White Birds of Winter

With winter officially here and the first snows falling in the Pacific Northwest, it’s an appropriate time to turn our attention to white birds that can be found in our region. Many birds, such as ptarmigan and grouse, undergo seasonal changes in coloration which camouflage them in their respective habitats. Others, such as some waterfowl, retain their white plumage year round.

Trumpeter Swans, Tundra Swans, and Snow Geese are three white birds that are of particular interest to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) at this time because their populations are growing and expanding to new locations within the state.

Below you can find information about each of these birds. After you’ve learned more about them, give your bird ID skills a workout by looking for them on your next outing. If you see any of them, consider reporting your observations on eBird. Please include photos whenever possible, and include any distinguishing characteristics, such as leg bands or neck collars. Your wildlife observation reports help us to gain a better understanding of how wildlife use the resources in the state, and also helps to guide future conservation and management actions.

Trumpeter Swan (Cygnus buccinator)
As recently as the mid-1900s, Trumpeter Swans were just beginning to recover from near extinction, and their wintering numbers in Washington State were minuscule. Since then, the species has recovered to more robust levels and they can be readily found in many westside locations, although they are most abundant in the northern Salish Sea region. The Trumpeter Swans found in the Salish Sea region are the majority of the population associated with breeding areas within the Boreal Forest zone of interior Alaska. Trumpeter Swans wintering in eastern Washington breed in the Boreal Forest zones of northern British Columbia and the Northwest Territories in Canada and include a small number of Trumpeter Swans that continue to nest in eastern Washington despite limited suitable habitat.

Trumpeter Swans are the larger of the two swan species native to North America (the other being the Tundra Swan). Adults have entirely white plumage with black legs and bills. The lower mandible has a narrow red border that can be difficult to see from afar. Trumpeter Swans have a more straight profile with bill and head angular; the eye is not distinct from the bill. Juvenile swans (sometimes called cygnets) have dark grey plumage and may have pinkish colored or mottled bills with black bases and tips; their legs are mottled yellow and black.

Juvenile and adult Trumpeter Swans, J. Haug

Tundra Swan (Cygnus columbianus)
Tundra Swans seen during winter and spring migration breed in coastal regions of western Alaska, typically including tundra habitats of the Alaska Peninsula and Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. The large flocks of wintering Snow Geese in the Snohomish, Skagit, and Fraser River estuaries are from the population that breeds on Wrangel Island in Siberia, Russia. A portion of this population uses this region as their traditional winter habitats. However, favorable breeding conditions in the Arctic, along with improvements to foraging conditions in winter areas, have led to an increase in the population and changes in distribution in these traditional regions.

Though they are easily confused with Trumpeter Swans, there are a few key differences that aid in identifying Tundra Swans. Tundra Swans are smaller than Trumpeter Swans, and most adults have a small yellow patch on the lore (area between the bill and eyes). Tundra swans have a rounder shaped head with the eye distinct from the bill. See the photo below for the yellow lore spot. Juvenile Tundra Swans are a lighter bright gray and their bills are mostly pinkish with a black tip at the base. Legs are all black like the adults.

Tundra Swans, D. Werlau.

The photo below shows a pair of Tundra Swan and a pair of Trumpeter swans – can you spot who is who?

Tundra Swan with Trumpeter Swans, M. Jordan.

The two swans on the left are Tundra Swans. They are about the same size, and one has a visible yellow lore spot. The two swans on the right are Trumpeter Swans.

Snow Goose (Anser caerulescens)
Growing numbers of Snow Geese are now wintering in the lower Columbia region and in eastern Washington’s Columbia Basin; the breeding grounds of these populations is known with less certainty, but may contain individuals from the same central Canadian Arctic populations as the large flocks wintering California’s Central Valley. Therefore, you might see a few more “blue morphs” or perhaps some Ross’s Geese (the small-bodied and much less common species of white goose in Washington) in these flocks.

Snow Geese are the easiest of the three birds to identify – not only are they are smaller than both swan species, but they also have black-tipped wings and pinkish-orange bills, legs, and feet. In juveniles, the legs, feet, and bill are initially grey, and transition to pinkish-orange by the end of their first winter.

Rarely, you may see a dark bluish-grey goose with a white head. This is the “blue morph” color of the Snow Goose. Adults will still have the black wing tips and same bill and leg/feet color as the white phase Snow Goose. Blue morph are relatively frequent in the Canadian Arctic populations, and extremely scarce in the Wrangell Island population. Hence, the proportion of blue morphs in a flock can provide useful information, and observers should include notes on that in their eBird reports.

Juvenile white morph birds will have grey backs, with darker feathers on the neck and head; juvenile blue morph birds will appear completely dark grey-brown, with the neck and head being the darkest parts of the body.

Adult Snow Geese – blue and white morph, G. Plowman.

Adult white morph Snow Geese, K. Faccenda, Macaulay Library

Adult Snow Geese, blue and white morph, S. Labbé, Macaulay Library

Juvenile white morph Snow Geese in foreground, adult Snow Geese in background, A. Munteanu, Macaulay Library

For more information on these birds, including audio of their calls, visit the links below: