From November into March, the fields on Fir Island in the Skagit Valley of Washington state are often white, but it's not the result of snow. It's the result of snow geese.
About 80,000 snow geese winter in Western Washington. The vast majority of them winter in the Skagit Valley.
It's a long way from their summer breeding grounds, which are on the northern tip of Wrangel Island in northeastern Russia — well into the Arctic Circle. After they have raised their young, they make a beeline for the Skagit. Even with rest stops on the coasts of Siberia and Alaska, the geese make the 3,000-mile trip in a week — and sometimes even faster.
The reward is the ability to spend several months feeding on what's left of farmers' crops. The snow geese have been making this journey since at least the 1940s. And now there's even more incentive: the state supplements the farmers' leftovers by growing winter wheat on a wildlife reserve specially for the birds.
While the agricultural area of the Skagit Valley is plenty big — the snow goose reserve alone is more than 200 acres — the geese tend to flock together, feeding in one or maybe two neighboring fields at a time.
It's a blinding, noisy scene. From a distance, the muddy fields appear pure white. And the high-pitched honks from a field of the geese can be heard from miles away.
The only time the geese are silent is immediately after a hunter has fired a gun. The entire flock will observe 10 to 15 seconds of silence before resuming its deafening ways.
If the birds have cleared a field or they feel threatened, they will move on. And if they move on, they all move on.
There's no warning. All of the sudden the field will erupt with snow geese. The honking reaches a feverish pace. Together, their wings sound like tens of thousands of flags flapping in a strong storm.
In flight, they're just as close to each other as they are on the ground. The mass of geese travels as a solid unit and is dense enough to completely obscure the volcano that normally dominates the horizon.
Even though I've witnessed this dozens and dozens of times, this scene is still just as amazing to me as it was the first time I saw it 15 years ago.
If you go, just take Fir Island Road, located off the Conway exit from Interstate 5. (The Klamath Basin in northern California and Bosque del Apache in New Mexico also have particularly large concentrations of snow geese.) Just make sure you don't park in the middle of the road to observe them. Farmers hate that even more than the mess the geese leave behind.
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