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Birders witness eagle v. swan encounter at Reardan

WILDLIFE WATCHING — The skies of the Inland Northwest are full of life and death drama, even for prey species that range from 10-22 pounds.   Here's a field report posted today by Spokane Audubon Society birder Lindell Haggin:

On Friday, I was with a couple people from Inland Northwest Land Trust.  We were surveying the new addition to Audubon Lake at Reardan (access is by invitation only).  We had noticed Tundra Swans on the pond off Bisson Rd. as we entered and thought we would finish up by getting another view of them from the property.  When we took a longer look, we counted about 22 Tundra Swans on the pond.  

We were just about to move on when we heard a thud to our right. By the time we looked we saw two Tundra Swans about the land on the lake and one that slammed into the ground and tumbled over two or three times.  We couldn’t understand how it had misjudged the landing so badly.  Then we looked up and saw a Golden Eagle flying just above the swan.  The fallen bird was about 150 meters away across a marsh.  It struggled to its feet and righted itself with difficulty.  When I looked with binoculars I saw blood streaking its back.  It finally sat down, unable to move towards the water.  

When we looked up a second time we saw there was a pair of Golden Eagles circling.  We left the area hoping that the loss of life was not wasted. A very powerful event.

Tundra swans flocking to region’s open water

Updated with field report.

WILDLIFE WATCHING — Recent unseasonably warm weather has invited birds into the region, including tundra swans that are finding open water from eastern Washington into the Silver Valley of North Idaho.

Their migration farther north isn't likely to kick into high gear for awhile, but today there are a couple hundred tundra swans back at Killarney Lake along the Lower Coeur d'Alene River. 

Update Feb. 22:

Jay Groepper got the news above and made a beeline with his bike to check out the migration.  Here's his report:

Just got back from the Trail of the Coeur d'Alenes. Saw about 200 swans from Blackrock to Harrison on the trail and 600 to 700 on Killarney lake. Thanks for the tip!

Pend Oreille Valley Tundra Swan Festival booking tour seats

WILDLIFE WATCHING —  The 2014 Tundra Swan Festival is set for March 22 in the Pend Oreille River Valley and the main attraction is already flocking in.

Bus tours hosted by the Kalispell Tribe are planned to Calispell Lake to view some of the thousands of swans resting in the area’s open waters as their spring migration kicks into high gear.

Participants will re-gather at the Camas Wellness Center in Usk for lunch and a presentation on the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act by Forest Service District Ranger Gayne Sears.

Cost: $10 or $5 for kids under 13.

Sign up by Friday, March 14. Info: 509 447 5286

Swan deaths: annual spring disgrace continues along CdA River

ENVIRONMENT – I received the following email from a reader this morning:

Last Sunday my wife and I were riding our bikes on the Trail of the Coeur d'Alene's between Rose Lake and Harrison. Along the way, we saw what appeared to be a significant number of dead swans. I probably know the answer, but is it the heavy metals in the area that are the cause of their demise?

The Trail of the Coeur d'Alenes is a paved rail trail over a corridor used for a century to transport the produce of mining prosperity and its toxic aftermath. One of the benefits of the conversion to a recreational trail is that it  exposes more eyes to the issue of heavy metals pollution still lingering in the Silver Valley.

The saddest indicators are the carcasess of 150 or so tundra swans that die slow, agonizing deaths in our backyard during their migration stopover on the Lower Coeur d’Alene River.

It’s not a pretty sight, but your head's in the sand if you don’t see the carnage and the reasons for it.

Read on.

Migrating waterfowl making a buzz at Turnbull

WILDLIFE WATCHING — Migrating waterfowl are providing plenty of noise and action for birdwatchers visiting Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge this week.   Here's today's report from Mike Rule, refuge wildlife biologist:

For the past week there have been over 100 white swans on Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge's Cheever Lake. Mixed in are a few hundred northern pintail, wigeon, and mallards.  Common golden-eyes , hooded mergansers, buffleheads, ring-necked ducks, and  a few canvasbacks were also observed.  

