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Trumpeter sightings spell sweet swan success story

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Detroit Lakes, 56501
Detroit Lakes Minnesota 511 Washington Avenue 56501

S'wanderful - that's my word for this week.

Not only is the column full of trumpeter swan news, but most of it is pretty wonderful news - especially when you consider that just 20 short years ago (and for most of the twentieth century), we had very few trumpeter swans in the entire state.

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That's right: According to the timeline offered on the Minnesota DNR Web site, trumpeter swans had been "extirpated" from our state sometime in the late 1800s.

The situation wasn't much better elsewhere in the US, either, and the species was in danger of becoming extinct in the lower 48 - at least until Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge was established in the 1930s in Montana, where a small breeding population of trumpeters still survived.

In the 1960s, Hennepin County Park Reserve District, (now Three Rivers Park District) went to Red Rock Lakes to get 40 swans to establish a "breeding flock" here. It was during the 1960s that swans began "nesting in Minnesota for the first time in nearly 80 years."

Our neck of the woods really enters the picture in May of 1987, when the DNR released 21 two-year-old trumpeter swans near the Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge, here in Becker County.

(It seems the timing of this release was important for a couple of reasons. First, the May release time gave "swans a chance to acclimate to and imprint on their surroundings before molting." Also, since trumpeters can form pair bonds as early as their second winter and often mate for life, it was probably important to get the young swans into their new home before that time rolled around.)

In 1994, the DNR released some more trumpeters in Becker County and in other parts of the state. Just 10 years later, in 2004, the state population of trumpeters was estimated to be more than 2,000.

That's a swan success story.

Nevertheless, trumpeters still face a number of dangers in Minnesota and in other states. The greatest threat comes from lead poisoning from old lead fishing lures and lead shot. Trumpeters swallow the lures and shot when they're eating tubers and water plant roots, or when they're swallowing the grit they need for digestion.

The second biggest threat to trumpeters is illegal shooting. Hunters sometimes make mistakes, but the DNR says the real problem is "vandalism" - when someone willfully kills a trumpeter.

Open water

Last week I reported on Edric and Elsie Clarke's sighting of a swan around the Potato River bridge on CSAH 18 and asked readers to report other sightings. Here are the results:

-- Wednesday, Jan. 23, Marlene Weber saw 19 trumpeters on the Potato River and 10 on the Fish Hook right where it comes out of the lake. The next day, Marlene spotted one trumpeter on the Fish Hook and 19 on the Potato. Jan. 31, she saw two trumpeters on the Potato and 10 on Fish Hook.

Last year Marlene saw swans all winter, and this winter also seems to be a good time to catch the birds "hanging out," as Marlene put it.

"Sometimes they're all lined up, sleeping on the snow, heads down," she said. "If a car stops, they put their heads up."

-- Tony and Maggi Yerkes spotted a swan "by the bridge next to Zorbaz" in early February, and Tuesday, Feb. 5, Tony photographed two pairs of white swans swimming by Zorbaz.

Kelly Condiff, a resident of Park Rapids and an environmental studies major in my literature class at Bemidji State University, gave me a different clue about where to find trumpeter swans. He told me to look for where Canada waterweed, or elodea, is growing. Trumpeters eat Canada waterweed in the winter, and the aquatic plant can be found near stream inlets.

"If you look under where the swans are swimming, you'll find Canada waterweed," Kelly said.

I don't know anything about aquatic vegetation, except that Eurasian water milfoil and curly-leaf pondweed are unwelcome plants in Minnesota lakes. I can see now I need to learn more about underwater greenery.

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