MOUNT VERNON — Washington researchers have discovered new information about the migration and regional travel patterns of snow geese using satellite technology.
Each year, thousands of snow geese make the flight from Wrangel Island in Russia to winter feeding grounds along North America’s West Coast, where they stay mid-October through early May. Of about 80,000 birds that land in Western Washington, the majority congregate on Skagit County’s Fir Island.
Last February, after hunting season and before the birds headed back to the Arctic, researchers collected nine geese at Fir Island and one near Stanwood and gave them satellite transmission tags. The tags remotely monitor each bird’s travel and log data to an online computer program.
Results have shown the birds complete their annual migration in a week or less, stopping off the coasts of Alaska and Siberia along the way, Fish and Wildlife’s waterfowl section manager Don Kraege said.
“We thought that the birds took a lot longer to get to Wrangel Island from their wintering areas,” said Kraege, who has worked with the birds for 30 years. “That’s new information we didn’t have before.”
Identifying where the birds stop between Wrangel and Washington through the satellite project, which was funded in part by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, may help state and federal wildlife agencies partner to conserve the drop-ins, refueling habitats along the route. Now that the snow geese are back in the Pacific Northwest for winter, data is also exposing how they move around the region. While traditional tracking methods of banding and collaring the birds are still used, those techniques require visual identification.
“The satellites really add another dimension,” Kraege said. “With the satellite transmitters you can get information night and day, without trying to sight a bird.”
It turns out that snow geese are fairly mobile. The birds move from Fir Island during the day to Skagit Bay at night, and some venture on short trips north to Canada’s Fraser Delta or south to Monroe and back.
“We didn’t realize how much they move,” Kraege said. “There is a lot more interchange than we thought.”
A look at their local movement will help Fish and Wildlife determine how the distribution of the population is changing in the area, which crops they prefer and where the agency could allow hunting.
Fish and Wildlife manages the 225-acre Fir Island Farms Reserve specifically for snow geese on the island, where winter wheat crops are grown for the birds each year in partnership with a local farmer.
Fish and Wildlife purchased the property in 1995, but the birds have been using the area since at least the 1940s, Kraege said.
In recent years, some of the geese have taken to areas outside of the reserve, moving north to Padilla Bay and Edison. They have also been seen on soccer fields and other urban areas outside of their traditional agricultural grounds.
The population has increased over the last 20 years, and there are many more young birds in that population, but whether those factors correlate with their widening distribution is unclear at this time, Kraege said.
Of the 10 satellite tags installed this spring, five are still working. The devices can get damaged in the extreme conditions the birds experience in the wild, but Kraege said he hopes to get up to three years worth of information out of the working units, which register a location every few days.