Last year's nesting pair of trumpeter swans and their off spring have been hanging out in Middle Pine Lake.  Common snipe have been winnowing the last two mornings. 

In case you're not familiar with the northern pintail, it's a subtly-colored puddle duck species that ranks high in eye appeal and aerodynamics.  Here's a tip of the hat to The Designer, and to Montana outdoor photographer Jaime Johnson for the photo reminder.

Sign up for Tundra Swan Festival, tour and speakers


OUTFIELD – The celebrities already have arrived, as at least 200 tundra swans were jammed into a creek-thawed ribbon of open water in the otherwise frozen Calispell Lake on Wednesday.

The lake should be open and even more birds on hand for the annual Pend Oreille Valley Tundra Swan Festival activities March 16, based out of the the Camas Wellness Center, 1981 N. LeClerc Road in Usk.

The festival greets hundreds of swans that migrate through the Pend Oreille River Valley in February and March, resting and feeding on Calispell Lake, designated an Important Bird Area, during the journey to their breeding grounds.

Visitors will be bused from the center to view the swans at Calispell Lake followed by a lunch and presentation by bird and wildlife experts on a range of topics.

Cost: $10 adults, $5 for children under 13.

Pre-register by March 8.

Presenters during lunch include:

Gary Blevins, Spokane Falls Community College.

TOPIC: “What does Audubon Christmas Bird Count data tell us about how climate change is affecting bird population?”

Bart George, Wildlife Biologist III, Kalispel Tribe of Indians.

TOPIC: “The Selkirk Mountains Forest Carnivore Survey, 2012 - 2013”

Matt Berger, Wildlife Project Manager, Kalispel Tribe of Indians.

TOPIC: “Kalispel Tribal Lands Bobolink 2012 Project update, in cooperation with Audubon Washington”

Mike Lithgow, Director, Pend Oreille County Community Planning Department.

 TOPIC: “Birds on the Water: Legends of the River”

The festival is sponsored by the Natural Resources Department of the Kalispel Tribe of Indians and the Pend Oreille River Tourism Alliance.

Trumpeter swans flocking to Turnbull

WILDLIFE — Just a few years ago we were amazed to see a single Trumpeter swan return Solo year after year, decade after decade at Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge.

That old bird left his mark.  After finally mating and producing a few broods, trumpeter swans have taken hold at the refuge south of Cheney.  With the ice gone, we can expect another year of pleasant viewing from the walking trails near the headquarters.

At least three of the five cygnets hatched at Turnbull last year survived through fall.

Carlene Hardt already has been enjoying them.

I was out at Turnbull on Saturday and I counted 15 Trumpeter Swans on Middle Pine Pond! There were 11 adults and 4 cygnets. Maybe the family from last year was part of it? They sure were vocal and active.

Turnbull cygnet makes first short flight

WILDLIFE WATCHING — The ducks that were hatched this spring have been flying for months. But ducks and even geese aren't the largest of all native North American wildfowl. 

The trumpeter swans that hatched in mid-June at Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge have required the entire summer and several weeks of autumn to grow, muscle up and feather out enough to flap their 15- to 20-pound bodies into the air from a dramatic running-on-top-of-the-water takeoff.

Carlene  Hardt has been following the Turnbull trumpeters closely this year and she has captured good photos of their development.

"The cygnets have all their flight feathers and could fly anytime," Hardt reports this week. On Sunday, one of the cygnets made a very short flight with the parents! The other two have not shown any interest so far but I am sure they will soon.

"The parents leave for about an hour each day. I wonder if they leave them so long to encourage them to learn to fly so they can follow!"

Even the adult turmpeters were flightless during a portion of the summer. They swam closely with their offspring at Middle Pond near the refuge headquarters while they molted their feathers.

