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Nature’s soap opera: swans winter around Snohomish County

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MONROE – Looking for drama, romance and a little mystery for Valentine’s Day?

Washington’s Wintering Swans have you covered.

The huge white birds – the tundra, the trumpeter and at least one whooper swan – spend a few weeks vacation here before heading north to where the real steamy stuff is.

So take the opportunity to see them romance, fight and honor the Pacific Northwest as long-standing symbols of love and passion.

“It’s their grace, it’s their beauty, it’s the haunting calls, it’s the fact that they mate for life,” Martha Jordan told local birdwatchers last week. Jordan leads the Northwest Swan Conservation Association.

“A lot of fights take place, disagreements over girlfriends or food resources,” she said of the hordes of giant swans mingling in farmland across the country.

During a local Christmas bird count this year, local Audubon volunteer Scott Atkinson said 76 trumpeter swans were counted in the Everett area. Tundra swans, their smaller counterpart with a distinctive yellow teardrop below their eye, were much less abundant, with just four counted during the 24-hour data collection event.

The grace of the trumpeter swan is matched only by its ferocity. The feet the size of a large man’s hand are punctuated by three sharp nails. Graceful white wings hide strong bone to strike enemies.

“It can do a lot of damage to a human being,” said Jordan, who compared the birds to B-52 bombers. “I know.”

They have few predators and are not afraid to peck a curious bald eagle.

This year, birdwatchers and avian aficionados can enjoy an additional mystery about swans: the number of swans dying of lead poisoning in the region is dropping.

Alec Roseto uses binoculars to watch a field of Trumpeter Swans Thursday south of Monroe. Roseto said he traveled from King County to spot a rare whooper swan that was seen with the trumpeters. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

“What does that mean? I don’t know. Nobody really knows,” Jordan told the Daily Herald. “I’ve never seen it like this, but I’ll take it. I’m a happy camper.

She estimated that western Washington sees about a tenth of its normal swan deaths. In years past, lead poisoning was the cause of mass swan mortality. In 2019, for example, Jordan helped collect dozens of dead trumpeters. Birds ingest lead bullet, mistaking it for gravel they normally swallow to aid digestion.

Trumpeters are the largest waterfowl in North America, weighing up to 35 pounds with a wingspan of up to 9 feet. But it only takes three tiny pellets to kill one. The neurotoxin paralyzes the digestive and muscular systems. It’s a slow death.

” It’s dramatic. It’s horrible. It’s tough,” Jordan said. “And it’s preventable.”

This year, the swans are going strong. But the experts, she added, don’t want to celebrate too soon and jinx it.

For now, that just means it’s a good time to take advantage of our seasonal visitors, drawn to the corn stubbles and dairy farms.

Trumpeter swans graze along a dirt road Thursday south of Monroe.  (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Trumpeter swans graze along a dirt road Thursday south of Monroe. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

When large birds take flight, listen for the snapping of their feet. The wingbeats are so heavy that they sound like the heartbeat of a gentle giant.

Large groups of trumpeter swans are a cacophony of horns, like an overzealous clown with a horn or a college orchestra warming up with brass instruments.

Here’s where to find them in Snohomish County:

Crescent Lake

You are sure to find a school of swans at Crescent Lake, near Monroe. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch the very rare Whooper Swan. (It’s pronounced “hooper”.)

A single singer has been spotted in Snohomish County this month, triggering a “rare bird alert” in the birding community. A talkative species with a distinctive yellow beak, this swan rarely ventures onto our continent, let alone this far south.

Flocks of birdwatchers compete for a chance to add it to their life list. Standing outside their cars on the side of the road on Thursday, many said it was only the second time a whooper swan had been spotted in Washington.

Alec Roseto, a 25-year-old bird watcher, said he booked it at North Seattle College when he heard the singer was in town.

Trumpeter swans and Canada geese take flight from a field as others continue to graze near Stanwood on Thursday.  (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Trumpeter swans and Canada geese take flight from a field as others continue to graze near Stanwood on Thursday. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

“I just finished my semester about two hours ago,” Roseto said, binoculars raised.

Retired Longview-area birdwatchers and friends Russ Koppendrayer and Bob Flores took a three-hour hike to set up their glasses. It’s a short drive compared to the 14 hours Flores drove to see a Siberian accentor, back when a “rare bird alert” was a landline phone string, not an iPhone notification.

“We are collectors,” Flores said Thursday as the whooper groped. “Just like you collect stamps, we collect a bird’s vision.”

Crossing the island to Stanwood

Cruise along a slew of farmland starting at Island Crossing (the intersection of Highway 530 and Smokey Point Boulevard) and heading west. Turn left onto Norman Road, where a scenic drive awaits full of fields dotted with swans.

There are plenty of places to get off the road and pull out your binos. Avid birdwatchers might be tempted to ask landowners for permission to get a little closer. Just be sure not to disturb the birds – they need to fuel up for their fast approaching journey home.

Two adult trumpeter swans relax in a field as a young bird flies past them south of Monroe Thursday.  (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Two adult trumpeter swans relax in a field as a young bird flies past them south of Monroe Thursday. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

A farmer graciously led Herald reporters through a gated pasture, offering Gary the cow a bite of his breakfast sandwich and pointing the way to a flock of hundreds of swans. They are here every day, she said.

Snohomish Valley

The winding intersection of Marsh, Lowell Larimer and Seattle Hill roads (also known as Larimers Corner) is the perfect place to start your search for swans in Snohomish.

From there take Lowell Larimer or East Lowell Larimer. Drivers, keep your eyes on the road. But passengers soak up the sweeping views across the valley, with maroon expanses of berry fields and many, many white-feathered friends.

Notice a dead or dying swan on your adventures? Call the State Department of Fish and Wildlife at 360-466-4345.

Claudia Yaw: 425-339-3449; claudia.yaw@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @yawclaudia.

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