November 23 and 24, 2022
Skagit County, Washington
I stopped at Fir Island on my way down to a family gathering last week, and again the next day on my return trip. In winter it’s always rewarding, even if there’s no predicting who might be there.
It was getting toward sunset on Wednesday when I reached Fir Island, a flat triangle of marshes and fields between the north and south forks of the Skagit River. The sun sets at 4:20 pm at this time of year.
The birds were settling down for the night. Most of the thousands of ducks on the marshy margin of the Skagit bay were roosting offshore. A few Pintails cruised nearby.
It was very quiet at Hayton Reserve, even the Snow geese were settled in somewhere besides the usual fields, and I figured that was it for the day. But as I approached the South Fork bridge at Conway, I passed a gigantic flock of swans. These were Trumpeter swans, of the Pacific Coast Population who nest in Alaska and migrate down here for the winter. The Skagit Valley hosts the largest number of wintering swans in North America, about 25,000 individuals. Trumpeter swans were nearly hunted to extinction by the early 1900s but protection since then has allowed the population to rebound. Their numbers are increasing at about 6% a year.
By extreme good luck, they were hanging out in a recently harvested cornfield right next to a parking lot! Pulling over by the side of the county road is illegal and very frowned upon by the locals (with good reason: highly dangerous to be partially blocking a 50 mph rural 2-lane highway). There are several authorized parking areas on the flats but more often than not, the big flocks of geese and swans are not near those. This happened to be an informal gravel parking area for a wedding venue, and there was no wedding in progress at the time (late November is not peak wedding season). Lucky me! and the succession of other birders who stopped to watch them.
There were about 220 swans in the flock, mostly standing around, some resting, a few grooming, a few poking at the dirt. Their primary activity though was communication, a loud jazzy melding of many voices. Swans are very social in winter and their calls have several social functions including family or flock cohesion, alarm, and excitement. I watched them for a while as people came and went, and didn’t notice any significant change in the trumpeting chorus related to that traffic. Nor did the swans appear to be skittish of onlookers, ie flying or walking away. They are probably fairly habituated to human presence, living all winter on agricultural fields with frequent human traffic activity. The fence makes an effective barrier too; nobody crossed it.
Trumpeter Swan voices are melodic and resonant, a consequence of their extensive looped tracheal system, “more than three times larger in volume than expected for a bird of its size (Hinds & Calder 1971)”. All that volume creates a resonance very unlike geese or ducks. And they use those voices. Biologist Winston Banko described their vocalizations thus:
Trumpeters are an expressive fowl, and their voices are often employed to show their feelings and attitudes. During the nesting and brooding seasons the mated pairs are fairly mute, though individuals in the nonbreeding flocks remain relatively communicative all summer. Through the fall and winter seasons the vocal natures of all age classes begin to be more fully expressed. During these months most of the swans are loosely bound into large informal flocks, and vocal expression is common, individually and in an occasional synchronized flock effort.
Voices associated with simultaneous behavioral displays are much more conversational and when indulged in by more than two swans are apt to build up rapidly in participation and volume, finally reaching a crescendo and then ending in longer wailing notes. Since the range of an adult trumpeter’s calls is well over a mile, the combined voices of noisy flocks can be heard at a distance of several miles if atmospheric conditions are favorable.
Winston Banko's classic 1960 monograph about Trumpeter Swans
The next morning when I returned home I stopped again to see the swans in the cornfield. I guess they spent the night there. In other places, like San Juan county, flocks roost on the water but swans on the Skagit flats seem as comfortable on land. Like the Snow geese they move around to feed in the fields gleaning potatoes, grains and such left behind by the harvest. Unlike the Snow geese, the swans are not usually seen in such a big flock!
This one-minute video has clips from Wednesday evening and Thursday morning. Note how the swans flying in are facing north: that means the wind had started shifted to the north, typical for a sunny cold stretch of weather. Swans are gigantic birds and need to take off and land into the wind, like airplanes — that gives them more lift (on takeoff) and helps slow them down (on landing).
There were a lot of grey cygnets in this flock. It was a good nesting season. The cygnets will stay with their parents in a family group until next summer.
After the waterfowl wealth on Fir Island, I enjoyed a ducky coda at the ferry landing.
I had enough time before the boat arrived to wander down to the beach. In summer it’s a good spot to see the Purple Martin nests, and in winter it’s to see the ducks, most notably the wigeons, who feast on washed up sea lettuce. Their voices are delightfully squeaky. I couldn’t pick up their convos in my video though we can hear the announcer’s last call for the Friday Harbor boat.
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Overcast and cold in the PacificNorthwest islands today. Light breeze. Temps in low 30s. Ice. Lit the woodstove yesterday for the first time this winter (backup for heat pump in cold weather).
WHAT’S UP IN NATURE IN YOUR AREA TODAY?
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