Grey With a Chance of Swans

There’s a lot of grey and white in Skagit County this time of year. People keep asking, “How you likin’ the weather?”, usually with a sneer on their face. As in, Hey Little California, whatcha gonna do without your sunshine now?

Look up. That’s what I’m going to do. Yes, the skies may be gray (with bits of respite, like yesterday!) but flecks of white, brown and yellow dart about the heavens also. In fact, this time of year teems with life: fungus under ferns, salmon up rivers and birds in the sky.

The plethora of wildlife–not weather–seems a bit more overwhelming to a city girl like myself. Each day when I head out to the barn I pass fallow fields, channels of mud and mini swamps as far as the eye can see. The fields are filled with snow geese and trumpeter swans. From across the valley, you can watch low V formations, hear them honk across the sky, their streamlined wings cutting through the damp air like slapping  leather, and alight in any given field, landing for a snack.

Last week the trumpeters sat so near the edge of the road, I had to stop to snap a few shots. A great cacophony greeted me. In the swampy field, the long-necked swans tooted and trumpeted, waddling up and down the formerly tilled field. I pondered for a good long while how the birds stay so white despite their muddy quarters. They need to give a few lessons to my horse. Of course, I didn’t witness any of them rolling in the mud as Echo does…

In the stately pine just next to the acreage, a flock of what must have been a hundred or more starlings chipped and chirped down to their larger brethren. We’re louder, they taunted, all gazillion of them. The swans honked back. Chip, chip, chirp! Honk, blow, honk! It was like listening to a face-off between an orchestra’s strings and the brass sections.

What Grey Sky?


The swans, down from Canada and Alaska, have plenty of territory and food as winter sets in. The local farmers entice the long-necked birds to their property by tossing out–what do they eat? Kibbles and Bits? Frosted Flakes? Please pause for a moment of research: ah! Leaves, seeds, tubers, grasses–for them, (okay, I’m figuring out now that the swans love what’s left of the corn stalks next door to the barn) and the plethora of waterways–Skagit, Nooksack, Samish and Cascade Rivers–ensure a winter’s worth of foraging.

It’s not just the big white guys who make a winter appearance, though. Skagit’s famed farmland is notorious for its winged diversity. By the Audubon’s 2009 Christmas bird count, our valley played home to over 72,000 birds, including 1,000 plus Trumpeter Swans, 117 red-tailed hawks, 150 bald eagles, and 5,082 starlings. See, I knew there were a lot in that tree!

This winter, Torrey, Hannah, Megan and I will take the kayaks up the Skagit River and scout out some bald eagles ourselves. Because it was the largest salmon run in history, the sightings should be a-plenty. But one doesn’t even need to head up-river to see the huge predators. When Nikolai was in town a few weeks ago, we saw several eagles mounted on telephone poles and taking wing between lessor known San Juan islands.

So I guess when people ask me how I’m handling the weather I shrug. I don’t have the answer they want to hear: that I’m just as grim about the gray as they are. There are so many new wonders for me to take in, I frequently forget that the sky is some shade of dark. Maybe the nascency will wear off and my SAD will kick in, but for now, I don a smile every time I hear a flock of swans sail–honking and all–over my little house.

Like Air Penguins, Huh?


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