The last of Alaska’s trumpeter swans are headed south

It seems late in the season to be talking about trumpeter swans. The caribou have headed east, the sandhill cranes are halfway to Saskatoon and Alaskan sled dogs are training on good snow. Yet, the trumpeter swans are just now overhead on their way south.

Big groups of trumpeters, leaving the big lakes in the Copper River Basin are making their way through Delta Junction on their way south. Trumpeters always pass through Delta this time of the year. They are the last migrating waterfowl we see in any numbers. Normally the swans are vocal on their way south. Heavy snow on the ground has changed that. The big birds are in clean wedges, moving steadily with very little noise.

There are few, if any, young birds in the flights. The young that managed to make it this far into the season are likely still on the water getting ready to go. And — they will have a tough go. A late hatch and early snow will limit options for youngsters.

Fortunately, most of the trumpeter swans don’t have too far to travel. Many of the birds pass through Delta Junction on their way to the coast. There are an estimated 13,000 trumpeters that breed in Alaska (about 80% of the world population). My best guess is that I have seen nearly a third of those birds over our house in the past week.

Trumpeters have a penchant for night travel. Many times we only hear the birds. However, knowing the general flock sizes allows us to estimate the numbers overhead. Between noon and 4 p.m. on Thursday afternoon. I was able to count eight flocks, totaling just over one thousand birds.

A “flock” is not really the proper term for a group of swans. Flying, they are usually called a wedge. They are also called bevies, herds, a game or a flight. On the ground, they can be called a “bank.”

Swans have memories like elephants. They won’t forget you if you are kind to them.

We think of trumpeters as mating for life. They do indeed; as long as both of the birds live. However, birds that lose a mate in the first couple years after courtship will generally replace that mate before the next breeding season.

The birds that are passing through Delta these first couple weeks of October are traveling fairly low. They will begin to gain altitude and will most likely climb out and drop over to the coastal areas a bit north of Juneau. This is just a best guess as the exact route of specific populations is not well known. Our Southcentral swans winter their way down the Southeast coast, working their way all the way to Puget Sound if necessary.

Big birds are tough. They can handle a fair amount of weather. When they need to move for feed purposes; they can travel at 60 mph. Some years back, I remember tooling along through Isabel Pass in my Storch and being startled by a group of one hundred plus swans zipping by my window. Some of the birds cocked their heads and looked in the windscreen as they passed. I added power and dropped in at the tail of the wedge, but needed to increase my speed to do so.

The trumpeters are mostly gone for another season. However, it won’t be long before they return. They will be massing by the thousands on the Yukon River near Whitehorse in late March and early April — on their way back to the Copper River Basin. And, should you be a person who just can’t stand to be without those big beautiful swans — you can always go out a purchase a pair of your own. I see a pair listed for sale at a reasonable $9,720. They are federally protected bird in most places, so don’t forget to register your bird.