Wild Moments with Winter Trumpeters

WILDER SIDE OF OAKLAND COUNTY

Seeing a Trumpeter Swan for the very first time can be an unforgettable and beautiful experience. They are truly majestic birds with snowy white feathers; jet-black bills, feet, and legs; and a wingspan of almost eight feet. They are stunning, even when at rest on an icy creek or at the edge of a partially frozen pond. Not that long ago, it was next to impossible to view a trumpeter anywhere in Michigan, let alone in Oakland County.

One no longer needs to search faraway wetlands to view these majestic birds. With 2020 shaping up to be another historically mild winter in Southeastern Michigan, causing lakes to be mostly ice free, these once critically endangered birds that teetered at the edge of extinction in the early 1900s can now be found right here in Oakland County, and January is turning out to be no exception.

Birds know no borders. With that fact in mind, I will mention that with the exception of the lead and final images, all of the images that illustrate today’s blog were captured this winter and last winter in three local locations. Those locations are a small pond in Brandon Township near an ITC corridor, the City of Pontiac’s Beaudette Park, and just over the county line at the Metamora-Hadley Recreation Area in Lapeer County. I had the good fortune to photograph the colorful lead image of a family of Trumpeter Swans last winter as I hiked the Otter Creek Trail Loop at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore on a spectacular sunny day.

I’ve been asked why Trumpeter Swans don’t fly south, “like other birds do.” Trumpeter Swans are powerful flyers, but they need not migrate if they find habitat where streams and ponds remain ice free during the winter. However, there is one caveat, those open water environments must provide an easily obtainable food source. As for the cold, that is not a real issue for Trumpeters. They have an unusually dense layer of down that insulates them from extreme cold, so as long as the water remains at least partially ice free, there is no need to migrate.

By this time of the year, most ponds and wetlands are usually frozen over and only creeks and streams with strong currents flow freely. This winter, our open water increases the chances of seeing trumpeters in both traditional isolated wetland habitats, and at times, in more urban areas, such as within the City of Pontiac.

There were common factors in the locations where I photographed the trumpeters. Foremost is open shallow water with accessible submerged vegetation and a lack of disturbance from humans, coupled with some sort of buffer that keeps people at a distance. That buffer might just be water, but sometimes a steep icy bluff or thickets of shrubs above the river or pond serve the purpose. The general wariness of Trumpeter Swans that exists during nesting season decreases remarkably in winter. In each case, as I captured images using my telephoto lens, the swans were either resting or feeding, making it easier to approach within viewing range without causing a disturbance.

I especially enjoyed witnessing their “bottoms up” feeding technique, a totally puzzling phenomena for someone that does not understand that behavior. Trumpeters feed on a variety of submerged vegetation including roots of aquatic plants with a process called up-ending, which many, including myself refer to as “bottoms up” feeding, the same process used by dabbling ducks. In some circumstances, their very large webbed feet take on importance during feeding. They are pumped up and down in shallow water over edible roots and loose vegetative matter to create a mini-current of water that frees the plants from the muddy bottom. That action will also attract ducks to the disturbance that will then join in the feast of materials that float about, which may be why the mallards near the Otter Creek Trumpeters stayed very close to them.

Winter viewing is always exciting, but can sometimes be confusing for a novice, especially when one hopes to spot a trumpeter. A few years ago, I went on a winter kayaking adventure on the Huron River within the Proud Lake State Recreation Area. We knew Trumpeters had been sighted near Milford and then encountered Mute Swans resting near the shoreline as we reached a wide point of the river not far from town. They were quickly and mistakenly identified by excited members of the group as Trumpeter Swans. It’s actually easy to tell the species apart with the most notable difference being the bright orange bill of the mute, versus the black bill of the trumpeter. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources is rightfully not pleased with the soaring and problematic population of Mute Swans. They write, “Mute swans were introduced to North America in the mid-1800s to decorate parks and estates, and later brought to Michigan in 1919. These captive swans escaped and established a feral population. With their numbers growing quickly, this non-native invasive species is causing conflicts and damage across the state.” Additional information about Mute Swans in Michigan can be found on the Michigan DNR website.

Our native Trumpeter Swans are heralded as a conservation success story by the United States and Canada. Historically, Trumpeter Swans were common throughout the Great Lakes Region. On his travels along the Detroit River in 1701, the French explorer Antoine de Lamothe Cadillac reported “such large numbers [of swans] that the rushes among which are massed might be taken for lilies [white].” However by the late 1800s, the trumpeter was hunted nearly to extinction for their feathers, meat, eggs and even their down-covered skin which was turned into powder puffs for cosmetics. Their quills were used for pens and it has been said John James Audubon, the famous naturalist and birder, preferred Trumpeter Swan feather quills to any others for his writings and sketches.

By the dawn of the 20th century they were believed extinct, but then small populations were discovered hidden away in remote mountain valleys of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. Yellowstone National Park was established in 1871 and in 1919 two trumpeter nests were discovered in the park. The Passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 gave them legal protection and helped curb illegal killing, but did little to increase their numbers at first. Conservation efforts surged ahead in 1935 when the Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in Montana’s Centennial Valley was established to protect their remnant Trumpeter population. Of importance, the area’s hot springs provided year-round open waters where trumpeters could find food, even in extremely cold water. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service then set to work to improve conditions at the refuge which including protecting their muskrat population, a reminder that in the world of nature all things are connected. Biologists had noted that trumpeters favored constructing nests on top of muskrat houses built in wetlands. The refuge personnel also restricted livestock grazing in the refuge and provided winter food to encourage the population to stay in that protected location. By the late 1950s, the Trumpeter Swan population increased to around 600 birds and numbers have steadily increased since then with conservation, protection, habitat conservation and management, and public education efforts.

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources began its Trumpeter Swan restoration program in 1986 in cooperation with Michigan State University’s Kellogg Bird Sanctuary and several zoological parks. Reintroduction methods included cross-fostering (eggs placed under feral Mute Swans) and releasing two year-old swans from Alaska. From 1986 through 1989, a total of 44 Trumpeter Swan eggs were placed under feral Mute Swans. Records show that of the thirty-one eggs that hatched, only six cygnets survived to flight. Michigan discontinued cross-fostering and from 1989 through 1994, 134 Trumpeters were released in Michigan. Two release areas were selected, one at Seney National Wildlife Refuge in the Upper Peninsula and the other near Kalamazoo. The goal of Michigan’s recovery program was to establish two flocks of 100 swans each by the year 2000, a goal that was quickly met and superseded, but the swans remain on the Threatened Species list.

In the most recent survey conducted, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service 2015 North American Trumpeter Swan Survey, the estimate of Trumpeter Swan abundance in North America was 63,016, a truly remarkable change from the 69 documented Trumpeter Swans in 1935. Exact numbers locally are unknown, but sightings of these majestic birds are no longer a rare event in Oakland County. Weather conditions remain favorable for wild moment encounters with the trumpeters in our midst.

Jonathan Schechter is the Nature Education Writer for Oakland County Government and blogs weekly about nature’s way, trails, and wildlife on the Wilder Side of Oakland County.


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