Wednesday, January 12, 2011

"GHOSTS FROM THE PAST"

Trumpeter Swan - Jackson, Wyoming

GHOSTS FROM THE PAST

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.