He had seen the two great white birds with their long white necks and black bills. Nothing he had ever seen before in all his life had made him feel quite the way he felt, on that wild little pond, in the presence of those two enormous swans.
And so begins our Montana series of nature walk movies. When my friend Monica asked if there was a species I would most like to see in Montana, I didn’t hesitate to start with Trumpeter Swans. Best of all, she knew where there was a pair. When we got to the gate of Glacier National Park and the Ranger mentioned that not only swans were out there, but there were cygnets, I was crawling out of my skin with excitement.
Birders like to talk about their “spark bird” or the bird that got them started appreciating birds and birding. I think there are also “spark books”*, and the Trumpet of the Swan was definitely one of those for me, sparking a lifelong interest in observing nature. In fact, watching these birds took me so viscerally to the third grade, sneak-reading my book in one of those rectangular desks with the cubby beneath and the pencil slot on the top, hiding the book in the desk. I wanted to be Sam, watching swans nest in an alpine pond undisturbed by humans. And, 50 years later, I got to do just that.
We hiked about 2 miles uphill to an open meadow that surrounded a pond. Fed by glacial melt, this pond was an incredibly rich habitat for ducks (we saw no fewer than 3 Redhead broods) Sora, White-Tailed Deer, Elk, Common Yellowthroats, Red-Winged Blackbirds, Loons, and an incredible diversity of insects. We were the only humans there, and the wildlife wasn’t disturbed by us. At first, we only saw the adults. I didn’t want to bother them, so I meandered to the other side of the pond to look at some loons, when I heard a low whistle. I looked up to see my friends pointing. The swans had left their haven on land and were headed right for me!!!
This was truly one of those moments that stops you in wonder. When something so wild that you wallow in the moment, feeling like the world has chosen to reveal something so elemental and profound, it’s impossible to describe! Chris managed to capture my unfettered joy when I turned back to our little group.
Trumpeter Swans are North America’s largest native waterfowl. They can be over 6 feet long with an 8 foot wingspan. According to the Trumpeter Swan Society, the population of the continental US was down to an astonishing 69 individuals before earnest conservation measures kicked in. The Red Rock Lakes NWR in Montana was created specifically to help these populations. In 2015 the Rocky Mountain population (including Canada) included 11,700 individuals.
They are named for their trumpet-like call, which is unmistakable. I didn’t catch it on video because I was so surprised, so here is a recording from the McCaulay Library.
Trumpeter swans were overhunted for centuries for hats and pelts, but one of the largest human causes of mortality today is lead poisoning. Because swans feed on the bottom of the water, pulling vegetation by the roots, they accidentally ingest ammunition and fishing weights. This is one of the ways individuals can make a difference: be sure the shot you’re using is lead free (Required since 1991 on Federal Land, but states have a myriad of laws) and switch to lead free fishing weights.
Power line collisions, climate change, and habitat loss all also contribute to losses as well.
Alpine Pond Meadow Habitat
This meadow was alive with wildflowers, alpine freshwater marsh plants, a pair of nesting loons (more on that later) and a constant buzz of bees, dragonflies and other hatching insects. A browsing white-tailed deer actually photo-bombed my filming the swans, and an elk wandered through as well. A common yellowthroat scolded from a cottonwood tree and a western tanager gathered caterpillars from the brush. Here is a few minutes (with the occasional hushed voice) of that experience.
What's your spark book?
*I love learning about people’s spark books. Don’t hesitate to let me know: Girl of the Limberlost? Dicey’s Song? Call of the Wild? My Side of the Mountain? Or Trumpet of the Swan? It was my great pleasure to be an occasional resource for the authors of The Islanders, released last month. I’m hoping it will end up as a spark book as well.