February 10, 2023 – A light and steady snow floated out of the chilled gray January sky onto the open waters along the Illinois-Indiana border. Hundreds of Greater white-fronted geese and a small number of Tundra and Trumpeter swans here for at least part of the winter were resting and feeding. The flooded, unfrozen fields of corn stubble at the Willow Slough Fishing & Wildlife Area in Newton County offer a perfect resting area for these wintering waterfowl waiting for spring. A family of Trumpeter swans, two adults, and three first winter birds feeding nearby were beautiful subjects on such a dream-like morning. Enhanced by the sounds from the large flocks of Greater white-fronted and Canada geese, the scene couldn’t have been any better. The lighting was near perfect, and the snowfall provided an unusual photo opportunity for these large elegant birds. Having a six-foot wingspan and a weight of up to 26 lbs, the Trumpeters are North America’s biggest waterfowl and are twice as heavy as our other native swan, the Tundra swan. Spending some time observing and photographing the trumpeters as they fed, preened, and occasionally expanded their magnificent wings making powerful and load-flapping sounds that carried for some distance, was an unusual and exciting opportunity to watch at close range the behavior of the swans. Standing motionless behind the camera and tripod for quite some time, I watched them as they fed together, stretching their long necks down into the cold water, searching the submerged vegetation for the much-needed nutrition required by wintering waterfowl as they prepare for the spring migration. Feeling fortunate as I observed these beautiful swans and knowing that there was a time in the 1930s only 69 trumpeters were known to biologists in the lower 48. Although small pockets of surviving birds were discovered in Canada and eventually a few 1000 in Alaska, it took some acts from the government to put some protection on these birds. That dedication to protecting the swans continues today through the laws of the states and the federal government, combined with educating the public about the rapid downfall of the Trumpeter swan from the market hunters and habitat loss in the late 1800s and early 1900s that nearly eradicated the swans from the United States. Recovery of the Trumpeter swan population continues with the ongoing efforts to expand their habitat while fighting against other factors that negatively affect the swans, like climate change, pollution, and lead poisoning from lead ammunition and lead fishing weights. Biologists, citizen scientists, and volunteers take on the challenges with a dedication to protecting and expanding quality nesting and wintering habitat while monitoring the North American population of around 63,000 Trumpeters. Those results are a true testament to the success of the combined efforts of many individuals with a powerful commitment to save the Trumpeters. It also must be realized that all the hard work and progress made from helping the Trumpeter swan is most certainly having a positive impact on many other wetland species.
April 8, 2021 – There were 18 beautiful Trumpeter swans, discovered by Iroquois County resident Rick Rosenboom, resting in a flooded field in southern Kankakee County in early March. Occasionally, one of the great birds among the resting flock would stretch and flap its impressively large wings, which for Trumpeters can span over 6 feet. The flocks’ stunning, bright-white feathers were illuminated by the afternoon light making these migrant travelers appear otherworldly against a drab late-winter landscape. The flooded spot, a low and almost hidden area in an agricultural field, gave the swans a safe place to sleep, preen, and forage for a short time before continuing their migration to a northern wetlands for the nesting season. The Trumpeter swan is the largest native waterfowl in North America. Female Trumpeters can weigh up to 25 pounds, and males up to 38 pounds. There is an obvious difference in size between the other native swan, the smaller Tundra, which we also see during the migrations, often in mixed flocks with Trumpeters. The Mute swan, which was introduced from Europe, has a large orange bill with a bump or ‘bill knob’ at the base of the bill. The Mute swan is a very large bird but it is still a little smaller than the native Trumpeter. Mute swans have been seen on the Kankakee river with cygnets in the springtime over the years, while Trumpeters east of the Mississippi nest on the wetlands in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, and southern Canada, and Tundra swans nest up in the Arctic. The loss of habitat and over hunting of the Trumpeters had a devastating impact on the swans, by the 1930s there were only 69 known to be alive in the United States. Biologists began an effort in the late 30s to save and expand the small population to other safe wetlands. There was a small flock discovered in Alberta Canada, and after Alaska became a state there were over 2000 discovered there. Today, according to the The Trumpeter Swan Society, the Interior Population is at 27,055, which is 40 percent of North America’s Trumpeter swan population.
January 30, 2010 – A pair of Trumpeter swans surrounded by a number of Canada geese and a a few Mallard ducks were taking advantage of the open waters near the boat docks at the headquarters at the Willow Slough Fish and Wildlife Area near Morocco Indiana this past week. A submerged aerator system sending bubbles of air to the surface keeps some small pools open and ice free. The open water attracts waterfowl during the winter when the rest of J.C. Murphey Lake is locked in ice. Getting a close look at the pair of swans, that have been seen at the lake for some months now, show that one of the birds does not have the usual black legs and feet that is normally seen on an adult Trumpeter. While photographing the Trumpeters at some distance this past August I noticed the yellow colored legs on one of the birds and assumed it was a juvenile. I was told at the headquarters at Willow-slough this past week that the swan with yellow legs was believed to be leucistic. Leucism is a genetic mutation that causes a reduction of pigments. We see the abnormality in mammals, birds, and even in reptiles. A few times a year while great flocks of Starlings are feeding in fields it is not uncommon to see a flash of white from the wings, tail, or the head of one of the birds in the flock. The birds with white feathers are missing the normal dark colors of the Starling and are considered leucistic. The young cygnet (baby swan) that is leucistic is bright white and the non leucistic young Trumpeter is gray. The leucistic birds end up with yellow legs and feet as adults Trumpeters. These rare leucistic Trumpeter swans have been reported and are still occasionally seen in Ontario. The leucistic swans are bit more common in the Rocky Mountain population and are also seen in the Yellowstone summer population.
March 25, 2019 – A small flock of Trumpeter swans, four adults and one juvenile, could be seen resting and feeding recently in some corn stubble in Iroquois county near Ashkum. Even at some distance these large, impressive white birds with jet-black bills easily stood out against a backdrop of a pale, dead, and dormant late winter landscape. The Trumpeter swan is a very large waterfowl, much larger than the Tundra swan, the other native swan to North America. Trumpeters are a medium-distance migrant that move through our area in small numbers during late winter as they head north to the shallow lakes and wetlands of Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan for their nesting season.
During the winter months large flocks of Trumpeters, sometimes in the company of Tundra swans, congregate in the flooded agricultural fields and on the ice free lakes and rivers in the southern part of the state. Big numbers of Trumpeters, with counts in the hundreds, were reported at the Emiquon National Wildlife Refuge near Havana in west-central Illinois at the end of February. Even higher numbers of swans had been reported along the Mississippi river. Jed Hertz photographed six Trumpeter swans, two adults and four juveniles, on the Kankakee river near Gar creek in the first week of March.
It is really hard to imagine that about 90 years ago there were only 69 Trumpeter swans left in the wild here in the United States. According to information on the website for The Trumpeter Swan Society, a non-profit organization that advocates for the welfare of the Trumpeter swan, these surviving swans were protected from hunting and the harsh winter conditions surviving in remote areas of Yellowstone and the Centennial Valley of Montana where hot spring and geysers provided ice free areas for them throughout the winter. Efforts by biologists in the late 30’s worked towards saving the trumpeters from extinction. Surveys of Canada and Alaska gave hope as a small flock had survived in Alberta Canada and a large flock of 2000 swans was discovered in Alaska,. The website goes on to say that the Trumpeter swans that are part of the interior population are now over forty percent (27,055) of the total Trumpeter swan population. The swans that we are lucky enough to see here in the Mid-west are part of that interior population.