Trumpeters a success story
In the past few years, trumpeter swans have become reliable early spring visitors to Six Mile Lake.
It’s usually a pair, sometimes accompanied by juveniles that can be told apart from their elders by having gray-tinged feathers and pink on their otherwise solid black bills.
While the region can get tundra swans, they come through only in spring and fall, while in transit to or from the far north where they nest. They’re smaller than the trumpeter and can be identified by a yellow spot where the bill reaches back to the eye.
Trumpeters can be year-round residents in the Upper Peninsula and northern Wisconsin if they find open water. Otherwise they will go south, but not that far, again to any area relatively free of ice.
So it makes sense that now, as lake ice begins to develop pools along the edges, trumpeter swans would be back in the neighborhood fairly quickly.
But the numbers coming through this spring have been noticeably higher than past years. One day this week had at least nine in only a few hours, with a pair settling in for a rest and preening session on the finger of water where Solberg Creek feeds into Six Mile Lake.
It made me wonder: Given the presence and numbers, could trumpeter swans decide Six Mile Lake might be a good place to nest?
It’s possible, said Ryan Brady, Natural Heritage Conservation biologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
Trumpeter swans are a great success story — proof that even a species on the edge of extinction can be brought back. They vanished from both Michigan and Wisconsin in the early 1900s, primarily due to relentless hunting pressure nationwide for their feathers, valued for writing quills, hat decorations, powder puffs and other uses. By 1930s, only 69 were thought to remain in the continental United States, though they held on better in Alaska and Canada.
Both Michigan and Wisconsin mounted restoration efforts in the 1980s to bring North America’s heaviest bird — adult males can weigh up to 30 pounds, females 23 pounds — back to the Midwest, using eggs collected in Alaska and then hatched for release in each state.
That has resulted in Wisconsin having nearly 6,000 swans in 2019, while Michigan in 2015 — the most recent count I could find online — had more than 3,000, a number that assuredly has risen since then.
The trumpeter swan is not just North America’s heaviest native bird, it is considered the largest waterfowl in the world. When they haul out on the ice, they dwarf even the area’s giant Canada geese and mallard ducks that tend to keep them company.
But they can nest in relatively small bodies of water, such as beaver ponds, Brady said. In fact, they need some more shallow areas to feed on the aquatic plant roots and tubers they favor, as they can’t dive but must tip up and stretch that long neck to forage underwater.
They also prefer areas with ample shore vegetation — cattails, sedges, rushes — to conceal nests from predators, Brady said.
The swans have been relatively tolerant of humans as well, though the nest site itself shouldn’t be disturbed or approached, Brady said. But a lake with a quieter back bay area might convince trumpeter swans to set up shop.
Trumpeters don’t breed until age 3 or 4, so it’s possible some of the ones stopping at Six Mile Lake could be looking for territories not already taken by an older pair. If a nesting site proves successful, the same pair — trumpeter swans tend to form long-term bonds — will likely return, a practice known as “site fidelity,” Brady said.
He did, however, throw in one damper on my dreams of have swan cygnets on Six Mile Lake. The spring thaw has been slower than usual this year, leaving fewer patches of open water for migrating waterfowl. So the swans might just be congregating where they can find sufficient room to rest and feed before moving on.
I’ll savor the sight of these lovely birds for as long as they stay — and hope a couple decide it’s a promising place to raise a family.
Betsy Bloom can be reached at 906-774-2772, ext. 240, or email@example.com.