Graced by the swans’ return | Field Notes

Gary Eduardo Perless
Posted 1/28/22

 

The new year floated in gracefully, like a flock of snow-white swans arriving from afar.

For more than a week, the gift of Christmas snowfall blanketed the land, inviting us busy humans …

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Graced by the swans’ return | Field Notes

Trumpeter swans swim in a winter pond on Short’s Family Farm, Chimacum Valley.
Trumpeter swans swim in a winter pond on Short’s Family Farm, Chimacum Valley.
Photo courtesy of Gary Eduardo Perless
Posted

 

The new year floated in gracefully, like a flock of snow-white swans arriving from afar.

For more than a week, the gift of Christmas snowfall blanketed the land, inviting us busy humans to slow down and savor the season. Now, with the lowland snows melted, and the days growing longer, I suspect that all creatures are feeling a primal longing for sunshine, inspired by the hints of spring. The light is returning!

Two of my great joys during the winter are getting out on sunny days, and witnessing the annual return of the trumpeter swans; the latter is more predictable.

Each winter, the ponds in Chimacum Valley fill with water, and passers by can pause to marvel at a flock of migratory swans who have once again returned from their distant birthplace in the remote wilds of Alaska. Before you go to visit, take some time to learn about swans, and respect their need for tranquility. (See resources below).

It is truly a Sun-day in early January, and I’m giddy with excitement as I pull the car over to the side of Center Valley Road to catch my first glimpse of the swans this year.

At first, I stay in the car, and content myself to watch with binoculars, knowing that swans are easily stressed by human presence.

I’m aware their population has bounced back from the brink of extinction — thanks to decades of conservation effort to protect their winter habitat, and reduce poisoning from lead shot. Slowly, I get out of the car and approach, tuning in to their awareness of me.

Amazingly, I count at least a hundred — the most I’ve ever seen here. The all-white feathers of adult birds dazzle the eyes, while the youngsters’ grayish white plumage suggests the soft clouds overhead. Some graze on grass or dabble (tip up) to reach aquatic plants in shallow water. Long, flexible necks come in handy!

Of the seven swan species worldwide, the trumpeter swan (Cygnus buccinator), is the largest — 5-feet-long, with an 80-inch wingspan — making them the largest of all waterfowl in North America.

Adult birds can weigh more than 20 pounds — the world’s heaviest flying bird — and thus need open spaces for takeoffs and landings.

In the spring, they will leave our area, migrating more than a thousand miles up to their nesting areas on Alaskan tundra lakes. 

It’s a race against time, a lot to accomplish in the four months book-ended by spring “break-up” and fall “freeze-up.”

In the long days of Arctic summer, both parents collect plant material to build their nest mound, near a pond. Mom sits on her four to six eggs for more than a month, but the hatchlings don’t begin to fly for another three months. Pairs stay together throughout the year and often migrate and over winter in family groups and with other waterfowl, including tundra swans, canada geese, and northern pintail ducks.

As human settlement near lakes has displaced them from former winter habitats, Trumpeter Swans have become dependent on dairy farms, which offer grass, shallow water, and especially the wide-open spaces the big birds need for take off and landing.

The swans, like the cows, thrive when they graze on lush green grass —  the swans come to Short’s Farm in Chimacum Valley because of the manna grass, a highly nutritious native grass.

There are other places on the Olympic Peninsula they visit, including lakes, estuaries, and shallow wetlands. But if the water becomes too deep, they’ll move on to other areas.

Swans are iconic, semi-mystical creatures, long been represented by diverse cultures in works of art, dance, mythology, and literature.

Ancient Greeks named the constellation Cygnus after the swan, while Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake,” based on a Russian folktale about a princess turned into a swan.

An artist’s last work, or a farewell appearance is referred to as their “Swan Song” — but Led Zeppelin’s string of best-selling records (on Swan Song Records) in the 1970s became anything but that. 

There’s even a metaphorical theory of “black swan event,” which was based on an ancient saying that presumed black swans did not exist.

After the first European explorers encountered the black swan in western Australia, around 1700, the meaning of the term evolved to mean an unexpected event, with great impact.

Swans have left their mark on us, and I’m looking forward to more white swan events this winter!

To learn more about swans, check out these web pages:

Northwest Swan Conservation Association (nwswans.org)

www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Trumpeter_Swan/overview

Union Bay Watch: Seattle photographer Larry Hubbell posts photos of swans (and many other birds) at his blog, unionbaywatch.blogspot.com/2016/01/the-worlds-largest-swans.html.

Gary Eduardo Perless is the education director with Admiralty Audubon Society. Contact him at gperless@gmail.com.

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