Wednesday, January 12, 2011


Trumpeter Swan - Jackson, Wyoming


The stately trumpeter swan, dressed in snowy white plumage and sporting a coal-black bill, was once common in much of the West.

However, one’s chances of seeing a trumpeter during the 1800s in the area where I live today was never very good, simply because of the absence of lakes and marshes at that time.

Then came hunting of these magnificent birds, mainly for their feathers which were used to adorn the hats and gowns of fashionable ladies of the day. As a result, by the early 1900s, the trumpeter had been hunted nearly to extinction. Research conducted in 1932, revealed that the Centennial Valley of southwestern Montana hosted the only population know to exist anywhere in the world. Sixty-eight swans remained.

This further reduced one’s chance of seeing a trumpeter locally to somewhere between zero and none.

Following the discovery of this small remnant population in 1932, immediate steps were taken to preserve the only known remaining habitat for the trumpeter. In 1935, the Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge was established.

Today, through much hard work their numbers in the Centennial Valley have stabilized to somewhere between 250 and 300 birds.

In the 1950s, a previously unknown population of trumpeters was discovered in Alaska and western Canada.

As a result, current estimates place their numbers close to 15,000, of which approximately 14,500 reside in Alaska and Canada.

One of these ghosts from the past took up winter residence in a lake not far from where I live. How long it will stay is anybody’s guess. That was a few years ago. It has yet to return.

Trumpeters, with their eight-foot wingspan and weighing close to thirty pounds, are the largest swan in the world, and the largest waterfowl in North America.

They are at home in the marshes, ponds, and lakes in both prairies and open wooded areas.

In the Arctic, nesting takes place among the many marshes on the tundra. While in the Rockies, they most often construct their nest near a moderately sized, secluded lake - often over thirty acres in size. Adequate open water is required by these heavy birds for takeoffs and landings.

To say trumpeters are territorial, would be an understatement. Requiring at least a fifteen acre breeding territory, they defend it religiously against all birds, even other species of wildlife. In fact, it is not uncommon for a pair to demand ownership of several hundred acres.

Nests are usually built during the month of May. A location close to shore, or on a small island is usually chosen.

In the Rockies, a muskrat or beaver lodge is often selected as the choice site on which to construct their nest.

Both the "cob" (male) and the "pen" (female) are actively involved in this activity. The cob gathers the nest material and brings it to the pen for proper positioning. Nest building continues through the incubation period. The final nest size may be anywhere from six to twelve feet in diameter, and a foot-and-a-half in height. Bulrushes, horsetail, cattails, and sedges are some of the more important items selected.

Actual construction takes about two weeks. The same nest is often used for many breeding seasons.

Once the nest is completed, the pen lays anywhere from two to nine eggs, a single egg laid every other day until the clutch is complete. Four to six eggs are typical.

During incubation, the cob stands guard nearby, ready to defend against all intruders, and may occasionally sit on the eggs while the pen is away feeding.

After an incubation period of between 33 and 37 days, the young cygnets hatch. This usually occurs by early July.

The young cygnets fledge - take their first airborne flight - when they’re between three and four months old.

Family bonds are tight. Not only do the adults pair-bond for life, they band together to protect their newly hatched, downy cygnets.

In the Rockies, it’s normal for family groups to remain near their breeding areas until freezing occurs, at which time they seek ice-free lakes and rivers.

Sago pondweed and duck potato tubers are significant foods for the trumpeter swan. However, the leaves, roots, and seeds of other aquatic vegetation, along with insects and crustaceans also find their way into the diet of these birds .

The voice of the trumpeter swan is sonorous and vibrant, embodying a series of loud, low-pitched trumpeting sounds, or honks. Witnessing a flock of trumpeters flying overhead, calling to one another, is an experience long remembered.

Will another trumpeter take up residence in the area? Will it choose to nest and raise its offspring in the nearby lake?

Probably not - but, who knows for sure. Only time will tell.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Northern Pintail:
Sleek, Elegant & Graceful

Northern Pintail - Bosque del Apache NWR, New Mexico
© Weldon Lee

Sleek. Elegant. Graceful. Poised. Few words more fittingly describe the Northern Pintail.

