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Encounter with swans

I had a most memorable experience, in a fog so dense that I could only hear the wind moving over the wings of a small flock of what turned out to be swans, just 20 feet over my head. When stretched out in flight, a swan can be more than 5 feet long, from bill tip to tail end, with spread wings reaching 8 feet, and weighing up to 30 pounds.

For just a moment, the mist parted and three swans, wings set for immediate landing, were right there above and a little in front of me. How they knew the river was there I will never understand, but they were coming in for an instrument landing. And then they were gone. I was already cold, but I involuntarily shivered at the sight. They seemed gigantic at that range, and so white and ghostly – spooky, in fact.

It could have been a dream except that it was so cold, and soon thereafter the sun broke through and I saw a dozen or so swans in a small backwater of the river that they somehow navigated to in the fog. I have never again been so close as I was to those three. Even now I marvel at the remembrance.

That was so long ago that I can’t say for sure what kind of swans they were, but they were probably whistling swans – called tundra swans today. It didn’t matter at the time. I was a kid on a deer hunt, and I was plenty focused, but I could not get over that sight. They were so huge and so right there, and, at the moment, so quiet.

Other times I have seen giant flocks at a distance and was overcome by the noise, the din of a communicating flock. Once I listened to the murmurs of a resting flock when I was out at midnight searching for owls – a sound described in the guides as gentle and musical. In the dark, it too was a spooky experience.

There are two swans in North America – the mute swan of the East Coast and Midwest doesn’t count since it has been artificially introduced and is becoming a starlinglike mistake. There is the large and almost, at one time, extinct trumpeter swan, and the smaller and abundant tundra swan. We have both in North Idaho, but it takes a bit of skill and lots of good luck to find one of the few trumpeters that move through here.

Worldwide there are only seven species of swans. There are four, all white, in the Northern Hemisphere, and three, all dark, in the Southern Hemisphere. On several rare occasions a whooper swan has been seen way off course over our Western states. It is very much the Eurasian counterpart to our trumpeter swan. A similar comparison between our smaller whistling swan and the Eurasian Bewicks swan could be made until 1983 when the two were combined into the present tundra swan.

The European mute swan is the swan of literature and art, with its bowed head and uplifted and arched wings, as it floats on peaceful, mirrored ponds. This is the swan of English royalty and was introduced into eastern North America for a touch of the European in parks and on estates. It is actually ferociously aggressive and, on this continent, an ecological disaster. But it still looks nice.

The trumpeter swan was taken to the brink of extinction by market hunting, but currently represents a great success in species recovery. From fewer than 70 birds in the contiguous United States in the 1930s – it is the only native swan to breed in the states – trumpeter swans now number in the thousands.

Whistling swans – but I guess that I must call them tundra swans, naming the swans by their voices was such a nice touch – breed only in the arctic and were thus less impacted by the settling of North America. They do winter, however, in the lower 48 states and their population was depleted in the past. As a species, though, they are quite adaptable.

(A historical aside: Whistling swans were first recognized as a unique species based on specimens collected at the mouth of the Columbia River by Meriwether Lewis while the expedition wintered on the Oregon coast. Those very birds may have been stopping off right here 201 years ago today.)

As the tundra swans preferred wintering wetlands habitat has disappeared, they have adjusted by taking advantage of grain fields. In some areas they are even considered a pest. More than 4,000 are legally killed by hunters in nine states each year. Still, the Western population of tundra swans increased by 50 percent in the 1990s.

All tundra swans breed as a continuous population along the arctic coasts of Alaska and Canada. Thus they are highly migratory, at least as far as swans go – because swans don’t go as far as the other arctic breeders, the sandpipers. In fact, trumpeter swans hardly migrate at all.

Each fall though, tundra swans head south, a few making it as far as the northern Baja del Norte border. Most end up on estuaries and small lakes along the coasts of the United States. With the breeding population splitting for migration at Point Hope, Alaska, swans head south, then west or east.

From the Alaska coast south of Point Hope, swans take the Pacific Flyway, many thousands passing through our area, eventually to the West Coast. It seems like an odd, indirect path but they are in no particular hurry, and they have several staging areas where they congregate before heading back west for the winter. Most of these western swans will end up at the Great Salt Lake prior to settling in.

Western tundra swans are only just now leaving their breeding grounds in large numbers and won’t find the coast until well into November. They head back north in late February – again first heading to the Great Salt Lake – and usually arrive back in arctic Alaska in April, before the snowmelt.

Swans from the coast east of Point Hope, and from all of Canada, head mostly through the upper Midwest for the Chesapeake Bay area. In the spring they return much the same way.

Tundra swans take their migratory time by making long stops. That’s why we are blessed each spring and fall by large numbers of tundra swans. But when they move, they cover long distances in a hurry, and at heady altitudes. Swans have been seen by airline pilots at 27,000 feet.

During both legs of migration, and throughout winter, swan families stay together. Pairs mate for life, the life of the shortest-lived, and tolerate the kids until its time to breed again. In migration, families will congregate with others, often forming flocks of a hundred or so swans.

Swans feed in much the same way as dabbling ducks. With necks as long as their bodies, swans don’t often need to up-end the way a mallard will, but simply dip their heads. For a white bird, they are surprisingly unconcerned about mud. In fact, they prefer shallows where they can rake the bottom with their feet and then sort through the debris with their submerged beaks, feeling for the roots and stems of aquatic vegetation.

It seems to me that a lot of the swans I see in Kootenai County are badly stained, from the base of their necks up by the crud that’s in our mud. Every year I see dead swans that have probably stirred up and ingested too many heavy metals in the mine tailings that line so many of the local ponds and marshes they frequent.

One of the real mysteries of swan watching is how to tell the difference between a prize trumpeter swan and a common tundra. For those more aesthetically inclined, it doesn’t make a whole lot of difference. They are both beautiful to behold, whether floating or flying. But for a birder, it can be an agonizing and frustrating process of trying to tell the difference.

Of course if they will vocalize for you, the difference is clear. And you will hear lots of tundra swans vocalizing. They are relatively high-pitched, with a barking or yodeling quality to their call. It is a rather melancholy sound. Trumpeters are more hornlike in their call, which is described as an old car, or oo-ga horn. But seldom does a trumpeter around here speak.

So there are lots of little hints one can look for. Trumpeters are larger, but will often stay aloof from the flock of tundras they are with. Tundras have a yellow patch on the part of their bill closest to their eye, and trumpeters never do, but some tundras don’t. Trumpeters have a curve to their necks that tundras do not, but that’s really relative. The facial skin and border to their foreheads are different, but if you can see that on a windy and cold fall afternoon, you have a good imagination.

Here is what works for me. Have you noticed the difference between the two red-headed ducks, the redhead and the canvasback? They both have a black rump and chest, a light body and a red head. But the redhead has a round head with a beak just stuck on. The canvasback has a long, sloping forehead that tapers smoothly into the slope of the beak. Look at their profiles in a field guide. They are very different.

The same is true for the swans. The tundra has a round head with a stuck-on beak. The trumpeter has a long, flat-on-top head and a beak that forms a ski-slope aspect from the forehead down. The tundra is a redhead head and the trumpeter is a canvasback head. It works for me, but I bird alone so who is there to argue?

Really, though, it doesn’t matter. My most memorable swan encounter will remain forever anonymous. Had I even know there was a difference back then, it would not have mattered. Since that day I have never questioned how magical a swan can be. Those old stories are not just fairy tales.

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