Snow Goose

Chen caerulescens

By Hugh Jennings

  • Length           28-29 in
  • AOU Band code    SNGO

The Snow Goose (SNGO) is about 28-29" in length. It is a white goose with a pink bill. It is best distinguished from the much smaller Ross’ Goose (23-24”), by its longer neck and bill and flatter head. The two are often seen on wintering grounds together. The black wing tips are prominent in flight. Snow Geese are very localized, but abundant where they occur. They are usually seen in large flocks. Two large local populations in winter are in the Skagit Flats and at the Reifel Sanctuary in Ladner, BC. There will be field trips to both areas in November.

Snow Goose includes the “Blue Goose”, once considered a separate species. It is now considered only a color morph. The two color forms mate with each other and may produce young of either or both colors. It nests during the summer on the Arctic tundra usually within 5 miles of the coast. During migration and in the winter it inhabits coastal marshes, estuaries, freshwater marshes and agricultural country. The SNGO’s diet is almost all plant material, including seeds, leaves, roots of many wild grasses, sedges, bulrushes, and others. Very young goslings may feed on insect larvae and in fall may eat many berries. Winter flocks often feed on waste grains in agricultural fields.

They may mate for life and usually first breed at 3 years. They often nest in colonies. The nest site, usually selected by the female, is on a slight ridge or hummock with good visibility. The nest is a shallow depression filled with bulky bowl of plant material and lined with down. The nest is usually built by the female after the first egg has been laid. An average of 3-5 eggs are laid, with extremes of 1 to 8. Incubation, by the female only, is for 22-23 days. Young leave the nest within a few hours after hatching. They find their own food and are tended by both parents. The young fledge at 42-50 days.

Photo by Mick Thompson

Photo by Mick Thompson

Greater White-fronted Goose

Anser albifrons

ByHugh Jennings

  • Length          28 in
  • Wingspan      53 in 
  • Weight           4.8 lb
  • AOU Band code    GWFG

The Greater White-fronted Goose (GWFG) is about 28” long with a wingspan of 53” and a weight of 4.8 lb. (2200g). This about one-half the weight of the large common Canada Goose. The genus name Anser (AN-ser) is Latin for goose. The species name albifrons (AL-bih-frons) is from the Latin albus meaning white, and frons for forehead, hence, white-fronted for white front of face.

This goose is slender and agile with long, narrow wings, bright orange legs, pink or orange bill, white tip on tail and a gray upper wing. In flight, note black patches on brown belly, grayish-blue wash on upper wings and white U-shaped rump band.

This goose is found mainly west of the Mississippi River. In the Northwest, they are an uncommon winter resident, usually with Canada Geese. During migration, the GWFG are fairly common in the fall and common in the spring migration. From the breeding grounds in southwestern Alaska they take a direct overwater route to coastal Washington. Then they go over the Cascades to a staging area in the Klamath Basin enroute to central California for the winter. Large numbers stop briefly at the McNary NWR. Flocks can number in the thousands. The V-formations resemble Canada Geese, but the GWFG flight is more agile. The call is a laughing kah-lah-aluck.

They nest on the Arctic tundra and winter in open country in mild climates. They are found on marshes, prairies, fields, lakes and bays in the tundra. Most of the geese spend winter where agricultural fields are available for foraging which are near extensive shallow waters for roosting. Wintering flocks leave night roosts before sunrise to fly to feeding areas. Musical honking can be heard from wavering lines of White-fronteds flying overhead at dawn.

The GWFGs diet in winter is mostly plant material, seeds and waste grain in fields. During the summer they eat stems and roots of grasses, sedges, horsetail and other plants. They eat a few aquatic insects, and sometimes snails, which are probably eaten with the plants. They forage while walking on land and grazing by picking up food from the ground. In water they submerge head and neck or upend with tail up and head down.

The GWFG usually first breed at 3 years. A “triumph display” is important to the pair bond. The male briefly attacks another bird, then returns to the female with neck outstretched and wings partly open while both male and female call loudly.

The nest is on hummocks or elevated ground near ground that is surrounded by grasses, low shrubs and sedges. The female builds the nest in a shallow depression lined with plant materials and down added near the end of egg laying. There are usually 3-6 dull white eggs that become stained from the nest. Incubation is by the female for only 22-27 days. The young can walk and swim shortly after hatching. Both of the parents tend to the young, leading them to feeding areas where the young feed themselves. First flight is at about 38-45 days. The young stay with the parents for the first year of their life and often are loosely associated with them for several years.

Photo by Ollie Oliver

Photo by Ollie Oliver

Trumpeter Swan

Cygnus buccinator

By Andy McCormick

  • Length           60 in
  • Wingspan      80 in
  • Weight:          23 lb
  • AOU Band code    TRUS

Swans have long been part of folklore as inspiration for poets, musicians and farmers. The swan song of a dying swan was said to be the first and only time a swan could sing. Cygnus is the constellation that appears to fly down the Milky Way leading to Pegasus. The Mandan people of North Dakota believed that the swan told them when it was time to plant gourds. 

The Trumpeter Swan is the largest of three North American swan species. It is a huge bird of forested habitats (Aldefer). The genus Cygnus is Latin for swan. The species name buccinator is from the Latin bucinator, a trumpet. The reference is to the call which is similar to short, alternating soft and loud bursts from a trumpet. The Trumpeter Swan is a lovely bird that is wonderfully highlighted in flight against the blue-gray winter skies of the Pacific Northwest.

A unique Pacific population breeds in the boreal forest of Alaska and northwestern Canada and many of these birds winter in the Skagit Valley. Studies indicate that the Skagit birds breed in the Copper River delta area (Mitchell and Eichholz). Trumpeter Swans do not migrate long distances and do so in winter primarily to locate unfrozen bodies of water. 

The Trumpeter Swan has recovered from near extirpation in the United States. Westward expansion of civilization and hunting for the swan’s meat and feathers severely decreased the Trumpeter’s population. By the 1930s, there were fewer than 100 of these birds south of Canada. Restrictions on hunting and protection of breeding areas have helped the Trumpeter Swan rebound in northwestern North America. A separate population along the Mississippi and Central flyways has been supported by a reintroduction program which has been controversial and only somewhat successful (Kaufman). The American Bird Conservancy estimates the current global population at about 35,000 individuals with 75% of them breeding in the United States, primarily in Alaska. The bird remains on the ABC Watch List (Lebbin, et al). 

Like other long-lived birds the Trumpeter Swan is a slow breeder. It can take a Trumpeter 4-7 years to mature to breeding age (Kaufman). In May or early June, both sexes bring material to the nest site, which the female has chosen by sitting on a firm surface such as a beaver mound or muskrat nest. The female then pulls the gathered plant material around and under its body forming the nest around itself. Generally 4-6 eggs are deposited. Swans are sometimes victims of brood parasitism when a Canada Goose lays an egg in the swan’s nest. The appearance of the resulting young undoubtedly puts a reverse spin on the Ugly Ducking story with the gosling the odd one out among cygnets. Incubation lasts about four weeks and the cygnets are able to swim the day they are born. The young fledge in 3-4 months (Mitchell & Eichholz). The juvenile plumage is a slate gray color and at a distance can help birders distinguish flocks of Trumpeter Swans from Tundra Swans which have juveniles with white plumage. 

The recovery of the Trumpeter Swan is considered a conservation success. The Trumpeter Swan Society has played an important role in the swans’ comback. 

Photo by Mick Thompson

Photo by Mick Thompson

Canada and Cackling Goose

Branta canadensis and Branta hutchinsii minina

By Andy McCormick

  • Length           25-45 in             25 in
  • Wingspan      43-60 in            43 in
  • Weight:          3.5-9.8 lb          3.5 lb
  • AOU Band code    CAGO       CACG