October is the Moon of the Snow Goose here in Edmonds. Geese are on the move, migrating south for the winter. They are rarely seen on the water or the ground. They favor sheltered bays and farm fields, which Edmonds lack. But this species often continues south along the Puget Sound shore or out over the water, heading for winter locations as distant as Southern California’s Salton Sea. Look for skeins of these white geese with black wing tips flying south during October.
It would be nice to see a Snow Goose along an Edmonds beach, up close as in the first photo. It would be lucky to see a few in flight as close as they are in the second photo. But the Edmonds reality is that they will be seen at a greater distance as shown in the third and fourth photos. Keep looking up during October, particularly the second half of the month. Good areas locally to see Snow Geese in winter include the Snohomish River Valley between Snohomish and Monroe, farm fields around Stanwood and Silvana, and Skagit County’s Fir Island.
The Snow Goose diet is almost entirely plant material, such as seeds, leaves, and roots of wild grasses, sedges, bulrushes, horsetail, and others. Young goslings may feed on insect larvae. In winter flocks will feed on waste grain in farm fields. This species forages by walking in shallow water or on land. Except when nesting, it usually feeds in flocks. Each flock has lookouts that keep an eye out for eagles and other predators. When lookouts see a threat, they will sound alarm calls that may cause the flock to take to the air.
The Snow Goose usually first breeds at three years of age. It may mate for life. One courtship display involves both members of the pair facing each other and stretching their necks upward, rapidly and repeatedly, at the same time. The female selects a nest site, usually on a hummock or slight ridge, with good visibility. Nesting takes place on the Arctic tundra, usually within five miles of the coast, near rivers or lakes.
The nest is a shallow depression, filled with bulky plant material and lined with down. The female incubates her 3-5 eggs for about three and a half weeks. The young leave the nest within several hours of hatching. They are well developed upon hatching, with open eyes and down-covered bodies that already indicate with it will be a white or dark-plumaged (blue morph) bird. They find food on their own but are otherwise tended by both adults. The young fledge at 42-50 days.
The oldest Snow Goose of record was 27 and a half when it was shot in Texas in 1999. Most Snow Geese are white with black wingtips. Some are blue morphs, the darker color being controlled by a single gene. Birders enjoy scanning any large flock of Snow Geese to find the few blue morphs among it. Collective nouns for geese include gaggle, a plump when on the water, and either a wedge or skein when in flight.
In contrast to the declining populations of many species, the world’s Snow Goose population has tripled since 1973. It is thought that warming conditions on the arctic breeding grounds have caused the population to surge. Cold summers can cause nest failure. The Snow Goose is a federally protected migratory game bird, with hunting managed on a population-by-population basis. The annual take by U.S. and Canadian hunters is now at about 400,000 birds. Hunting had been restricted during most of the Twentieth Century. That changed in the 1970s when wildlife officials in both countries began to worry about keeping overall numbers in check. For conservation purposes, the Snow Goose is considered a species of least concern.
The flight calls of Snow Geese are what you might be able to hear as they pass over Edmonds: http://www.xeno-canto.org/92035.
— By Carol Riddell
Carol Riddell manages the bird education displays, on behalf of Pilchuck Audubon Society and Edmonds Parks & Recreation, at the Olympic Beach Visitor Station.