Trumpeter swans are typically gray when they hatch. Cygnets steadily lose their gray plumage and molt in pure white feathers by the time they are one year old. The change is not complete in the Turnbull birds.

Cygnets require 110-120 days from the time they hatch to the time they fledge — a moment that appears to be arriving this week at Turnbull.

Once they get the hang of it, these trumpeter swans will be able to fly between 40-80 miles per hour. They are susceptible to collisions with wires, especially when they migrate, but they offer an irresistible reason to crane our necks skyward for a look.

Click "continue reading" to see the difference in the Turnbull cygnets' wing development from the third week of August to the first week of October, as shown in Hardt's photos.

Trumpeter swans hatch five cygnets at Turnbull

WILDLIFE WATCHING — Trumpeter swans are back in a family way at Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge this week.

The photo at the bottom of this post shows the female rising above a newly hatched FIFTH cygnet onThursday morning as two siblings look on from the nest. I made the photo just off the paved trail at Middle Pine Lake near the refuge headquarters.

The male was on the water with two cygnets that hatched on Monday or Tuesday when I arrived today just before 8 a.m.

Two more cygnets could be seen partially under the wing of the female on the nest.

I sat for a long time across from the nest, watching as the male took his pair to the far end of Middle Pine Lake and rested with them on the shore. 

At 9:30 a.m., the female began making muffled honks.  The male got in the water with the two cygnets and started swimming toward the nest.  Just as he got there, the two cygnets under the mother’s wing crawled out, the female stood up and Presto!  Up popped the very weak head of the FIFTH cygnet for a brief second before it lay back down. 

The male paraded past a few times, as shown in the other photo. The female seemed to be showing off the new arrival.

Visitors willing to walk less than a mile round trip will be able to enjoy the family all summer.

"The cygnets will be stuck there for awhile since we have Cheever Lake drawn down for dam repairs," said Mike Rule, refuge biologist.

The female mated in 2009 with the late Solo, the male trumpeter who faithfully returned to Turnbull for two decades as a widower before finding a breeding female and ending Turnbull's drought of trumpeter production.

Read Solo's story here.

Solo and his new mate raised broods in 2009 and 2010. They returned last year, but Solo disappeared before they could mate, ending what biologists estimate was a remarkable 35-48 year tenure at the refuge.

Said Rule:

The identity of the father is unknown . We thought the swan hanging around with her since spring of last year was one of her 2010 cygnets. She was seen with a juvenile swan for most of 2011. This spring she has been with a single adult swan that was very territorial. Since her 2010 cygnet is not sexually mature, it is possible an unrelated older adult formed a pair bond this past spring as a few trumpeters move through the area at that time.

Spring is toxic to migrating tundra swans stopping here

WILDLIFE — It's been well publicized over the years, but we can't let people forget that our lower Coeur d'Alene river basin is a toxic stew for migrating waterfowl, thanks to the waste of a century of upstream mining.

An eyewitness to a swan death report the observation complete with a photo, posted on Huckleberries online.

Waterfowl love the wetness soaking the region

SPRING MIGRANTS — The region's wet spell is putting a damper on a lot of activities, but waterfowl are in their element as they pause during their spring migrations in the Inland Northwest's wealth of flooded fields and wetlands.

Ducks, geese and swans have so many options, they're fooling even experienced birders in their back yards.

John Stuart of Newport, fresh in from a birding trip in his neck of the woods, was disappointed over the weekend to see the 1,500 tundra swans had left Calispell Lake in Pend Oreille County.

"The migrating Tundra swans, usually a big noisy deal on Calispell Lake, sort of pulled a switcheroo on us, thanks to the weather," he said in a report to Inland Northwest Birders.  He assumed that because the lake had risen 3 feet in a couple days — and swans necks being only so long, they could no longer reach the submerged comestibles and had to take their leave."

