Is it a swan or goose? How you can tell

  • By Sharon Wootton
  • Friday, November 9, 2012 1:48pm
  • Life

The snow geese, trumpeter swans and tundra swans are back, sure signs of midfall. And a sure sign that some readers are asking, “How do I tell the difference?”

One way is to think of a trumpeter swan as an aircraft carrier and the snow goose as a destroyer. A trumpeter swan runs about 4 feet long with a 7-foot wingspan; a snow goose is about 1½ feet long with a 3½-foot wingspan.

The medium-size snow goose, generally smaller than a Canada goose, has black wingtips best seen in flight. They like to travel and can be seen in groups of a thousand or more. The sound of foraging, gregarious snow geese filling the airways is one you won’t forget.

But wait! Those large white birds might be tundra swans. Both are all white, are 4 feet or longer (trumpeters are slightly larger), and weigh about the same.

When bird-identification guru David Sibley takes more than a thousand words to detail the difference between tundra and the rarer trumpeter swans, and concentrates on their black bill sizes (trumpeter longer and all black) and eyes (tundra eyes seem to stand apart from the bill) as a definite ID, what’s the casual bird-watcher to do?

The trumpeter is larger than the tundra, but who can tell when you see only one species? Sibley suggests movement as a possible tool, and if you’re without binoculars, that’s your best bet.

The larger trumpeter moves more slowly than the more agile, quicker tundra. Another key is the voice: the gentle honks of a trumpeter and the higher bugling of the tundra.

Bird-watchers are very fortunate to have all three in Western Washington, trumpeters and tundras from November to April, snow geese from mid-October until sometimes as late as mid-May.

Snow geese arrive in the tens of thousands, almost all of them taking up winter residence around the Skagit River delta. These are the large flocks that you can see from the roads on Fir Island, near La Conner.

Trumpeter swans also populate the fields and estuaries; tundra swans the fresh- and saltwater habitats, with about 2,000 in Skagit County.

More about trumpeters: Wildlife biologist Martha Jordan with the Trumpeter Swan Society is giving two slide presentations about these birds at 10:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Dec. 1 at Christianson’s Nursery, 15806 Best Road, Mount Vernon.

Get a free swan identification pamphlet to help you distinguish the birds of the Skagit area. The talk is free, but reservations are required by calling 360-466-3821. See www.christiansonsnursery.com for more information.

Speaking of birds: Hundreds of sandhill cranes are being seen along the Lower River Road in the Vancouver Lake lowlands. A good guide to scoping out fall and winter birds in that area is at www.vancouveraudubon.org/vanlake.html.

Chain up: If you’re visiting Mount Rainier National Park or Hurricane Ridge at Olympic National Park, don’t leave the tire chains at home. It doesn’t matter what the predicted weather or road conditions are, because both can change rapidly at higher elevations.

The rule applies to four-wheel and all-wheel drive vehicles. There will be checkpoints.

Looking forward: A new trail at Ape Caves has been started by the Washington Trails Association and the Mount St. Helens Institute. The trail will end at a Mount St. Helens viewpoint. The plan is to complete the trail by late next summer.

Columnist Sharon Wootton can be reached at 360-468-3964 or www.songandword.com.

More in Life

Artist Justin Hillgrove, creator of Imps and Monsters, in his studio. (Dan Bates / The Herald)
Where the wild things are in Snohomish

Step into the studio of Imps and Monsters creator Justin Hillgrove for a Black Friday sale.

Meet Nellie, Thor, Raven, Lola, Jasper, Gunner and Bella

These six dogs are waiting for loving homes.

Did you know? Bats edition

Worthwhile Everett library reading and viewing about bats of the animal, sport and hero varieties.

Don’t forbid friendship with back-talking neighbor kid

Q: Our 8-year-old has suddenly developed a very sassy mouth. She picked… Continue reading

How birds stay alive in winter and what you can do to help

When the weather turns chilly, columnist Sharon Wootton’s thoughts turn to birds coping with cold.

Don’t get scammed: Think before you click on email links

An email that was supposedly from iTunes is a scam that targeted busy parents.

Sweden’s Glass Country sparkles like a hand-blown bauble

You can blame my Norwegian heritage, but I’m not so hot on… Continue reading

The pros’ snow: Lake Tahoe a big draw for skiers of all stripes

North Lake Tahoe is home to one of the largest concentrations of ski resorts in North America.

Teen idol David Cassidy remains in Florida hospital

The former pop star is dealing with multiple organ failure.

Most Read