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A Bird in Hand

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Now's the time to get out and see the swans

As you read this article the cold will have chased many of our summer visitors south, and I don’t just mean the birds! The passing of the seasons brings new birds into our area as others leave, so there never is a lull in birding opportunities. Counted among the best of these is the passage of the swans as they migrate out of the north and away from their tundra breeding grounds and toward their home-away-from-home somewhere in the southern part of our country or along the Pacific coast. We are fortunate to be located in an area that many migratory waterfowl travel through, and the swans are part of that feathered horde. As a family, swans are easy to identify: large white birds with elegant carriage, huge black beaks, and often with that long iconic S-curved neck—nothing comes close. But separating one from the other requires a bit more knowledge, and that is where I come in. Let me introduce you to Mr. Tundra and Ms. Trumpeter. Mute can speak for himself.

The most common swan you will see in our parts is the tundra swan. In fact, it might be the only swan you see. I have seen up to forty birds at a time resting on Lake Pend Oreille in the springtime, spending a few days recharging their flight batteries before taking the next leg of their trip north to, you guessed it, the tundra. These are large birds and not easily confused with anything else. Surprisingly, they are more often a dingy color than the storybook birds, but that doesn’t really detract from their beauty. Though size is difficult to judge while in the field, for the sake of statistics the tundra swan can weigh up to 20 pounds and have a wingspan of just over 75 inches. In comparison, another large bird in our area, the bald eagle, can just beat it in wingspan, but will weigh only half as much. Yes, the tundra swan is one big bird!

Since size is not always a good indicator of specie, a few handy field marks are helpful to keep in mind. First off, the tundra swan will typically have a bit of yellow at the base of its bill—something that is normally lacking in the other swans. In addition, the tundra swan is a bit more goose-like than the other swans you might see and doesn’t often sport that elegant curve to the neck. Instead, it tends to keep its head level and its neck straight. But wow, is it dramatic when it flies overhead! Juveniles are often easy to pick out of the flock since they tend to be grayer than the adults, though nearly as large.

In some of your older field guides, the tundra swan is listed as the whistling swan. This was changed a few years back when the whistling swan of North America and the Bewick’s swan of Eurasia were merged into the same specie. They are now considered to be conspecific, but I would not hold my breath. The taxonomy of birds seems to be fluid—modern genetic analysis to the contrary.

The other swan you might be lucky enough to see is the trumpeter swan. Much rarer than the tundra, though increasing in numbers, the trumpeter swan is the largest waterfowl in North America, perhaps in the world. This bird makes the tundra swan look like a duck! A large male might have a wingspan approaching 95 inches and tip the scales at 35 pounds. Those are impressive dimensions. It is no wonder these birds need a running start in order to get airborne.

For field marks, look for a large, almost oversize, black bill that seems to merge with the eyes. There will be no yellow anywhere to be found. In addition, the top of the head seems to follow the slope of the bill and isn’t rounded like the tundra swan. Lastly, the trumpeter is more apt to carry that distinctive and expected curve to the neck, which only adds to its allure. Similar to its cousin, the juvenile birds are distinctly more gray in color than the adults.

The last swan and one you probably won’t see outside of a zoo or city park is the mute swan. This is a large bird with a distinctive knob on the top of the bill. Walt Disney made this one famous. It is also a nasty and aggressive bird, and has proven to be a problem with the native trumpeters. The mute swan is a European import that has established breeding populations in some parts of the country. If you see one of these obnoxious, though gorgeous, birds in our area it is probably a domestic escapee. Big, beautiful, but vain—like some people I know. It also has an orange bill.

Keep your eyes peeled for these lumbering giants. They will either be passing north or south, depending on the season. But they are kind enough to allow us a good long gander before they head off into the blue. Happy skies!

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Author info

Michael Turnlund Michael Turnlund is a Sandpoint resident who teaches at Clark Fork High School. An avid birder, he's happy to share his knowledge of the area's avian wildlife

Tagged as:

birds, outdoors, swan, tundra swan, trumpeter swan

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