Susan C. Anthony

Swan nest at the inlet stream Big Birds

June 11, 2009, October 25 - 27, 2012

On arriving at the cabin for our first summer trip in 2009, we noticed trumpeter swans near the inlet stream. Through the scope, we saw a 3' tall mound they'd built, a nest, right where people often fish! We took a boat over to try to get some closeup photos, but the adults didn't seem to mind leaving the eggs unattended. I wish we'd had our long telephoto lens at the time so we could take photos of the parents at the nest.

We were able to get a photo of four large eggs, as well as post a sign warning fishermen that birds were nesting in the area. We returned to the cabin a few weeks later (see photo). The eggs had hatched and we saw four dark-colored cygnets far down the lake.

In the fall, we canoed downstream and saw lots of wildlife, including more cygnets, unable to fly in late September. They ran on the water ahead of us, vainly flapping their wings. One ducked into tall grass on a narrow spit of land we would soon pass. We paddled as silently as we could, watching. There she was, huddled in the grass just feet from us, head low, eyes gazing straight at us. We stopped paddling to reach for a camera, and she bolted into the water on the other side of the spit and disappeared.

In October 2012, we listened to booming, snaky, otherworldly sounds as the lake froze.  Ghostly sounds echoed off frosty mountains. Dennis, who scans the country through a scope frequently, saw what looked like a swan in open water down by the island. "She shouldn't be here this late," we thought.  "It's 17° below zero out there!"

Cygnet in a box in the cabinThe next day we were down at the lake catching whitefish. Dennis spotted the cygnet just up the shore. He grabbed a fishing net and captured the swan. It was unable to fly, though we couldn't locate any injury. We took it into our cabin, where it watchfully pivoted its head on an amazingly long and flexible neck—alert, silent, docile. We contacted a bird rescue organization and they said this is not unusual. It takes about 150 days from nest-building to mature cygnet, able to fly south. When breakup is late and freeze-up is early, many cygnets are left behind to die. Their parents must leave in order to survive. The bird rescue people said they'd attempted to save cygnets without success. All refused food and water. 

That was the case with our swan.  She refused food and water.  She lived two more days, then just fell asleep and was gone. Dennis cried. She was so beautiful!

As I write this, we're at the cabin. It's been an unusually cold, snowy, windy spring. We're watching daily for swans. A friend who has kept track of their return each year said they've returned as early as April 6 (in 2006) and as late as April 20 (in 2007). In 2012, they returned April 19. It's April 24 today. Still no sign of swans. The snowpack hasn't begun to deteriorate and we've never seen this much snow here. It will likely be another tough year for young swans.

A few interesting facts about trumpeter swans:

  • About 80% of the world's trumpeter swans nest in Alaska.
  • Trumpeter swans were once nearly extinct but have recovered.
  • A trumpeter swan's wingspan is 6 to 8 feet, and its average length from bill tip to tail tip is 65".
  • Trumpeter swans weigh an average of 26 pounds. They are the heaviest flying birds in North America.
  • Swans can fly at speeds of 40 to 50 miles per hour. They migrate in V-shaped formations.
  • Swans mate for life. If a swan dies, its mate will spend the rest of its life alone.
  • They nest in or near water by building mounds six to twelve feet in diameter from surrounding vegetation.
  • Eggs hatch in 35 days.
  • Cygnets turn snow white by the end of the year in which they hatched.
  • Swans dip for food. Because of their long necks, they can reach much deeper into the lake than ducks. They are often accompanied by a bevy of ducks who feed off of what they stir up from the bottom.
  • A male swan is called a cob. A female swan is called a pen. A young swan is called a cygnet.
  • Trumpeter swans winter in the south of Canada, Puget Sound, and occasionally further south.

Swan family with six cygnetsTundra swans occupy the same habitat as trumpeters. They are slightly smaller and have a bright yellow spot on their bills just in front of the eye. The easiest way to tell the difference, however, is their call. Trumpeters make low-pitched trumpeting sounds while tundra swans make high-pitched sounds. We have seen both species intermingled in large numbers on the lake in the fall and wondered if they migrate south together.

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Source:, ©Susan C. Anthony