Cue the trumpets

Trumpeter swans are among the world’s most magnificent wildfowl. They are enormous birds, with an eight foot wingspan and a deep, resonant honk that gives them their name. At one time there were over 100,000 trumpeters in North America, so many that early explorers said they dotted the mud flats “like lilies.”

But the birds soon became seen as a valuable resource. Big and meaty, weighing up to 30 pounds, they were a favourite target for hunters – subsistence farmers looking to feed their families, and professional hunters shooting wild game for sale in the booming markets of Toronto and other cities.

Their wing feathers were in demand for quill pens; their other feathers and down went to ladies’ hats and powder puffs; and their skins made a soft leather that brought a premium price for purses. In 1868 the last wild Trumpeter swan in Ontario was shot. Soon they were virtually extinct everywhere other than a few spots in the far north.

But by the 1980s, naturalists had hatched a plan to bring the birds back from near-extinction. A Ministry of Natural Resources biologist named Harry Lumsden was among the most influential of these people in Ontario, setting up a reintroduction program and running it long after his retirement. Eggs and young swans were brought to wetlands in southern and central Ontario – the Wye Marsh near Midland was the first site – and slowly a population grew.

By 2008, there was a breeding population of 1,000 trumpeter swans in Ontario, enough that the population could be considered self-sustaining. There are now over 2,000 trumpeters, and the numbers continue to climb.

Trumpeter, Mute or Tundra?

There are other swans in Ontario, of course. The ones most of us have seen are mute swans, a European species that has been introduced. The swans that swim every summer in Stratford, Ontario, are mute swans; so too were the pair that were seen for some years on Lily Lake (aka Mud Lake) along Hwy 118 between Bracebridge and Port Carling. Mute swans are highly territorial and can be quite aggressive.

Mute swans are easily identified by their bright orange bill; trumpeter swans have a black bill.

Tundra swans, another native species, are smaller than mute swans and have a splash of orange on their mainly black bill. A handy guide to all three species is here.

Where to see them

Historically, most trumpeters spent their summers in the arctic, migrating in winter as far south as they needed to find open water. That pattern still holds in the west, but in Ontario many trumpeters stay in the province year-round.

Trumpeters are hardy birds and can survive cold weather quite well. As long as there is open water in areas that are shallow enough for them to feed on underwater roots and plant stems, they do just fine.

Hot springs and salt-water mud flats are natural open water areas, and swans have been spotted in winter on the rivers in Bracebridge and Huntsville. But swans, like many birds, are not above accepting our help. In winter, the birds have been spotted on the open water at the Bracebridge sewage lagoons. (Despite the name, it is one of the best spots in the entire region to go bird-watching – 238 different species have been seen there over the years, and there’s even a special viewing platform for birders to use. Go to Kerr Park on Beaumont Drive and walk to the top of the toboggan hill).

In summer, they scatter to lakes and wetlands throughout the province, including lakes in Muskoka and Parry Sound.

Sightings are still rare – there are only 2,000 birds in the entire province, after all. In this area, the best place to be sure of seeing one is Wye Marsh, where there can be 40 to 60 birds in winter, enjoying an area that is kept open and feeding on a mix of wild food and supplied grain.

LaSalle Park in Burlington is winter home to around 200 trumpeter swans, although there are serious concerns that their habitat will be harmed by the city’s recent decision to build a breakwall, which will allow more of the harbour to freeze and introduce more boats to the area.

With so few trumpeter swans still in Ontario, every sighting become significant to naturalists. If you spot one, you can register it with the US-based Trumpeter Swan Society, send it to the team at Wye Marsh, or contact the Burlington-based Trumpeter Swan Coalition on Facebook (@trumpeterswancoalition).

Posted in Around Muskoka, Connecting with Nature.

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