Time-lapse produced by Carlee Koehler
The first time I saw a trumpeter swan in the wild, up close, I was so cold I couldn’t feel my face. It was early January along Blue Creek in the western Nebraska Sandhills, and most of the high plains lakes, rivers and streams were locked in ice after a long procession of zero-degree days, except for a wedge of open water right in front of me.
I was lying prone on a high bank facing into a gusting north wind, hiding in a tiny blind fashioned out of garden fence and meadow hay that my rancher friend Myron and I put in place on his land a month before. Maybe 100 yards upstream was a powerful spring pulsing up from the aquifer below with such force that even in the depths of winter, it remained ice-free.
Each night a group of swans would settle in to roost near the spring. In the mornings, they would wait until the north wind would pick up, making waves that would chip away at the ice creating an open channel that would grow in length throughout the day downstream. As the channel moved forward, the swans would be on its leading edge as if willing it forward, using their long necks to reach far below the surface to glean a smorgasbord of tubers and other aquatic plants in these icy waters. Other wintering waterfowl would join them in their wake: mallards and common mergansers, goldeneye and Canada geese. But in the immensity of this vast prairie landscape, it wasn’t until I could see these other birds side by side that I could really appreciate how big these swans were, and oh how heavenly white.
Trumpeter swans are the largest waterfowl in the world and the heaviest flying birds in North America. A big male can weigh over 30 pounds, and his wingspan can stretch to nearly eight feet. They once ranged widely from breeding grounds in the Upper Midwest and Canada as far north and west as interior Alaska; long-distance migrating populations would winter as far south as the Texas Gulf Coast.
In Nebraska, the vast expanse of mixed-grass prairie ranchlands and aquifer-fed wetlands that make up the 19,000-square mile Nebraska Sandhills were believed to be the southern end of their breeding range in the prairie states. This fact still holds true. But we nearly lost trumpeter swans a century ago due to wetland habitat loss and unregulated hunting. Just like in the rest of this young country, the menagerie of wildlife and wildlands that once existed before Euro American settlement was spiraling downward, and by the early 20th-century trumpeter swans, along with another large white bird, the whooping crane, were nearly extinct.
But in the early 1900s, a couple of significant things happened that provided a glimmer of hope. A flock of 70 trumpeter swans was discovered in a remote area of Yellowstone. This population gave conservationists a seed source for trumpeter reintroduction efforts elsewhere in the Lower 48 states, and Congress passed a series of bold conservation laws to regulate hunting and protect migratory birds and their habitats, including the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and Migratory Bird Conservation Act.
Ever so slowly through the first half of the 20th century, trumpeter swans’ dismally low numbers began to climb. By the end of the 20th century, they were reclaiming parts of their historic range, including Nebraska.
In the early 1960s, 57 trumpeter swans from Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in Montana were reintroduced at LaCreek National Wildlife Refuge in southern South Dakota near the Nebraska border, the largest trumpeter reintroduction effort at the time. By 1964, the first successful trumpeter swan nest was documented in almost 100 years on a lake near Valentine, Nebraska. As this newly established High Plains flock took hold, trumpeter swans began to re-populate the Nebraska Sandhills. They had come home.
But returning home does not mean the work is done. Trumpeter swans require large unfragmented landscapes with healthy waters in balance to thrive. They need to re-learn or create new migratory pathways to key wintering habitats when their nesting grounds ice up, and they need to be able to negotiate those aerial pathways through an increasing grid of obstacles from fence lines to powerlines.
They also need to negotiate a 21st-century world with foreign invaders like phragmites, a wetland-loving plant from Asia that quickly chokes out all other native wetland vegetation; the common carp from Europe that through their constant rooting up of lake bottoms in the Sandhills can destroy the entire habitat structure of lakes; and sport fish like northern pike and largemouth bass that might prove to be key predators on a swan’s chicks (or cygnets). Then there are the persistent challenges of lead poisoning by inadvertently ingesting fishing sinkers that have come off fishing lines, and being on the receiving end of policy changes that can weaken wetland protections.
Knowledge is power, and the more biologists learn about these birds and the intricacies of their lives, the better chances humans have to help swans manage for their survival. An important long-term research study led by Mark Vrtiska at the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission and supported by many conservation partners placed transmitters on 49 swans from 2014 – 2018 to understand where and how these birds move seasonally between breeding and wintering habitats within the Nebraska Sandhills.
Although results are still being analyzed, they found that swans are strongly philopatric (home-loving), having a high affinity to returning to nesting lakes and wintering grounds they have used in previous seasons and generations. This study has important implications when considering future energy development like wind farms and the placement of transmission lines in close proximity to key wintering sites.
In tandem with this project was a nesting study conducted by graduate student Heather Johnson from the University of Nebraska at Kearney, who studied nesting success at dozens of nests around the region during this same time frame. I worked with Heather to place high-quality time-lapse cameras near two nests to document change over time, and the results captured swans’ behaviors and visual data that had never been documented before in this fashion in Nebraska.
These time-lapse camera sequences focus on two trumpeter swan nests in the Nebraska Sandhills between 2016 – 2017.
The first nest (above) failed after the eggs were laid, flooded out by high waters from a series of heavy rains. Both swans worked hard to keep the nest above water but eventually could not keep up. Once the nest was lost and the eggs drowned, the swan pair lingered near the nest site an additional two days.
The second nest was more successful. This tile of images shows the diversity of weather swans encounters during nesting season. Utilizing a large muskrat hut as the nest platform, this pair hatched two cygnets, although one cygnet disappeared within the first week while the other cygnet likely made it to fledge.
Since my first encounter with trumpeter swans in the Sandhills long ago, I have been fortunate to see them in other places too – in the backcountry of Greater Yellowstone, in the urban wild of Minneapolis, Minnesota, in restored wetlands in a sea of cornfields along the Interstate in Iowa, and even in the wild heart of interior Alaska. However, my heart still goes back to those cold winter days on my friend’s ranch in western Nebraska when I first realized the beauty of these birds and began to understand what it was that we nearly lost.
A few years ago, I was back in the icebox, but this time in the eastern Sandhills, near the upper reaches of Calamus Reservoir. On the Calamus, groundwater flow from a small series of nameless seeps had converged to form a single channel, and it had carved open a knife-edge of open water where oxygen-starved baitfish had gathered in that open pocket. It was like being on safari in Africa, witnessing this great gathering of life at a waterhole in an otherwise parched plain. Bald eagles and crows, gulls and mallard ducks, and at least 30 trumpeter swans, all feeding on these shiny silver slabbed fish. It was pandemonium. I first watched it from a distance with binoculars, hidden by a thick grove of cottonwoods and willows, but eventually, I crept closer until I was hidden behind a particularly dense group of willows near the bank.
(Left) Juvenile swans (denoted by their gray feathering) feed on shad in a patch of open water at Calamus Reservoir. While swans are mostly vegetarian, they are opportunistic and will sometimes eat small fish. (Right) In late winter, four adults and a juvenile swan bleeding from its breast fly low over the Calamus River. Trumpeter swans are large, heavy birds that do not maneuver well in flight and require plenty of room to take off and gain elevation. Power lines and fence lines near key wintering areas can pose significant challenges for swans. It is not certain what caused the injury to this particular bird, but it did not survive the night.
It is hard to explain the pulse of life and light in that bright moment along this thin finger of open water in the fold of those magnificent heaving hills. Still, I knew then what I was witnessing in front of me was special — a remnant of the wild past and what once was, a celebration of what still is today, and a hope for what can be in generations to come.
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