A wildlife murder mystery is unfolding in the Colville River Valley with possible links to one of the region’s remarkable romance stories.
Birdwatchers and angry local residents already have built a reward of at least $1,600 for tips regarding the shooting of an adult trumpeter swan in the early afternoon on Dec. 28. The incident occurred about three miles west of Colville where the Valley-Westside Road crosses the Colville River.
Heavy on the minds of area birders is the possibility the dead swan could be the Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge trumpeter nicknamed Solo, or the long-sought mate the cob found last spring. On Father’s Day, the pair hatched the first brood of cygnets on the refuge in more than 20 years.
Speculation brews from the rarity of trumpeter swans in this area during winter, coupled with refuge records indicating Solo has reappeared at Turnbull every year for decades within days after the winter ice recedes enough for a landing on refuge ponds.
Nobody knows where Solo has spent winter in the 33-46 years he’s returned to Turnbull. But perhaps it hasn’t been too far away.
Few people have recorded seeing rare trumpeter swans in this region in late December or January.
“Last year was the first time I’ve seen any in this area during winter, and that was in the Little Spokane River drainage,” said Jim Acton, one of the Spokane area’s senior birdwatching record keepers.
Warren Current, an active birder who lives near Colville, said he’d never seen a trumpeter in the Colville Valley during winter – until Dec. 28, when birding friend Joe Smith called with the exciting news that he’d spotted three trumpeters – apparently two adults and a young bird of the year – hanging out by the bridge Current crosses daily to his home.
“When I got there, I could see only one swan,” Current said. “It was sitting up on the ice along the river. It had red on its wing and back.”
The trumpeter swan is widely regarded as a symbol of elegance, with its long arching neck, snow-white feathers, jet-black bill, feet, and legs and an 8-foot wingspan.
Through a spotting scope, a thin orange-red line can be seen on the lower part of the bill, distinguishing the trumpeter from its 50 percent smaller and more common cousin, the tundra swan. Trumpeter numbers declined to as few as 70 worldwide before federal protection and conservation efforts enabled them to rebound to a North American population of about 16,000.
The shooting of one of the first trumpeters to be identified wintering in the region has angered birdwatchers still numb from the drinking-related shooting of a common loon at Yocum Lake in June.
“The swan shooting does not appear to be hunting-related,” said Madonna Luers, Fish and Wildlife Department spokeswoman. “It’s more like another random act of senselessness.”
“This was a malicious act that demands public response,” said Current, who’s handling the donations for the reward to bag the poacher.
A Fish and Wildlife officer was on the shooting scene quickly along with Tina Matney, a local wildlife rehabilitator.
“They tried to capture the wounded swan, but it was difficult with the ice along the river,” Luers said. “Once they got a good look, they determined the swan was wounded too severely to survive, so the officer put it out of its misery.”
Unfortunately, ice and darkness prevented the would-be rescuers from retrieving the carcass.
The wildlife officer collected evidence at the scene and talked to people who saw a grayish vehicle nearby after hearing several shots fired.
“We’re looking for anyone who might be able to give us more information,” Luers said.
Current said a lone trumpeter was spotted a few days later on Lake Roosevelt at the mouth of the Colville River.
“We don’t know, but maybe two swans were shot and only one survived,” he said.
“The people who do these kinds of things usually brag about them,” said Mike Rule, Turnbull biologist. “I hope the reward prompts a tip.”
Meantime, he can only wait until March to see if any of the Turnbull trumpeters return.
Contact Rich Landers at (509) 459-5508 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.