By Polly Keary, Editor
In farm fields around the Sky Valley, a familiar sight through the winter months are flocks of large white birds. Some are snow geese, but the majority are trumpeter swans.
As the weather warms, the birds will soon depart for their summer homes in Canada and Alaska. That makes the first days of spring a good time to get out a camera or binoculars and go looking for good views of the migratory birds, which are seen in few places in the world in the concentrations in which they appear in Western Washington.
Trumpeter swans, the largest of all waterfowl, were once far more common than they are
today, ranging from Texas to the Yukon. After a century of heavy hunting for their feathers, which were thought to make the best quill pens, they were nearly extinct in the United States by the mid-20th Century. In 1933, only 50 of the birds were left alive in the country, with 77 surviving in Canada.
The only reason the swans survived at all was because of large populations in Alaska, which allowed the species to rebound.
Now, the largest populations of wintering trumpeter swans in the lower 48 states are found in the Skagit Valley, with about 8,400 birds. Whatcom County comes in second with about 2,100 birds, and there are about 1,200 in Snohomish County.
Although swans are waterfowl, for much of the day they can be seen on dry land in fields. Swans gather on agricultural land because they forage for remains of crops including potatoes, corn, grains and grass.
The bulk of their diet comes from aquatic sources, however. The swans eat leaves, tubers and roots of plants from the beds of lakes, sometimes using their powerful feet to fan mud away from the plants. When the swans have left for the season, they leave reminders of their winter presence in the form of large craters in shallow lake beds, and too many swans can put a lot of stress on the vegetation of a lake.
One of the most striking characteristics of the trumpeter swan, which can live up to 24 years in the wild, is that their mating habits somewhat resemble those of humans. They tend to enter exclusive pair bonds, and some mate for life. Others separate and form new monogamous bonds.
Some male swans that lose partners never mate again for the rest of their lives.
Trumpeter swan pairs build nests together, often on the remains of old beaver dams, and while the female does the majority of the nesting, the male may also guard the eggs. The swan pairs return to the same nest year after year.
The birds are often mistaken for the equally white snow goose, but trumpeter swans are easily distinguished by their black beaks.
While the trumpeter swan has rebounded greatly from near-extinction 70 years ago, they are still threatened by human expansion into their territories. Also, the species is particularly vulnerable to lead poisoning, which is why the use of lead shot is not permitted in their habitats. Power lines are another source of swan mortality.
If going out to look for swans, a good place to look is in the Tualco Valley, where they gather to forage on the area’s abundant farm land.
The Washington Swan Stewards offer a number of guidelines for swan-watching.
First and foremost, they recommend that you stay in your car. Disturbing birds can lead to nest failure and increased mortality.
If you do get out of your car or are traveling on foot, move slowly and quietly, and try to find vantage points from which the birds can’t see you.
Use telephoto lenses to take pictures, and spotting scopes or binoculars to view.
Don’t trespass on private property. Stay out of farm fields.
Make sure you park your car in such a way that it doesn’t obstruct traffic.
Don’t flush the birds to photograph them flying. Not only does it disrupt the birds, it’s illegal.
Unfortunately, trumpeter swans are still hunted illegally. Report poaching to 1 (877) 933-9847.