If you’re in or visiting the Lower Mainland over the next couple of months, make sure to make your way out to either Richmond or Ladner and take in the seasonal spectacle that is the wintering flocks of snow geese (Chen caerulescens). The word flock doesn’t really do justice to the sheer number of birds: gaggle is more appropriate to a small of Canada geese; siege is better, but more commonly associated with herons. Maybe a better term would be an “occupation” of snow geese.
On Friday, October 25, I attended a conference in Vancouver, but penciled in some time to do some birding on the following day. In Richmond, your best bet to see snow geese is by driving around and checking out local school fields (good idea to do this on a weekend) – Owen Griffith has done an excellent research paper on which schools are preferred by snow geese (nothing to do with the Fraser Institute rankings) and the Google map included with the report is a great reference.
On Saturday, I started the morning at Terra Nova Rural Park with the intention to do a short walk out on the dyke to get a look at the marshes of Sturgeon Banks as well as checking for snow geese. The geese were easy to find, and from the main parking area I could see the occupation staging up near the shore and out on the Fraser River. By the time I returned to my vehicle after a pleasant loop walk, the majority had moved on into the heart of Richmond.
I drove by a couple of school fields but all were empty, the geese were elsewhere.
After lunch my next destination was Reifel Bird Sanctuary. Westham Island is usually pretty good for snow geese and the road out to Reifel has some farm fields that are popular. Today these fields were empty as well.
Reifel was a different story. The vanguard of snow geese had arrived and staked out some of the fields which can be seen from within the sanctuary. While the numbers were still fairly low, it is clear that this year’s occupation has begun.
It is still early, but already the leading edge of the occupation is impressive. No rush to get out to see them—in fact, wait a bit longer for the reinforcements to arrive through November. The occupation will continue to build through November and December before upwards of 20,000 geese move en masse south to the Skagit River Estuary (a few remain in Richmond/Ladner all winter). Snow geese return to the Fraser River Estuary in March and April before returning to the breeding grounds on Wrangel Island, Alaska.