Four people appear in silhouette while viewing a golden sunset over the waters of Puget Sound. Two cameras with large lenses are on tripods.

Restoration (Mostly) Thrives on Fir Island

Like clockwork, autumn’s chill has set the stage for the return of snow geese and swans to the Pacific Northwest.

Most of the swans migrate here from Alaska and northern Canada, while the snow geese primarily come from treeless Wrangel Island, Russia .

It takes the snow geese a month or two to fly to western Washington. That duration largely depends on the prevailing winds.

While I enjoy photographing these waterfowl in Snohomish, I know that most of the snow geese are calling Skagit County home for the next several months.

On Sunday, November 13th, I made the 45-minute drive northwest to the Skagit Wildlife Area; more specifically, to a patch of ground that unfolds into Puget Sound.

The Fir Island Farms Reserve Unit is located on the outskirts of Mount Vernon (though I like to think of this location as “west of Conway” because Mount Vernon proper is due north of the reserve).

This area includes the Fir Island Farm Estuary Restoration Project.

My first visit to this location was in 2005 (years prior to the formation of the restoration project).

It’s always a thrill to spot an eagle or two at the nest located near the parking area.

Bald eagles are often seen in trees around the fields. When the bald eagles fly from their perch, any snow geese in the area tend to stir and take flight.

One year, as I started to leave this place, I paused at the entrance. It was deep into evening twilight. I turned off my car’s engine, rolled down the window. And listened.

Then, I heard it. The clamor of thousands of snow geese flying in my direction. They’d just left the fertile soil of Skagit Valley farm fields where they’d feasted during the day.

Now the snow geese were making their way towards their nightly haven; the shallows of the nearby estuary behind me.

What seemed like a minute passed before I could finally see what I’d been hearing.

So. Many. Snow Geese.

Now directly overhead.

I stepped out of my vehicle and aimed my phone skyward, capturing grainy video along with the sound of the chaotic clamor jumbling past me overhead.

Minutes later, another flock of thousands approached, passed overhead, then settled down in the estuary.

And then, it happened again. Though this time, cutting through the flurry of decibels was the clanking sound of pellets striking metal.

Put another way, the tinny sound of Snow Geese poop bouncing off my car.

There was no such frenzy of waterfowl and adrenalin during my recent visit, though.

Sunday’s experience, like the Project itself, felt restorative.

Come to think of it, I’ve rarely been disappointed by this place. No matter what it does or does not offer, I’m almost always okay with it.

The lone exception to the overwhelming positivity is the seldom burst of nearby gunfire (seldom, in my experiences).

And this is the reason for the use of Mostly in this story’s headline.

I heard the blasts Sunday.

Narrow channel of water with reflection of pink and orange sky during evening twilight. The water way can be seen entering Puget Sound in the distance. A Great Blue Heron is standing in the water nearby.
(Photo caption) Glow of evening twilight upon waterway entering Puget Sound from Fir Island Farms Reserve Unit on Sunday, November 13, 2022.

Hunters (not pictured) were just across the narrow channel that you see in the photo above. You’ll also see the same waterway near the end of the YouTube video below.

Not sure, but I think they were duck hunters.

Though surprised by the sudden blasts, I rolled with it as I livestreamed a beautiful sunset on Facebook.

That’s when another visitor approached me. The man said he was from Bellingham. He seemed a bit alarmed that hunting was taking place nearby.

He told me the photographers a few yards away from my location were not happy about the hunting activity.

I want to stress, though, that most of my visits here over the years have been absent of any shotgun blasts.

No matter what unfolds here, the foundational experience for me has always been the connection to the land stirred with wonderment.

There are also memories of past visits here with family…when my kids were younger…and my Dad was alive.

More details about the Fir Island Farm Estuary Restoration Project appear below.

The above video was shot with an iPhone 12 Pro Max using the FilMic Pro app. I edited this video in the LumaFusion app (started the editing project on my iPhone, then finished it on my iPad). The sunset photos appearing near end of video were taken with a Canon 7D.

The Fir Island Farm Estuary Restoration Project is also aimed at helping Chinook salmon recover. The Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife’s website states,

“The Skagit River System Cooperative (a tribal cooperative) and WDFW collaboratively authored the Skagit Chinook Recovery Plan, which identifies Skagit estuary habitat as a bottleneck to salmon recovery and calls for approximately 2,700 acres of estuary restoration. The Fir Island Farm Reserve was identified as an important area to restore habitat for salmon because it was historically part of the estuary, which provided critical rearing habitat for juvenile Chinook salmon.”

Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife

In 2021, the WDFW transitioned ownership and operations of the project’s infrastructure to the Skagit County Consolidated Dike, Drainage, and Irrigation Improvement District #22.

A Discover Pass is required for parking at this location. I purchased my annual Discover Pass online for $35.00.

Lastly, I thought a video from 2009 might be of interest to some readers as much of it features this same location. It’s interesting to see how much has changed, as well as how much remains unchanged.

(Description as published on Vimeo in 2009): Video featuring scenery and wildlife around Skagit Bay in Washington state. Includes swans, bald eagles, ducks, Mt. Baker and Mount Rainier. I shot this piece over two consecutive mornings this week (February 4 & 5, 2009). Both days started with sunshine, but the fog rolled-in on day 2. Video begins with a few shots from area called “English Boom” on Camano Island’s north side. But most of this video is shot near Fir Island Road west of Conway.

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