But soon after he put out the report, he heard from other birders and set the record straight Wednesday afternoon:

Apparently my story of the Swans at Calispell Lk. was not as black and white as I supposed.  Terry Little found a big crowd there on Friday (30th) and Jon Isacoff found a couple thousand on Tues (3rd), while we saw none on Sunday.  But Jon found a guy at Riverbend (about 10 miles north) who said the swans had been up there feeding on the larger than usual flooded field.  So apparently the birds were finding some alternative feeding areas without leaving the area.

So the rain eliminated one area for feeding but created at least one new one.

Sign up: Pend Oreille Valley Tundra Swan Day

WILDLIFE WATCHING — Organized outings and access to experts are among the benefits of visiting festivals celebrating the arrival of migrating birds.

Tundra Swan Day in the Pend Oreille Valley, set for March 17, is a good example of locals sharing a wildlife spectacle in their backyard

Based near Usk in the Kalispell Tribe's Wellness Center, the day includes a tour to see tundra swans gathering at Calispell Lake, plus lunch and short presentations by several speakers on topics ranging from swans to wolverine research in the area.

Preregister for the tour here. Cost: $10 adults, $5 youths under 13, includes lunch.
Info: (509) 447-5286.

Distinguishing swans from snow geese is black and white

WILDLIFE WATCHING — Should a hunter ever be excused for killing a trumpeter swan he misidentified as a snow goose?

Probably not.

Here are three notable reasons from Rich Myhre of the Everett Herald:

  1. Because of their white color, trumpeter swans look a little bit like snow geese. But trumpeter swans are entirely white, while snow geese have black wing tips.
  2. Trumpeter swans measure 6-8 feet from wing tip to wing tip, while snow geese measure only about 3 feet.
  3. Most important, snow geese can be hunted during waterfowl season, but there is never a legal time to shoot trumpeter swans.

For additional information about identifying swans, go to www.trumpeterswansociety.org.

Death on the lower CdA River is annual spring disgrace

ENVIRONMENT – Some people in the Inland Northwest would like to think we live in a pristine area without need for strict environmental regulations or Superfund help.

But 150 or so tundra swans each year tell us something to the contrary as they slowly die during their migration stopover on the Lower Coeur d’Alene River.

It’s not a pretty sight, but your head's in the sand if you don’t see the carnage and the reasons for it. 

Read on.

Biologist details last days of senior trumpeter swan at Turnbull Refuge

WILDLIFE – Today’s “Swan song” Outdoors feature in the Sunday Sports section tells the inspiring story of a senior swan at Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge.

I dubbed him “Solo” when I wrote the 2002 column about the widower swan that kept returning to Turnbull without a mate.

But his perseverance paid off in 2009 when he finally bonded with a mate and sired the first hatch of cygnets on the refuge in 22 years. They repeated in 2010 with another brood.

Now it appears certain that Solo is gone. I’ve held off on the story since late January, working with refuge biologist Mike Rule to make certain that Solo didn’t show up as he has for about four decades.

A male trumpeter swan was found dead from lead poisoning nearby on Badger Lake in January. Rule does not think it was Solo, but he’s not sure. Unfortunately, the swan was not aged in the WSU necropsy.

Following is a long series of excerpts from my email correspondence with Rule, detailing the reasoning behind his belief that while Solo is gone, the legacy of his mate and offspring are alive and giving hope for a trumpeter swan future at Turnbull.

How to distinguish tundra swans from trumpeters

WILDLIFE WATCHING — With spring migration in full tilt, it's difficult to overlook the large white swans mixing with other waterfowl in the region's lakes and wetlands. 

But it's easy to miss the dintinction between the trumpeter swans and the tundra swans.

This article in the Sibley Birds website has excellent charts and descriptions.

Meantime, area birding enthusiast Charles Swift has this explanation for birders new to the area.

