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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.