Despite the snow blanketing the region’s forests and valleys, spring is just around the corner. To a nature lover and photographer like myself, that means the swans are coming.
North of Spokane in Pend Oreille County lies the ancestral homeland of the Kalispel Tribe, a land of beautiful scenic mountains, rivers, lakes, meadows and wildlife. In the heart of the county, the vast Pend Oreille Valley is just beginning to awaken from its winter sleep. In May and June, this valley becomes a lush and gorgeous green.
While one might be tempted to delay a scenic drive to Pend Oreille County until later in the spring to view this beautiful valley, the region is about to be the setting of a truly remarkable annual event in the natural world. As the frozen floor of the Pend Oreille Valley thaws, it becomes a prime destination and spring feeding grounds for thousands of waterfowl: Canada geese, pintails, buffleheads, mallards, goldeneyes, coots and the highly anticipated tundra swans.
Starting from as far away as New Mexico and California, tundra swans make their way north to their breeding grounds on the Arctic tundra, the origin of their name. For a short time along their migration route, they stop in the Pend Oreille Valley to feed, especially favoring Lake Calispel just west of the tiny town of Usk.
Unlike the recreational lakes the region is known for, Lake Calispel nearly dries up in summer. However, in the spring, the lake resembles a floodplain, with an average depth of 1 to 3 feet. Ideal feeding conditions for waterfowl. In a spring with higher-than-normal snowpack and runoff, the water can be too deep and many of the swans tend to look elsewhere for shallower water. This spring, though, conditions should be prime for large numbers of tundra swans to stop, rest and feed at this lake they have historically favored over the years.
It was once much easier to quickly identify a tundra swan based on where they were seen geographically. But the changing distribution of trumpeter swans is blurring the geographic boundaries, resulting in sightings of both swan species in the same regions. This can make identifying tundra swans challenging, especially from a distance.
I have seen both tundra and trumpeter swans in the region. I haven’t seen trumpeters at Lake Calispel, and more commonly see them on Lake Roosevelt. Last fall, I was surprised to view and photograph tundra and trumpeter swans swimming alongside one another in a small Stevens County lake during their fall migration. While the two species closely resemble one another, this side-by-side comparison made the differences between the tundra and trumpeter more noticeable.
Generally, mature trumpeter swans are larger than tundras, but this size difference is not always obvious unless both species are viewed together. Trumpeters have a longer and flatter bill, and the black eye is continuous with the black bill. The tundra swan has a shorter bill with more of a curve, and the black eye is still connected but more separated from the bill.
Most tundra swans also have a small yellow spot in front of the eye, though about 10 percent do not. There are other more subtle differences, and correct identification of juveniles is even trickier, but these characteristics are some of the most recognizable for accurate identification. But truthfully, a day spotting either a tundra or trumpeter swan is a good day, as both are spectacular.
The ice on Lake Calispel melts on its own unique timetable each year, foreshadowing the arrival of various bird species en masse. At their peak, the birds can number in the thousands. The cacophony of sounds can be heard long before the birds are spotted.
We usually start scouting the area in late January and early February for the first arrivals, knowing the rest are soon to follow. If the swans begin arriving before the lake ice has melted, they can often be spotted along the Pend Oreille River. Even if the lake is still frozen, we usually see other wildlife in the valley, including otters, coyotes, elk and osprey.
Watching the swans quickly transports me from my busy and sometimes chaotic life and into the world of these remarkable birds. The rhythm and simplicity of their activities is oddly comforting, as I watch them swimming, feeding, and displaying mating and territorial behaviors. If the light is just right, their outstretched wings are diaphanous, painting an ethereal and otherworldly scene that is breathtaking.
In early spring, you can visit the area and view the swans in your car, but the entire lake is surrounded by private land. You’ll need binoculars and long telephoto lenses to see and photograph them from the roadside.
A little-known secret and one of the best ways to see and learn about the swans is by attending the annual Tundra Swan Festival at the Kalispel Tribe’s Camas Center (see sidebar) The festival offers educational presentations, artisan booths, food and bus trips to view the swans at a location not accessible by private car.
I vividly remember the first time my husband and I discovered the Camas Center a few years ago while exploring the “back roads” of Pend Oreille County. We were stunned to find such a state-of-the-art facility in rural northeast Washington in the middle of a field of bison. The tribe’s rich culture, spiritual connection to and respect for nature are a natural complement to this event commemorating the arrival of the celebrated tundra swans. It is a perfect example of nature and humanity existing in harmony, and proof that in rural America, you can have your cake and eat it too.
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