While the female’s mottled brown markings are typical of most female ducks, the male with its dark brown head accentuated with a thin white line on either side and long pointed tail feathers is one of the most striking of all ducks.

Although the pintail is distributed throughout most of North America, higher population densities exist in the West.

Pintails have adapted to life on open prairies, where they are associated with lakes, ponds, and marshes. They are seldom found in densely wooded wetlands.

They are fast flyers, and with narrow, pointed wings they are extremely agile as they gracefully dart from one prairie pothole to the next. With their distinctive, short whistle they call out to other members of their clan for a point of reference. In winter, they’re frequently observed feeding in grain fields.

Breeding begins in late April, and often continues into July. Peak breeding activity occurs during May. Early nesting, combined with renesting following an initial nest failure, account for the extended breeding season.

The hen builds her nest by scraping a shallow depression in the earth and lining it with down. Although the usual nest location is among short grasses near the water’s edge, it’s not uncommon for an occasional nest to be located in a meadow some distance from water.

A typical clutch consists of six to nine cream-colored eggs.

Nest-building and incubation duties belong to the female. During the first part of this process the male usually stays nearby, not leaving until a few days after incubation begins. However, some males remain throughout the entire incubation period.

Within 23 days, nature’s miracle repeats itself as the newly hatched ducklings enter their new world.

Food consists of aquatic vegetation and plankton. To this is added an occasional snail, clam, or aquatic insect.

Normal feeding occurs as the pintails strain plants and plankton from the water’s surface through the comb-like edge of their bills.

The young pintails will make their first flights when they are between 36 and 57 days old.

Beginning in spring, and continuing into fall, northern pintails are a common sight on many lakes and waterways.

The largest numbers, however, are encountered during the spring and fall migrations. Since the fall migration is spread out over several months, higher concentrations are experienced during spring; their numbers peaking between late March and early April.

Good luck in locating and observing my favorite duck - the sleek and graceful Northern Pintail.

This image is available as a signed, limited edition photograph by special order. Go to my website, Wildlife Photography by Weldon Lee, for details on pricing and framing options.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Waiting for Breakfast

"Waiting for Breakfast"
Barn Swallow - Adams County, Colorado

Barn swallows, known for their acrobatic flight displays, are found virtually worldwide.

North American populations winter from Panama and Puerto Rico all the way to the southern tip of South America.

The barn swallow, dressed in its dazzling, iridescent blue cape and cinnamon vest is the only swallow on the continent to sport a deeply forked tail.

Barn swallows have become closely related to humans, all but abandoning their natural nesting locations in favor or barns, culverts, and bridge structures - even the front porches of suburban homes.

The swallow’s cup-shaped nest is assembled from mud pellets, scooped up by both male and female, mixed with various plant fragments. It is usually found stuck against a vertical wall or ledge.

Construction time for a new is one to two weeks. However, old nests are often refurbished. A nest may be solitary or build among other nests to form a colony.

Four or five white eggs, marked with reddish-brown splotches, are laid around the middle of May.

Nesting usually continues through mid-July, and appears to be somewhat uniform throughout the Rockies. Both male and female share in the incubation duties, as well a tending the young.

Incubation takes anywhere fro 13 to 17 days.

Food primarily consists of insects, with an occasional berry thrown in for desert.

During the first day or two after the young swallows hatch, the parents eat the fecal sac of their young. Then, for a while, the parents carry the sacs off. After about the twelfth day, the young swallows become "house broken;" they back up to the edge of their nest, and...just be careful of where you walk!

The young swallows will take to the air when they’re 18 to 23 days old.

During nest-building, it’s entertaining to watch swallows dive to the edge of a lake or stream and scoop up a mouthful of mud. Swallows constantly going back-and-forth to the same location is a major clue that a nest is under construction.

The next time you locate a nest of this avian acrobat filled to capacity with young swallows, spend an hour or so watching the parents as they circle about, catching insects on the wing for their offspring.

You’ll be glad you did.

This image is available as a signed, limited edition photograph by special order. Go to my website, Wildlife Photography by Weldon Lee, for details on pricing and framing options.