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Monday, November 22, 2010

The Valley is Filling Up…*

First trumpeters

All suddenly mount/And scatter wheeling in great broken rings/Upon their clamorous wings.

W.B. Yeats  “The Wild Swans at Coole.”

With swans. They have been here nearly two weeks now, arrived Wednesday before last after the Valley’s first frost. Skeins of them have been drifting by all morning. The Valley’s first snow, I believe, has them on the move.

It’s only been the past half dozen years that these trumpeters have wintered here, making themselves at home in the fields of corn stubble. Winter before last there must have been five hundred or so foraging in the Valley. Swans winging it

The first trumpeters I ever saw were in Teton National Park back in the ‘60’s. A pair heralded their presence as they glided across the marsh adjacent to our campground. In those days trumpeters (Cygnus buccinator) were an endangered species. Overhunting and a demand for feathers thinned the species to endangered status. Thanks to the restoration and preservation of their nesting sites, as well as other conservation efforts, trumpeters have made a dramatic comeback. Their noisy presence in the Valley these days is testimony to their resurgence.

Noisy? If the Valley had ordinances curbing excessive noise, those garrulous honkers would be ordered to quit the fields. The descriptor “graceful,” by which this large waterfowl is often referenced, definitely does not apply to swan song, which to my ears sounds much the same as the melody a herniated bicycle squeeze horn might produce. A yodeler with strep throat? A traffic jam in Manhattan? A host of vuvuzelas at a World Cup soccer match? Or a concert of the previous combined? A swan’s discordant honking is always a surprise, much as a beautiful woman whose laugh is that of a lumberjack’s. Yeats waxed poetic with “clamorous,” but he has a poet’s license and in the case of swan “music,” a knack for understatement.

Consider Yeats’ poem: his swans were a’swimmin,’ and there’s no more beautiful craft than a swan afloat. In fact one of my favorite place names is “Swansea,” a port city in south-east Wales. A “sea of swans”—an image of pristine beauty riding the waves.

But you take a grounded swan or even a swan aloft, and elegance and grace go out the window. An airborne trumpeter or a landlubber swan is an odd duck indeed. I wonder what school of aerodynamics crafted a trumpeter? Pilot and navigator at such distance from the propulsion system: wings, engines and tail section always struggling to keep up, the “lumbering” ( (with apologies to the Irish poet) pinions and tail so far aft and landing gear trailing behind. It seems a little more planning should have gone into the trumpeter’s design. (Give a duck its due; a duck is body/neck proportionate.) Wonder what the folks at Boeing could have come up with? Ah, but then there’s that Dreamliner business…. North America’s largest waterfowl looks a bit cumbersome on the wing; like a helicopter, a swan just looks like it shouldn’t be airborne. Perhaps the trumpeter was the prototype for the McDonnell-Douglas “80,” the long neck of the swan, the elongated, missile-like fuselage of the aircraft. Both look like their tail sections could snap off at the slightest turbulence. At least swans don’t carry passengers.

When swans are present and I’m out and about in the Valley, my presence does not go unnoticed, nor does theirs. Across the safety of open space, trumpeters monitor my movements, necks  protruding like periscopes, bodies squat and fat like the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine. They find my intrusion disconcerting and trumpet their displeasure as I pass. On gnarly webbings--a pedicurist’s nightmare, I’m sure--they waddle about, but regardless are ever vigilant to my location. A swans’ motto: safety first.

I find the trumpeters’ landing behavior also fascinating. Some celestial control tower signals them to circle the patch three times before they throw back their broad wings and drop to earth at last. You would think the grounded flock they join would encourage the newcomers to forego their numerous circuits of the landing site and bid them land among friends. I thought the birds gleaned the corn that escaped the chopper’s blades but have since heard that it’s the roots of the corn stalks they feed upon. I’m not sure which is the case; perhaps the latter because the swans remain in the fields for months and what else would sustain them that long.snowy cornfield

One statistic I read stated that Washington State now has the largest trumpeter swan population in the United States. At a distance trumpeters might be mistaken for tundra swans. The two species are distinguished one from the other in that tundra swans are smaller and have a yellow patch between the black beak and eye. Trumpeters are the larger swan and lack that golden patch; the black beak blending with the eyes. Both juvenile trumpeters and tundras are grayish brown. Because of the birds’ wariness birders have to use spotting scopes to determine if both species are foraging together.

In past years numbers of dead swans were found in Skagit County, victims of lead poisoning biologists determined. The birds had ingested lead shot from spent shotgun cartridges fired from duck and goose hunters’ shotguns. The birds scooped up the pellets like sand and gravel to help grind and digest their food. Three lead pills swallowed were enough to kill a swan. To correct the problem, hunters were required to use steel shot in their loads. Away from the watercourses that attract ducks and geese, the Valley cornfields seem a safe feeding ground for them

If this post has made trumpeters out to be ugly ducklings, I don’t mean it so. It’s just that these birds are such a curiosity. I enjoy their languid flight, purposeful swan chatter, and ungainly movements earthbound. On my Valley walks the trumpeters are welcome company.Their random passage overhead, incessant circling and honking, enliven a desolate landscape. They are winter’s gift to the Valley.

Nineteen years spanned Keats’ first and second experience with these “clamorous” waterfowl. In “Wild Swans at Coole” the poet at his second sighting laments a lost love, a lost youth in the interim. We have all lost loves and youth is fleeting, but the vitality of these noisy, awkward, elegantly brilliant birds resonates with me. I will watch them every chance I get. Watch until spring calls them forth, and the Valley quiets once again. 

*Post script—additional information. Before I published today’s post, I had emailed The Trumpeter Swan Society of Washington for information on the conservation status of the trumpeter species. The post went to “press” before the information was available. This afternoon Martha Jordan of the Trumpeter Swan Society sent me a friendly response. According to Martha the trumpeter swan was never listed as “endangered” or “threatened” because the laws did not exist when the bird was imperiled. By the time the statutes were passed, trumpeters were increasing in number and there was no need to list them as endangered. Swans are protected by ordinances governing migratory waterfowl; there is no hunting season on trumpeters.

Martha also told me the waterfowl were once listed  as “sensitive” in Washington State but the Pacific Coast population is increasing at the rate of five per cent annually. The swans visit the cornfields, she told me, not for the corn stalk roots but for the residual corn which provides them with essential carbohydrates to restore the stores lost during the swans’ southern migration.

Concern over lead poisoning prompted a study of the problem in Whatcom County, and as a part of that study, some swans were banded with neck bands. Some of these banded swans have been seen in the Valley fields. A year or so ago I noted a Valley swan with something strange on its neck but thought the bird had just “stuck its neck out” where it didn’t belong and became entangled in something.

Thank you, Martha, for your considerate response and the interesting information. Those with other questions or concerns about our Valley trumpeters may direct them to the Society’s website which you can access by clicking the genus/species link in this post.

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