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Trumpeters are first to arrive in Alaska and last to leave

John Schandelmeier
ERIK HILL / Anchorage Daily News

The swans have returned to the Copper Basin. One can set the calendar by them, because for as long as I can remember, they show up at the outlet of Paxson Lake on April 6.

Usually a pair arrives first. This spring it was a pair and a single. More have followed this past week and soon they will be scattered on bits of open water at the outlets of area lakes, patiently waiting for the thaw. These are trumpeter swans, the largest waterfowl in North America.

A wing span of eight feet and occasional weights in excess of 30 pounds characterize trumpeters. Alaska's similar species, the tundra swan or whistling swan (called so because of the noise of their wings), is smaller. It is difficult to tell them apart by size alone unless they are side by side.

One way to distinguish the two is by location. Trumpeters nest mostly in the Interior while the tundra swan nests primarily in the west and north coastal areas of our state.

This isn't foolproof, but it's a good start. If one is close enough, say a hundred yards or so, a quick look at the head can give a positive ID. Both birds have a black beak, however. Trumpeters have the black from their beak running on through their eye, while the whistler has a definite break. Also, most tundra swans have a small yellow spot just behind their beak.

I often wonder why either of these types of swan bother to migrate to Alaska. They are perfectly capable of nesting at or near the areas where they winter.

Indeed, none of the introduced flocks in the Lower 48 travel far. It seems like migration sends them on an ecological tightrope -- a long flight with marginal feed and an extremely short breeding season. The long northern days and abundant feed at journey's end must make the effort worthwhile.

Nesting occurs as soon as they can lay their clutch of two to seven eggs without having them freeze. It takes more than a month for the eggs to hatch, and the young don't fly until they are at least 14 weeks old.

Almost every season there are young trumpeter swans that don't make it out of here in the fall. One of the parent birds always hangs with them as late as possible. I have seen them trying to get off the water into the first part of November.

Travel has always been risky for this big bird. During the early 1900s they were hunted almost to extinction in the Lower 48. The quills from their flight feathers were prized for pens. Market hunters sold skins and meat. The population of trumpeters plummeted until there were less than a hundred remaining in the contiguous states.

The Alaska population remained relatively healthy but was mostly unknown until the 1950s. Today there are over 20,000 trumpeter swans, and many of them nest in the Copper River Basin.

They are protected from hunting over most of their range; a few are shot for food in Alaska, but the take is minimal. The swans' biggest danger is from ingesting lead shot in the fields and ponds where they stop to feed during migration.

Development has reduced feeding habitat along their route, so swans have switched to grain fields. Lead shot is outlawed for waterfowl, but not for upland birds. As few as three lead pellets can kill a swan. The shot is picked up as grit to utilize in digesting food. The lead then enters the blood stream and paralyzes the digestive system, starving the bird in two or three weeks.

It is safer in Alaska. Once they arrive on the breeding grounds they are in isolated ponds where they rely on vegetation and grasses. Adult birds have few predators -- not many foxes want to tackle a 30-pound swan. Wolves may take a few and nests can be somewhat vulnerable to a variety of predators. A sow grizzly and three cubs once swam out to a nest along the roadside near Paxson and ate the eggs.

Fall migration is always hazardous, though Alaska trumpeters don't make the long extended flights that tundra swans undertake. Our birds winter along the southern coast of British Columbia and down throughout Puget Sound. Interestingly, we will see them sleeping on land most of the summer months, but during the winter they sleep exclusively on the water.

Swans are the first and last migrants to use our water. They will be sitting on the ice waiting for open water in the spring and floating on the water waiting for ice in September.

Maybe we aren't that different in the Copper River Basin, waiting for green leaves in the spring and celebrating the first snow in the fall.

John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan, former Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and two-time Yukon Quest champion.