A flock of swans this large locally is most certainly a group of northbound Tundra Swans although it's certainly possible that there could be a few Trumpeters mixed in. Their voices are similar enough to cause confusion although with experience they can be separated.
They are also confusing to separate visually particularly as the main differences are related to size and structure rather than plumage. However most Tundra Swans show a variable yellow spot on the upper part of their bills which is usually visible if the swans are seen well and close enough.
The bulk of the Trumpeter Swan population that winters in the lower 48 states (which is fairly small) are found well to our west (western WA) or east (eastern Idaho) however good numbers of Tundra Swans that winter in the western U.S. (many in the Klamath Basin and other parts of CA) pass through here on their way north and a variable number even winter locally on the large northern Idaho lakes.

More swans sighted, but big freeze coming

WILDLIFE WATCHING — Another report on tundra swans in the region, this one coming from Warren Current in the Colville area:

"Yesterday afternoon I saw seven tundra swans along the shoreline of Lake Roosevelt just south of Colville Flats (Highway 25).  Other species in the vicinity included Canada geese, mallard, northern pintail, American wigeon, bufflehead adn common goldeneye."

The level of Lake Roosevelt has gone down to 1270 feet which has exposed additional sand islands and more shoreline in that area, which seems attractive to waterfowl,he said.

But while the recent thaw and mild weather has lured the birds into this portion of their northern migration, the arctic cold coming this week will hold them up and maybe move them around.

Large numbers of tundra swans are in the Cougar Bay area of Lake Coeur d'Alene, and they're showing at the Calispell Lake area, where ice-up may force them out closer tot he Pend Oreille River, as well as at Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge.

Tundra swans showing at Calispell Creek, CdA Lake

WILDLIFE WATCHING — Lake Coeur d'Alene's Cougar Bay is filled with waterfowl, at least 1500 individuals, reports Lisa Hardy of CdA Audubon.
Among them are 99 swans, almost all of which were tundra swans.
On Friday, birders from Newport found about 65 tundra swans on Calispell Creek about a mile downstream from Calispell Lake in Pend Oreille County.
The migration has begun.

Valentine Swan Song

  (photo by Cheryl-Anne Millsap)


    The wind slipped cold, cruel fingers down my collar and teased at the heavy scarf around my neck and it fluttered and danced around my face as I walked carefully down the slushy sidewalk. The afternoon sun was high and bright but the temperature was still bitingly cold.
    I’d been wandering in and out of the shops that line the main street of Traverse City, Michigan,  looking for some kind of token to bring home with me. Valentine’s Day was coming.

    I picked up a few things as I shopped: jam made from Michigan cherries, a postcard, a pair of gloves. But nothing carried the true weight of what I wanted to say.

    Finally, running out of time, I turned off the main street and walked toward the shore of the Lake.

    As I navigated the path, I was careful to avoid the iciest patches. The deep snow formed a high white wall around the edge of the lake and I noticed there were no other footprints. A few cars were parked at the edge and the occupants were protected as they ate their lunches and gazed out at the water, but no one else was foolish enough to get out and face the relentless cold.

    I stood there, open to the wind that poured across the lake freezing everything in it’s path. My face was numb, my eyes watered. My toes and fingers ached.

    The deep azure color of the lake, rimmed by snowy beaches and green hills, flowed up toward the sky in bands of blue broken only by small clouds.  There was a skim of ice on the water closest to the shore and for a few minutes I watched a pair of swans, side-by-side, floating languidly in the frigid water. I remembered reading that swans mate for life and wondered, again, if it is true.

     Finally, surrendering, I pushed my hands deeply into my pockets and started to turn away but stopped when the pair of swans moved. As I watched, in a slow, subtle, water-ballet, the pair turned slightly toward one another, long necks gracefully arched, heads pointed down to the water, swimming breast to breast. And for a moment, at least from where I was standing, the space between them formed the shape of a perfect heart.

    Swans live their lives the same way so many humans do, it’s just that our seasons are longer. We court in the spring, have our young in the summer and in the winter, after the young have left the nest, we are content to swim alone, close to our mate for comfort and company.

