Wednesday, January 6, 2010


The Trumpeter Swan (Cygnus buccinator) formerly bred widely across the North American boreal forest, but by early in the 20th century it hovered on the brink of extinction because of overhunting, Since then it has been rigorously protected and managed, and it has bounced back and continues to increase.
When I arrived in Washington, we made special trips up to the Bellingham area to see Trumpeters at one of a few lakes where small wintering populations persisted. With four decades of additional protection, now thousands of them can be found wintering all over western Washington. It’s nice to have as many pluses as we can to compensate for the many minuses we suffer in overall biodiversity!
But we also have another species of swan in Washington, the arctic-breeding Tundra Swan (Cygnus columbianus). That species has remained more common over the years just because it is much more wide-ranging, but its populations seem more or less stable now, not increasing like those of the Trumpeter.
Nowadays both of these swans can be seen in large numbers in winter in northwest Washington. Trumpeters tend to winter on wooded lakes, Tundras on salt water or larger, open lakes, but here in Skagit and Whatcom counties, they find most of their food in farmlands. Some of these farmlands are managed specifically for the swans and Snow Geese that furnish spectacular displays of white winter waterfowl.
The two swans tend to forage in single-species flocks, but they also mix from time to time, usually a few of one species associated with a larger flock of the other. How do we tell them apart?
Tundra Swans are only about two-thirds the size of Trumpeters, as measured by weight, but they have to be seen in close proximity to be compared in this way. Their linear measurements are not so different, and all swans look big!
Most Tundra Swans have a small yellow spot between eye and bill, lacking in Trumpeter, but some Tundras lack that spot and look much like Trumpeters. The best way to distinguish these birds is by looking at the base of the bill adjacent to the eye. That area is broad in Trumpeter, so the eye looks like part of the bill, while it is usually distinctly constricted before the eye in Tundra, making the eye stand out.
This different configuration of the bill can present a different appearance at a distance, even in flight.
Being larger, Trumpeters may mature at a slightly later age, and they change more slowly from the gray immature to the white adult. In their first winter, Tundra Swans molt in many white or whitish feathers, so by midwinter the immatures are quite whitish. Trumpeters don’t do this, so by midwinter they are still leaden gray. Thus looking at the immatures is a good way to identify the species present in a flock. Even the whitest immatures are easily distinguished from adults by their dusky head.
Finally, the swan species have very different voices. That of the Trumpeter is a low-pitched sound that could be compared with an off-key trumpet. That of the Tundra is a higher-pitched honking, somewhat more musical than that of the Trumpeter, that might be likened to a flock of geese.

Dennis Paulson

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