sits crosswise on a dead branch. The blue-green feathers of its head glisten in the sun and its white breast feathers so their shoft texture. These insectivorous birds use keen eye-sight to catch flying insects. often foraging over wetlands. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A tree swallow sits crosswise on a dead branch. The blue-green feathers of its head glisten in the sun and its white breast feathers so their shoft texture. These insectivorous birds use keen eye-sight to catch flying insects. often foraging over wetlands. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A Throng of Snow Geese

Snow Geese congregate in a field at Hayton Reserve grazing on the grass and digging up roots. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Snow Geese congregate in a field at Hayton Reserve grazing on the grass and digging up roots. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The cacophony was loud even with all the windows closed in my car, so I opened them to take in the cackle. The car filled with honks, guffaws, and the fresh sweet damp air of a sunny day in late March. I parked quickly and jogged to the post and rail fence that bordered the dirt road. Beginning just 50 feet beyond the barrier stretched ten acres of moving, bobbing, and honking white; 5,000 or more snow geese covered the wet field like a quilt. A hundred people leaned against the fence, watching this mass of birds jockeying to be in the right place. The geese were like a swarm of humans covering a high school football field after the homecoming game.

An adult snow goose in white plumage stands alert to check for possible danger before returning to feed. A few black primaris stick out from the folded wing. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

An adult snow goose in white plumage stands alert to check for possible danger before returning to feed. A few black primaries stick out from the folded wing. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The Snow Geese with brown feathers on their necks and bodies are birds that are less than a year old. They stay with their parents throughout the first winter after hatching. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The Snow Geese with brown feathers on their necks and bodies are birds that are less than a year old. They stay with their parents throughout the first winter after hatching. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Large numbers of snow geese winter in Washington’s Skagit County, and I had come to see if any were still here. By late March, they could have started for their nesting areas on the Arctic Coastal Plain of Alaska. These geese roam the Skagit Flats throughout the winter, grazing on grass, sedges, and willows, or eating leftover potatoes or spilled grain, or digging up tubers and roots. This flock stretched for several hundred yards back into the field and at least 400 yards wide.

 

Individual birds standing on the ground were mostly white, their black outer wing feathers being covered by body feathers. Their pink bills and dark eyes gave contrast to the white body feathers. Many still had a little light brown on some feathers; these were young hatched last summer. Small to large groups came in from the east to land with the expanding feeding frenzy, and these flying individuals showed the distinctive black wing tips and white bodies as they approached on fixed wings.

Snow Geese congregate in a field at Hayton Reserve grazing on the grass and digging up roots. Mt. Baker rises in the background and is mostly covered by clouds. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Snow Geese congregate in a field at Hayton Reserve grazing on the grass and digging up roots. Mt. Baker rises in the background and is mostly covered by clouds. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Families stay together throughout the winter and talk to each other incessantly as they feed or fly. It is like a clan of humans at a theme park, chattering to each other about what the see, where they are, and where to next. Really, it is about staying together in a crowd. This chatter carried across the field, filling the air with babble like at a noisy crowd at a fair. Groups of two to five would decide to move locations and rise on strong wing beats to 20 to 50 feet above the ground, flying swiftly over the flock before deciding on another place to land. Each then fixes its wings, beginning a gradual glide toward the field, finally holding its wings almost vertically to create strong drag, alighting with a gentle step. Displaced geese were chattering back at the new arrivals, trying to hold onto their piece of the dinner table.

Five snow geese fly together across Hayton Reserve in Skagit County. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Five snow geese fly together across Hayton Reserve in Skagit County. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Some started to leave this field and head west to another. Groups of two to fifty birds would rise and fly west over my head and out of sight. Single individuals would come back to fly around the field, relentlessly honking, probably looking for their missing family group. Glacier peak rose above the Cascades to the southeast and the birds that passed in front of this distant volcano looked picturesque against the white covered peak. To the northeast, low hanging clouds mostly covered Mt. Baker but flying flocks with the distant cloud draped mountains reminded me of landscape watercolors in the Smithsonian Museum.

A large flock of snow geese take off in unison and fly a loop around Hayton Reserve in Skagit County. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A large flock of snow geese take off in unison and fly a loop around Hayton Reserve in Skagit County. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

In a roar of wings and honks, three-quarters of the birds rose into the air at once, thousands jockeying for position, gaining altitude and attempting to stay with their families. I could sense the massive exertion of their breast muscles contracting to pull their open wings down quickly and give them lift. The power of these sprinters oozing across the field as the mass rose at a steep angle into the air made me feel taller and stronger. Those in front of me started south before they turned to fly directly overhead, creating a moving shadow across me. I crooked my neck to watch the white mass pass, wondering how they avoided crashing into each other in the turmoil. The honking made it impossible to hear myself think. The commotion lasted only a few minutes, but the energy filled the air for a long time after the birds had disappeared to the west. A thousand birds still feeding a hundred yards across the field seemed like an anticlimax to the spectacle.

Snow Geese often fly in a dense cloud when they first take off from a feeding location. Only after they become airborne to they form into a more organized flying flock. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Snow Geese often fly in a dense cloud when they first take off from a feeding location. Only after they become airborne to they form into a more organized flying flock. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

I watched for another 20 minutes as individual geese flew back and forth between the two feeding locations looking for lost comrades. The cacophony had dissipated, but the sweet smell of spring remained.

A small flock of snow geese fly in front of Mt. Baker as they take off from a feeding group in the Hayton Reserve in Skagit County. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A small flock of snow geese fly in front of Mt. Baker as they take off from a feeding group in the Hayton Reserve in Skagit County. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A single flying snow goose shows the black primaries and white secondaries of the wings and the aerodynamic nature of their body in flight. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A single flying snow goose shows the black primaries and white secondaries of the wings and the aerodynamic nature of their body in flight. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A small flock of snow geese fly directly over head, showing the use of their wings to gain thrust and lift. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A small flock of snow geese fly directly over head, showing the use of their wings to gain thrust and lift. (G. Thomas Bancroft)