    My fingers were cold and too slow to bring out my camera and by the time I pressed the shutter the swans had turned away. But I had found my Valentine.

    I was looking for a card or a gift but it took a pair of wild winter swans to show me the way.
 This Valentine's Day, all I really want to say is that when we are winter birds, I will still be here. I will always be the other half of the heart.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap writes for The Spokesman-Review. Her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com

Birders asked to help track Turnbull trumpeters

WATERFOWL — Ice-up has ushered the trumpeter swans out of Turnbull National Wildlife refuge to where ever they go during winter.

Solo, the geriatric patriarch of his growing trumpeter family, departed the refuge with his mate and this year’s crop of five cygnets during Thanksgiving week, said Mike Rule, refuge biologist. Three yearling swans from last-year’s crop — the first brood at Turnbull in 22 years — also have left.

This morning, only a small 20-yard diameter opening remained in the ice on Cheever Lake, one of the swans’ favorite hang-outs, Rule said. The trumpeters require around 50 yards or more of open water for a “runway” in order to take off and get their heavy bodies airborne.

“I believe all wetlands on the refuge are now frozen over,” Rule said.

Rule said he plans to capture some of the younger swans next year and fix them with colored collars that would encourage birders to report swan sightings. This would help end the mystery of where Solo has been wintering undetected for the 33-46 years that he’s been on the refuge, Rule said.

Report swan sightings: “If your readers can be prompted to be on the look out, I would love to get notification of any sightings of swans this winter,” Rule said.

Email Mike Rule. Include your contact information, a good location description that includes the name of body of water and nearest road intersection, the number of swans in the group and the presence and number of any juveniles (gray with pink bills).

APhoto Of The Day — 4.7.10

A large crowd watches the parade route for 28 swans heading from their winter quarters to the Avon River in Stratford, Ontario on Sunday. The unique swan parade marks that spring has returned to the area. You write the cutline. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Dave Chidley)

Top Cutlines:

  • 1. Moment’s later, an ice cream truck playing Tchaikovsky’s ballet happened upon the parade, accidentally signalling the ‘swan song’ for several of the participants — JohnA.
  • 2. There must be an Aflac casting there/Pecky Cox.
  • 3. Gone are the days of Sam’s chickhood, when he was constantly teased and picked on for being different. Now, he enjoys standing out in a crowd, and struts his feathers over his elegant following harem, something that his bully bird friends can’t claim. Nice swans always finish best!/JeanieS.
  • HM: Herb

Come home, Solo…

Good morning, Netizens…

One must take a giant step down the evolutionary stairs to kill a trumpeter swan. One of the most-beautiful birds in our country where avian beauty often abounds, there is hardly anything more awe-inspiring than watching these swans floating elegantly on the water, and we were graced, as of last year, with having a mated pair of these swans living in Turnbull Wildlife Sanctuary with four cygnets.

The male swan or cob, affectionately nicknamed “Solo” by various people at Turnbull may have been killed recently on the Colville River and I, for one, would seriously like to find the miscreant responsible.

As cold-hearted as it might seem, murdering a swan is much more than simply the death of one of the heaviest, most beautiful birds in all of nature. Murdering a swan requires a depth of depravity that might portray a sociopath living undiagnosed beneath the surface. It is perhaps a little-known fact that such behavior is closely-associated with other major mental health issues, including the entire gamut of malevolent behavior.

Before you resist the idea, stop and think how you might feel if someone were to brutally kill your favorite pet, leaving it floating on the ice-cold water of the Colville River. Anger, outrage and a sense of betrayal would loom, and with these emotions, the urge to find the killer and bring him/her to justice.

I’ll quickly concede that violence surrounds us at every turn, including the crap we serve to our young on television, which seems to encourage such unthinking, emotionless actions.

I think, come spring, I’ll drive around Turnbull and see if I can locate Solo. Maybe, just maybe I’ll get lucky and he’ll return.