…big, beautiful, territorial… and threatened

One of the great treats of fall is finding a group of these huge white birds hanging out on a pond somewhere, maybe resting, preening, feeding a bit, or just gliding elegantly from here to there. The swans I see here are usually are trumpeter swans. They really are big: the wingspan is about six and a half feet, in the same size range as that of an eagle. But they weigh about twenty-two to twenty-six pounds, more than twice the typical weight of an eagle.

Their feet are correspondingly large. We are used to seeing the webbed footprints of ducks and gulls, but one could fit several duck footprints into a single swan footprint. Years ago, I stood with a couple of friends on the snowy ice of the Old River Channel, marveling at the footprints of swans, which are six or seven inches long. Given the size of the bird, perhaps this is not disproportionate.

Photo by Jos Bakker

Trumpeter swans that nest in Alaska generally spend the winter somewhere along the coast of Southeast Alaska, British Columbia, and Washington. They could be found anywhere there is open water and food, but some spots are particularly attractive, such as the Skagit Valley and waters near Vancouver Island.

Swans are primarily herbivorous, eating aquatic vegetation, but they also ingest invertebrates along with leaves and tubers, and occasionally eat fish and fish eggs.

Trumpeters are very territorial when nesting, defending their space not only from other swans but also from various other waterfowl. They are monogamous, sometimes just for one season, sometimes for the long-term. Both male and female build their nest (mostly the female), and she may start to lay her eggs before the nest is quite complete. The usual clutch size is four to six eggs, laid almost two days apart. Incubation, mostly by the female, starts before the clutch is complete, so the eggs do not hatch synchronously. Rather than incubating their eggs with the warm skin of a featherless brood patch on the belly, as most birds do, trumpeters cover the eggs with their huge feet, which have a good supply of blood vessels that carry warm blood.

Incubation takes four to five weeks. When the eggs hatch, the chicks (called cygnets) are brooded for a day or two; after that, the adults may brood them at night and during bad weather. When the cygnets leave the nest, they follow their parents for three to four months, learning how to find food. The adults actually help the very young cygnets, by treading the mud to stir up vegetation and invertebrates. The average brood size in Alaska is reported to be about three cygnets. Sometimes broods of different parents join up, possibly as a way to increase access to food (more stirring) or to decrease the risk of predation (more eyes looking).

They are slow to reach maturity, typically taking four to seven years before they breed. In any one year, however, only a fraction of the population is reported to breed.

Formerly widespread and abundant, trumpeter swans are now much reduced in number, because of habitat loss and overhunting. Breeding populations are scattered across central Alaska to the Midwest, the Pacific Northwest, and western Canada. Some of these remnant populations are still at risk from loss of good habitat and lead poisoning (from lead shot and fishing weights). This species is now protected—it is illegal to hunt trumpeters (as of 2017), and restoration efforts have led to a moderate increase in numbers.

The tundra swan, also called the whistling swan, is considerably smaller, weighing roughly thirteen pounds. It breeds in tundra ponds across the Arctic of North America and Eurasia. On the nesting grounds, tundra swans are territorial and monogamous; the pair bond is commonly maintained year-round. They mature at age three to five years. Both parents tend the three to five eggs, for about a month, and attend the growing cygnets. Our populations migrate south to winter mostly on the east and west coasts; those from western Alaska stay in the west, while those from the north go to the east coast. Family groups often migrate together.

It is legal to hunt tundra swans, but not trumpeters, so it is important to be able to distinguish the two species. One criterion is obviously size: tundras are roughly two-thirds the size of trumpeters, by weight. Their wingspan is about five and a half feet, less than that of a trumpeter. The shape of the forehead of tundras is steeper than on trumpeters, which have a more sloping profile. Viewed face-on, the border of the forehead where it meets the bill is either rounded (tundra) or v-shaped (trumpeter). And tundra swans usually have a yellow patch at the base of the bill near the eye, a patch that trumpeters lack.

The hunting pressure on tundra swans is high, and only some of it is within the regulations. Many more are killed by hunting outside of the regulations, including native subsistence, than by the regulated hunts. Undoubtedly, some trumpeters are killed illegally, sometimes by mistake, sometimes clandestinely.

There’s always something

finding little treasures on and off the trails

One day, as we walked along, a friend remarked: “You know, on every hike there’s always something spectacular or interesting or beautiful—some good memory to take home, in addition to enjoying some exercise and sociability.”

Although of course not everyone agrees on what is worth noting and remembering, on three hikes in late October and early November, I think there was consensus regarding the “take-homes.” All of these were flat, easy hikes, but all yielded some good thoughts.

Cowee Creek bridge to Echo Cove: Through the woods and meadow and along the beach, we noted little of special biological interest: not much sign of bears, no recent fish carcasses, very few birds. But it was spectacular—the sun was shining (!), and there was a fierce north wind screaming down Lynn Canal, stirring up huge waves and whipping veils of spray off the wave crests. In the background, the Chilkats gleamed with fresh snow.

Crow Point trail along Eagle River: We found lots of small things of interest. Many critters had left signs of their passing. There were scats of goose, bear, probable coyote and marten, and tracks of otter in the sand. A big crowd of crows was hanging out at a distant edge of the tide flats, occasionally flying up and dropping small items (?mussels?). We guessed that there must be a few rocks out there, if the crows were thinking to crack open some shells. Bears had been digging roots of wild parsnip and riceroot. Chum salmon skeletons had been spread around by high tides; they already had a coating of green algae.

There were small mysteries too. The B-B-size seed capsules of starflower were covered with a white ‘bloom’ and the contents looked like dirt. Could they be afflicted by a fungus? We saw squirrels extracting seeds from spruce cones and a flock of crossbills checking out the cones that remained on the trees. But all the cones we inspected had almost no seeds left. The red squirrel may be able to detect full cones by smell or heft, but how do crossbills know if a cone is well loaded with seeds? Trial and error?

The sun peeked out briefly, in time for our little picnic lunch. We were attended by a raven, who wouldn’t come down for treats, perhaps because we had a (well-behaved) dog with us. After we left, and turned back along the beach, the raven circled us with one of the treats in its bill, almost as if it was saying ‘Look, I got it!’ I don’t really imagine it was saying thank you. It’s more likely it was hoping for another ! Naturally, I provided.

Dredge Lake area: this was a mild day with very hazy sun and a few inches of fresh, wet snow on the ground. Our several attempts at some off-trail bushwhacking were thwarted by high water levels. But the soft snow recorded tracks of squirrels, hares, beavers, mink, an eagle, and perhaps an otter. As we ambled up the beach of Mendenhall Lake, the mists that hid the mountains gradually parted and, one by one, McGinnis, then Bullard, then Thunder showed themselves. The vista toward the glacier was indeed a beauty—if, as a friend commented, one has learned to love shades of gray and silver!

Even cruising down Egan Drive had some good moments, such as a flock of swans winging south. There was a family of swans near the Vanderbilt junction: two adults and three big, gray cygnets. A rare treat for me!

The next time we get one of those dismal, gloomy stretches, with slatting rain during the few hours of what passes for daylight, I’ll remember the good days and all the little treasures thereof.