Blane Klemek: Watching trumpeter swan family during the time of COVID-19
Since May when the resident nesting pair of trumpeter swans built their large nest on the opposite side of Assawa Lake directly across my property, I enjoyed a front row seat through it all. Everything from when the pair first arrived in April before ice-out, to pair-bonding rituals, to nest construction, to egg laying and incubation, and to the eventual hatching of five fuzz-ball cygnets. What a joy.
From what I could tell from my daily observations throughout the month of May into June, incubation duties seemed to be shared by the mated pair, but the chore of sitting patiently on the nest of eggs was largely the female’s job. And for more than a month, I checked to see if one or the other swans were incubating their clutch. Without fail and unnecessary delay when the nest was unoccupied, the nest wasn’t abandoned for long.
On June 10, the cygnets hatched. I knew this from my vantage across the lake by peering through my binoculars and observing the way the adult was positioned in her nest. She appeared to be standing, or at least not nestled into the nest-bowl as if she were still incubating. What a delight it was on that day to discover the small heads of cygnets popping up from beneath their mother as they moved about.
The next day, June 11, the nest was officially empty. After quick searches of the basin with my optics, I would soon locate the adults in near-shore shallow areas guarding their brood of five very small cygnets.
Often busily feeding, it was fascinating to watch what was going on. The cygnets were especially active at the exact sites where the adults’ submerged heads and necks were.
As the parents fed and dislodged plant material from their feeding activities, and likely disturbing aquatic insects, too, the cygnets would frantically swim about feeding on whatever was now floating on the surface. These acts were repeated over and over throughout the day. It was obvious that the cygnets were taking advantage of food sources that their parents were helping to provide them.
Every day, I’d make a couple trips to the backyard and near the lake where I could glass the entire 40-acre basin to locate the swans. Interestingly, during the first week, at least with this particular swan family, the female and her brood would spend the night in the nest. The pair would lead the cygnets to the nest in the late evening hours while one of the swans, likely the female, would climb out of the water and into the nest -- followed one-by-one by each of the cygnets until all were in the nest with her.
For two weeks all was well, all five cygnets were accounted for, but at the beginning of the third week it all changed. Three cygnets inexplicably had disappeared, likely from predation. But by what predator? It’s hard to say, of course, but numerous predators prowl the shores of waterbodies in search of food, especially at night.
Common predators of young waterfowl — cygnets included — are mink, raccoon, fox, coyote, and even other birds such as great blue herons and raptors. With swans, I believe cygnets might be especially vulnerable because roosting seems to occur on land or various places near the shore where they can be out of the water. This behavior obviously increases the odds of predator-prey interactions.
In the middle of August, as I made one of my daily ventures to the lake to locate the family, I saw that one of the adults was alone with one cygnet while the other adult was about a hundred yards away and looking back at an area of shore where a moored mat of vegetation is located. It’s a spot that the birds routinely rested on.
After launching a canoe to see what was up, I discovered a sickly acting cygnet at that location. Paddling closer for a look, the cygnet slowly swam toward the waiting parent. The next day I found that same cygnet floating dead in the water next to the floating mat of vegetation.
And then two short weeks later, on yet another daily trip to the lake, almost September now, glassing the basin once again searching for the swan trio, I located the adults preening themselves on separate hummocks next to the beaver lodge, but no cygnet could be found. Minutes later as I searched the lake for any sign of the young swan (at this age it isn’t uncommon to observe some separation from parents), I at last found the bird. It, too, however, was dead.
Another paddle out to a floating body revealed nothing discernible about the cygnet’s demise. No visible sign of external trauma. A mystery.
And so for about as long as COVID-19 has become our daily reality beginning last March, a pair of swans and their young brood helped me cope and hope. That all five of Assawa’s cygnets are gone now, though certainly sad, was something I looked forward to every day for these past many months.
Hope is still there though. For swimming together, feeding together, and living life together are a pair of swans — big beautiful white trumpeter swans — as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.