Bye Bye Birdie: Departure of the Trumpeter Swans

Every winter I look forward to the arrival of Trumpeter swans in Island County, which, according to BirdWeb, “move south in late fall as water begins to freeze. Most migration takes place during the day, and flocks fly low overhead in a V-formation. Migration starts early in spring, and birds often return to the breeding grounds before the water is free of ice.” This map from NatureServe shows where they live and breed. Our area is shown in blue along the northern part of Washington state’s coast.

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We’ve had another unseasonably warm winter, which may be why the dozens of swans that have been hanging out in area of Dugualla Bay appear to have departed. This year was especially great because, according to a state wildlife officials’ count, we had a record number of swans. During the past couple of months, we’ve had over a hundred. That number has diminished lately down to these few stragglers I saw recently, when I realized that the only photos I’d taken of “largest American waterfowl,” weighing about twenty pounds, five feet in length with a six foot wide wing span, were of birds foraging for food in local fields.

I decided to attempt to remedy my no-swan-photos-while-in-flight problem this year, which I didn’t think would be difficult. The Trumpeter swans that show up tend to congregate in an approximately one square mile area of Dugualla Bay bordered by: Dugualla Bay Farms’ fields to the west of Highway 20, Jones Road to the north, Frostad Road to the south and Dike Road to the east. They spend much of their time within an unnamed waterway.

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On a super sunny February morning, I grabbed my camera, switched to my (75-300mm) telephoto lens, and headed over to Dike Road where I hoped to get a great view of any swans traveling between the pond and the fields. I took up a spot not far from a dock that extends into the pond. Not only did I see Trumpeter swans, but also Canada geese, Northern pintails, Mallards, Hooded mergansers and others with which I was unfamiliar. The swans tended to travel in pairs or small groups, calling while in flight. They hang out just north of the pond, in the pond, in the waterway between it and the highway, and in the Dugualla Bay Farms’ fields.

Canada geese seem graceful and beautiful in flight. Watching them land is a different matter. The same is true for the seemingly super elegant swans. Although it was noisy (in a cool way), everyone seemed to get along…for the most part. Trumpeter swans and Canada geese spent a lot of time together without incident. I also saw Mallards and Hooded mergansers. The highlight of the day was an encounter with a gull with a black spot on the side of its head wandering alone along the shore just opposite the pond along Dike Road. My identification guide shows it to be a non-breeding adult Bonaparte’s gull. Fast fact from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, “The Bonaparte’s Gull is the only gull that regularly nests in trees.”

Once I became obsessed with Trumpeter swans, I started paying more attention to them and the Snow geese that filled the skies and fields in Skagit County. According to the 2019 HeraldNet article Look to Skagit Valley skies and waters for trumpeter swans, “Western Washington has more trumpeter swans than any other area on the mainland. There are least an estimated 15,000 trumpeters, thousands of them in Skagit and Whatcom counties,” “An adult has a wingspan of more than 7 feet and weighs 21 to 35 pounds,” and “More swans die of lead poisoning [from the lead shot hunters use] than collisions with power lines.” Talking to fellow birders, there are several good locations to spot both Trumpeter swans and Snow geese, but on any given day, you could spend a lot of time driving from one prospective location to another (to another and another) in order to track them down. Fortunately, when I do come upon them in a field (typically nowadays in Skagit County), I make the time to stop, look and listen (as I did when I noticed a flock of Snow geese in January of 2017), realizing just how lucky we are to have such an opportunity.

Back on Whidbey, I spent half an hour listening, watching and waiting for the opportunity to get some shots of swans in flight. And did, primarily as they left the water and returned to the land across Highway 20. Although I’m sad to see them go, I know they’ll be back next winter.

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