One of the special events of fall on San Juan Island is the return of the trumpeter swans from their breeding grounds in the Far North. Each late October or early November the majestic white birds – North America’s largest waterfowl – begin arriving here for their winter residency at our lakes, ponds, and seasonal wetlands.
The end of last week, it was time to begin looking for the trumpeters. I headed to the north end of the island to check on Sportsman’s Lake, Egg Lake, and other spots where I knew the swans would likely begin arriving. Sure enough, it was not long before I spotted nine adult trumpeters gathered at a favored retreat. It was a gorgeous fall afternoon and the sun was throwing bright white light on their massive bodies as they foraged methodically on aquatic vegetation along the edge of a popular lake. They were a bit wary of my presence – not surprising after the long flight - so I stayed only long enough to get a count and welcome them back for the winter.
It is always gratifying to report on a game management success story and the saga of the trumpeter swans surely fits the bill. In 1932, there were thought to be only sixty-nine trumpeters in existence, all in the vicinity of Yellowstone National Park. Even with the protection of the Migratory Bird Act of 1918, biologists thought there was little hope of bringing the birds back from the mass hunting slaughter that had driven them to the brink of extinction. The Red Rock Lakes Migratory Waterfowl Refuge was established in Montana in 1935 to protect the last breeding birds in the contiguous United States. From that site, many swans bred and were used to repopulate historical breeding grounds and wintering groups in Wyoming, South Dakota, and Minnesota.
There was also a bit of good luck. At the time of the initial swan census in the 1930s, only the Yellowstone population was counted. Overlooked was a small group of trumpeter swans in Alaska. As fate would have it, those swans may have formed the nucleus of the population that now winters in British Columbia, Washington State, and other locations along the Pacific Coast.
The recovery was slow but steady. By the mid-1970s, the first trumpeters were sighted here on San Juan Island and they have been returning every year since then seeking the safe refuge of our wetlands. Swans are now found on several islands in the archipelago including Lopez and Orcas where they also thrive.
It is believed that some of these swans may breed at the Minto Flats State Game Refuge west of Fairbanks, Alaska along the northern loop of the Tanana River. The refuge sustains one of the largest breeding populations of trumpeter swans in North America.
Our small group of overwintering trumpeters – which usually numbers less than ninety swans - provides a slender thread of continuity between two larger groups of trumpeter and tundra swans that winter in the Comox Valley on Vancouver Island and on the Skagit Flats. Other small flocks dot the western Washington landscape and stretch into Oregon.
Swans mate for life and the birds we see here are often family groups that have travelled together from Alaska and will remain together throughout the winter. The adults are snow white with a six-foot wing span, and their offspring are easily recognizable by their sooty gray plumage.
In the weeks to come, more trumpeters will likely arrive here from northern climes. Over the years, they have made good use of our varied wetland habitats from large lakes and ponds to smaller private wetlands and secluded bays during freezing and snowy weather. After the first of the year, many of the trumpeters move into San Juan Valley where they forage in flooded fields. Come mid-March, they gather in large flocks for the return flight to Alaska and their ancient breeding grounds.
For me, it is always a great privilege to see the magnificent swans here on the island and to honor the collaboration of conservation efforts and the welcoming of private landowners that has enabled the birds to find reliable refuge and to live peacefully here throughout the winter months.
The San Juan Preservation Trust, in conjunction with The Trumpeter Swan Society, has conducted swan surveys in the islands for many years. Volunteers monitor wetland habitats throughout the archipelago and report their sightings to The Trust where a long-term database is kept. If you would like to learn more about these fascinating birds and join in this important project, I highly recommend your giving the land conservation group a call. Counting swans is great fun and contributes to our knowledge of these iconic birds.
For now, may I suggest you keep watch at a wetland near you for the arrival of our esteemed winter visitors. They are the ultimate survivors - having made a tremendous comeback from the brink of extinction. The swans’ presence here each winter can give hope to us all that miracles do still happen.
SAN JUAN NATURE NOTEBOOK BY SUSAN VERNON / THE SWANS ARE BACK! © 2012 by Susan Vernon. No part of this column may be reproduced without the written permission of the author.
Portions of this column have been excerpted from Susan Vernon’s book Rainshadow World – A Naturalist’s Year in the San Juan Islands.