Earlier this month, I was watching two pied-billed grebes on a small pond in northern Blair County. A drake mallard flew in, and, as if on cue, when it splashed down a rare trumpeter swan popped out of a cattail thicket into the open water.
This was a surprise, but not a total shocker.
A few days earlier, my daughter, Lindera, and her husband, John Carter, discovered this lone trumpeter swan on the same pond — which lies just a few miles southwest of the Centre County line. The swan was wearing yellow wing tags bearing a T65 marking. When I left the pond late Friday afternoon, the swan had its head tucked back across its back, sleeping on the bank.
Several other birders traveled to the pond to see the swan that evening and over the weekend, but had no luck. We all thought it had moved on.
According to eBird records, a trumpeter swan was last spotted in Blair County at Canoe Creek State Park in January 2016. The only other reported sightings were at the same park in 2010 — so this swan was only the third reported Blair County sighting. Huntingdon, Clearfield and Clinton counties have just a few eBird-reported sightings, as well.
Centre County also has only had a few eBird-recorded sightings — most recently in April 2016 at the Curtin Wetland (discovered and photographed by Bill Fatula, of Howard). In May of that year, Kelly Johnson spotted a trumpeter swan — bearing yellow-tag L95 — in a pond along Buffalo Run Road.
Trumpeter swans are huge birds. In fact, with a weight of 20-30 pounds, a beak-to-tail body length of about 59 inches and a wing span of six to almost eight feet, they are the largest waterfowl in the world. By comparison, a Canada goose weighs considerably less than half and has a wingspan of 4 1/2 to 5 feet.
Trumpeters are sometimes confused with tundra swans, which are more common and also white. Tundra swans weigh approximately 14 pounds and have a wingspan of about 5 1/2 feet. Adult tundra swans have a yellow spot on the lores near their eye, while trumpeters have a longer bill with no yellow spot. Tundra swans are observed in our area each fall and spring, but not trumpeters.
Adult trumpeters are snow white with a large, mostly black bill. Juvenile birds, called cygnets, have a lot of gray or tan on their bodies. The bird tagged T65 was clearly a juvenile. Over the weekend, I learned that all trumpeter swans bearing yellow wing tags with black letters were banded in Ontario, Canada.
Trumpeter swans have a sad history, but a bright future.
Market hunting caused them to vanish from the Atlantic coast shortly after European colonists arrived on the scene. By the late 1800s, they were nearly extirpated in the Great Lakes and upper Midwest. According to Scott Weidensaul in Living On The Wind, “Even as the swans became rarer, the kill remained disastrously high; between 1853 and 1877 alone, the Hudson Bay Company sold more than 17,000 swan skins.”
By the early 1930s, only 69 Trumpeter Swans remained in the lower 48 states, and they were located in the Yellowstone region of the northwestern U.S. Fortunately, another previously unknown population was discovered in Alaska in the 1950s.
Now, back to my encounter.
I made myself comfortable as T65 swam toward me, and I started snapping photos. The real surprise came six minutes later. A loud splash caused me to look up — another trumpeter swan had arrived. This swan was snow white, with a little brown stain on its head. The staining comes from tannins in the waters where they feed on submerged aquatic vegetation.
The second swan spread its wings on the surface and displayed for T65. Although I did not notice it at first, the second trumpeter swan also had yellow wing tags bearing P68. I took more photos and just enjoyed the show.
I was hooked, and I had to learn more about these magnificent birds. I contacted Margaret Smith, Executive Director of the Minnesota-based Trumpeter Swan Society. Smith shared some information and referred me to the Ontario Swan Restoration program.
“P68 is a male, hatched in 2016 to parents A61 (a female) & J29 (a male), who nest near Cambridge, Ontario. He was banded on January 31, 2017, at LaSalle Park, Burlington, Ontario,” reported Kyna Intini of the Trumpeter Swan Restoration Program in Ontario. “We don’t have all that many sightings for P68. In May 2017, he was in St. George, Ontario, then on January 9, 2018, he was spotted in Cootes Paradise — a wetland on the west end of Hamilton Harbour in Ontario. It is interesting that he went farther south after that point. His parents always stay in our area (southern Ontario) all winter.”
The first swan (T65) has an even more interesting story. Its parents are also tagged and this swan family made restoration program history.
“T65 is a female, hatched in 2017 to parents H41 (male) and T50 (female). We do not know where they nested,” Intini said. “I banded T65 at LaSalle Park, on Dec. 29, 2017. She had a fishing hook in the corner of her mouth. I was able to catch her, remove the hook and I banded her at the same time.
“This family, H41 and T50 with 4 cygnets (T65 and three unbanded) is the first record that we have in our Ontario Restoration program of a family unit that had gone south of the border. We have had many individual birds go south, but not a family.”
According to Intini, the swan family arrived at LaSalle Park on Dec. 15, 2017, and stayed until Jan. 8, 2018. The family was next observed about 430 miles south in New Martinsville, W.Va,, on Jan 15. There were no reported sightings of T65 until it showed up on April 6, approximately 190 miles northeast, in front of me. Obviously, T65 left her family unit sometime during the winter.
Thirty-five years ago, there were no trumpeter swans in Ontario. The Ontario Trumpeter Swan Restoration Group formed in 1982 and changed that. They obtained a few wild birds and eggs from the western populations and released birds into the wild. Now, there are over 900 trumpeters in the Ontario group, and some members migrated during the winter into Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania.
Smith’s Trumpeter Swan Society has worked across North America to provide expertise, research, monitoring, funding, on-the-ground support, and outreach toward every major trumpeter swan conservation effort, restoration project, and management activity. While the organization is based in Minnesota, members work across North America to assure the vitality and welfare of wild trumpeter swans.
Thanks to the protection afforded by the Migratory Bird Treaty of 1918, and the efforts of the Ontario Restoration Group and the Trumpeter Swan Society, today we have trumpeter swans to enjoy in the eastern states.
“It is exciting to get reports of swans in the eastern United States,” Smith said. “Trumpeter swans are slowly but surely finding their way to new areas in the Atlantic Flyway. You are seeing the pioneering swans making history in your area. How absolutely thrilling.”
Mark Nale, who lives in the Bald Eagle Valley, is a member of the Pennsylvania Outdoor Writers Association and can be reached at MarkAngler@aol.com