Snow geese, swans returning to Skagit Valley

The Fir Island Farms Reserve Unit is the best place to view the beautiful white birds.

Snow geese still are arriving by the thousands in the Skagit Valley, as are birdwatchers.

A great place to view the noisy birds is on the 225-acre Fir Island Farms Reserve Unit on the south side of the island. It provides a winter resting and feeding area. A local farmer is paid to plant a commercial agricultural crop to harvest and an overwinter cover crop of winter wheat for snow goose forage. If they aren’t there, they may be feeding in the nearby Skagit Bay estuary. Or explore the backroads and you might find them in smaller groups on other fields.

From I-5, take exit 221 (Conway/Lake McMurray), turn left, then turn right onto Fir Island Road. Drive for 3.2 miles. Turn left at the Department of Fish and Wildlife sign. The parking area is in a half-mile.

You may see trumpeter or tundra swans, too. To tell the swans apart, consult a bird identification book, because at a distance, or without a trumpeter and a tundra standing near each other, it can be hard to be sure which bird you are seeing. The book will have visual details of both, and that will be more helpful than my words. Then again, you don’t have to know which is which; they’re both beautiful.

But all is not well for swans. The Department of Fish and Wildlife has re-established a 24-hour hotline to report dead, sick or injured swans in Whatcom, Skagit and Snohomish counties. It’s part of an effort to assess the impact of lead poisoning on trumpeter and tundra swans.

People can call 360-466-4345, ext. 266, through the end of March. Be prepared to leave a short, detailed message, including name and phone number, and location and condition of the swans. Do not handle or collect the birds.

Some trumpeter and tundra swans in those three counties and in southwestern British Columbia die each winter from lead poisoning after ingesting lead in areas where they feed. Lead shot has been banned for waterfowl hunting in Washington since 1991. But swans can still pick up and ingest lead shot while foraging in shallow underwater areas, in fields and roosts where lead shot is still present.

WDFW and other agencies and organizations have been working since 2001 to locate sources of toxic lead and minimize potential exposure through management actions.

Exploring winter. Looking for a creative gift for a nature-loving friend or family member? Check out the February and March options at the North Cascades Institute, including Birding the Greater Skagit Delta, Night Photography at the Diablo Overlook, Winter Watercolor: Painting the Peaks and Lichen Exploration at Rockport State Park. For information, go to or call 360-854-2599.

Botanical patience. It took five years, but the University of Washington’s Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture’s revised book, “Flora of the Pacific Northwest,” is ready for you. It’s the first update on Pacific Northwest plant diversity and distribution since the 1973 classic.

The book includes illustrations for 4,716 taxa (one or more populations of an organism that form a unit), including 1,382 for this edition; and more than 700 newly documented nonnative taxa. A few taxa are new to science. Crystal Shin, a scientific illustrator, was the primary artist. It took about two hours to complete each illustration.

Sure-footed. Washington Trails Association ( offers tips for hiking in the fall on slippery trails, including keep your hands free, check stability of rocks before scrambling over them, try trekking poles and taking extra care around cliffs. WTA also links to the “Daily Dozen,” a set of hiking exercises from John Colver’s “Fit by Nature.”

WTA is a quality non-profit that deals with maintaining and increasing trails as well as pushing for environment-friendly legislation. Support them by being a member, which comes with a subscription to its magazine.

Columnist Sharon Wootton can be reached at 360-468-3964 or

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