Winter in Washington State brings snow to the mountains, but to the Skagit River delta, it brings snow geese by the ten’s of thousands. And right now is prime snow-goose viewing on Fir Island. In addition to snow geese, there are thousands of trumpeter and tundra swans, as well as dozens of bald eagles and other raptors. Throw in a random flock of ducks and a great blue heron or two and you have a birder’s paradise.
Last Sunday, Tanya, Nahla and I headed up to the Skagit to check out the birds. This is one photo opportunity where you don’t have to get up early in the morning. The snow geese spend the night our on the bay, but fly in to congregate on the agricultural fields of Fir Island (as well as other parts of the delta). They fly in flocks of dozens to thousands, and in my experience, as the day progresses, they tend to gather in larger and larger flocks. Indeed, on Sunday we arrived about 12:30 p.m. and the geese were largely congregated into two huge flocks. It’s always a bit of crap shoot on how close they will be to the road (and you want to shoot from the road, not only are the fields private property, they are extremely muddy), but last Sunday both large flocks were very close to the road. The edge of one flock was within 10 feet of the southern side of Fir Island Road and the other was perhaps 50 feet from Polson Road.
I think most photographers like to get a shot of a huge flock of geese in flight. Normally the geese are gathered on the ground, grazing on the fields, with small groups flying in and out. But now and then, something startles the birds and the entire flock takes off at once. If you wait long enough, you can often capture such a mass takeoff. Last Sunday, I had the perfect vantage (perfect for me, not for the geese) with the flock off Polson Road. The flock was north of the road (in a field closed to hunting), so I was not shooting into the sun, while south of the road were perhaps a dozen hunters (in a field open to hunting). When a few geese would fly over the hunters, shotguns would ring out (see what I mean about not being perfect for the geese), which would scare the flock north of the road and they would all take to flight. The flock would circle north a ways, land, but eventually a few dozen or hundred at a time, come back to where they had originally been and the cycle would repeat.
In addition to the geese, we saw several flocks of swans (a mix of trumpeter and tundra swans), the largest being probably over 1,000 birds. And along the river were plenty of bald eagles, typically in groups of three to seven hanging out in the trees along the river banks.
I normally don’t shoot a lot of bird pictures. I don’t have big enough glass for most bird photography (my 28 – 300 mm zoom is my largest lens and all the bird images in this post were taken with it), and I don’t have the patience that is often needed. But this is why I like going up to the Skagit in winter. Often, as was the case Sunday, you can get decent images without a huge telephoto lens. And you don’t have to wait for a lot of bird action – just drive around on the roads covering Fir Island looking for a flock of geese or a congregation of eagles.
The other thing I like about going there, is that it is close to Deception Pass State Park. Deception Pass is a favorite place of mine to shoot. So, after we had enough bird viewing to fill our day, we drove over to Deception Pass for sunset. From the middle of Fir Island, Deception Pass is about a 30 minute drive away (just over 20 miles). I shot a few images of the Deception Pass Bridge and then hustled down to Bowman Bay to shoot the sun setting over Deception Island.
All and all a good winter’s day.
February is a time of two seasons in western Washington. Winter still rules in the mountains (see my last post) and spring arrives in the lowlands. One of the best places to see the meeting of the seasons is on Skagit River delta west of the town of Mount Vernon. Between the South and North Forks of the Skagit River, lies Fir Island – home to thousands of snow geese every winter. Just north of the North Fork lies thousands of fertile acres, many planted with spring flowers.
The snow geese generally arrive in November and are gone by April, with the peak number from mid-December through mid-January. At their peak, there are easily tens of thousands of geese present on Fir Island. Besides the geese, trumpeter swans and tundra swans also migrate to the area. Like bald eagles? Plenty of them as well.
The field north of the river have a few geese as well, but are mainly known for their spring daffodils and tulips. By the time the tulips arrive, the geese are gone, but if your timing it right, you can see the snow geese and blooming daffodil fields on the same trip.
Six years ago, during the first weekend of March, I went to the area and found a huge flock of geese and acres of blooming yellow daffodils. Last week, friend and I made the trip, hoping to duplicate my timing of 2010. And we saw thousands of geese, a few swans, and a dozen or so bald eagles. Unfortunately, we were a bit early for the daffodils – they were just starting to bloom. I would guess that this week and next may be prime blooming.
To see the geese and swans, head north from Seattle on Interstate 5 and take the Conway exit (exit #221). Turn west off the freeway, and at the roundabout in Conway, get on Fir Island Road. The geese can usually be found in the fields either north or south of Fir Island Road a mile or two after you cross the Skagit River. The geese spend the night on the water, and fly back inland during the morning. Last week, we arrived a little before sunrise, a bit early for the geese. But by the time we had finished taking a few sunrise shots, we heard honking on the air. We watched geese fly in in groups of 2 to 200, most landing at a field a few hundred meters off the road. Later in the morning, a few bigger flocks (maybe a 1,000 birds) flew in. It was an amazing sight.
With luck, the flocks will land close to the road and you can get good shots with a 70-200mm zoom lens (as was the case when saw them in 2010). That was not the case last week for me, and I found myself wanting something in the 400 to 600 mm range (which I do not own). I shot with my 70-200mm with a 1.4x teleconvertor.
Want the best of winter and spring in the Puget Sound lowlands – take my advice and try the geese and daffodils of the Skagit River delta in late February and early March.