Today is two months after the winter solstice (Dec 21), and we now have two more hours of daylight each day (almost 11 hours). More importantly, the sun rises each day 13 degrees higher than it did on the winter solstice (35 vs 22 degrees above the horizon), and it is now more than half way to its maximum altitude in our summer sky on June 21 (68 degrees).
What does this mean for us winter-weary Minnesotans — spring is ever near! Cardinals and Chickadees are singing up a storm on sunny mornings when the radiant heat of the sun can actually be felt through the chilly (20 F) air. The polar vortex is history, and it’s time to get out and enjoy the end of winter, — like taking a morning walk along the Sucker Lake creek.
We have been in the grip of a prolonged vortex of cold air from our northern neighbors since February 4 with daytime highs in the negative digits (F) and nighttime lows dipping well below -10 F (e.g. last night was -21 F). Just for something to inspire me mentally (?), I added up the last 10 nights of low temperatures and came up with a grand total sum of -95 degrees. Now that’s arctic! Needless to say it’s difficult for my fingers to work camera buttons at these temperatures, let alone get outdoors for a walk in the backyard.
But, in the spirit of Valentine’s Day and to commemorate a time when I was braver about venturing out in -15F weather, here are a few photos of the Trumpeter Swans on the Mississippi River at Monticello, MN, engaging in courtship displays to cement their pair bond — love is in the air for these swans, most of which mate for life.
Thinking of warmer days ahead, I wish you a Happy Valentine’s Day, 2021.
This is the time of year Trumpeter Swans get testy. Still in their family groups, but now less tolerant of other adults that encroach on their personal space, it seems they are just downright irritable. With heightened reproductive hormone levels no doubt peaking prior to the upcoming breeding season they attack anything that threatens their mates, their offspring, or whatever is in their way (geese, ducks, etc.).
Trumpeter Swan to Canada Goose — “Out of my way, goose!”
On the Mississippi River in Monticello, MN where thousands of Trumpeter Swans overwinter, confrontations between adult swans are frequent in late February right before the swans depart for their breeding areas. I watched a family of swans coming in to land near another family on the river as they met with some hostile aggression in one swan-frontation lasting just a few seconds.
Swans must land on water, not on hard surfaces, to cushion the impact. Their feet skate along the surface to slow them down before their heavy (25-35 pound) body drops into the water.
Meeting up with the newcomers — a family of four swans swam over to check them out. Lots of trumpeting and head bobbing ensued, as a prelude to something.
Escalating aggressive behavior with more vigorous head bobbing and trumpeting — juvenile offspring of the family of three moves away from the swan-frontation.
All the commotion scared the mallards into flight.
Swan-frontation is getting more serious here — but gray-bodied juveniles are staying out of the fight.
Ouch — direct hit on one of the new arrivals.
One of the pair is driven away…
And now the dominant swan goes after the other member of the newcomer pair,
gives that bird a good nip with its hard bill…
and drives that bird away as well.
And that is how Trumpeter Swans feel about newcomers invading their space at this time of year. Aren’t hormones a wonderful thing? (or not…)
Watching ducks and swans take off from the mostly unfrozen lakes the other day, I was impressed with how important those big, webbed feet are in keeping the birds’ bodies up near the surface of the water. For example, a light-bodied, male Hooded Merganser “ran” on the water less than 50 feet before it was air-borne.
The merganser’s feet barely touched the water surface as its rapid wingbeats lifted it into the air.
These small diving ducks weigh only 1-2 lb, so getting air-borne from the water surface is less of an impressive achievement. However, Trumpeter Swans, the heaviest bird in North America, weigh 20-30 lb, and lifting those big bodies into the air requires the combined effort of both feet and wings.
Initially, it looks like a lot of splashing without much lift taking place.
Their bodies are so close to the water on take-off, they can’t utilize their powerful wing down-stroke for lift, so the large surface area of the feet really is essential in pushing the bird up.
Even as the bird begins to lift above the water surface, it still can’t use the down-stroke for lift; the feet continue to propel the bird upward.
And those are some really big feet aiding the launching effort. Swans rarely show off those big appendages that are so useful in water take-offs, as well as digging up the bottom sediment while they forage.
Coming in for landing with webbed feet fully extended to brace for impact…
The birds with probably the longest required take-off pathway from water are the loons. With relatively short wings and legs placed far to the rear, loons need two to three times the distance for take-off that ducks do, and as they take-off, they too appear to be skipping along the water surface — or even hydroplaning.
The true masters of “running on water”, however, have to be the Western Grebes, whose courtship dance is a synchronized ballet of movement across the water, all performed without a single wingbeat, paddling with just their feet in completely upright posture. A clip from David Attenborough’s Life of Birds shows this incredible feat the best.
“getting to know all about you” — that’s what we often see in the synchronized displays of paired birds that mate for life. It’s more commonly seen in the spring resurgence of pre-breeding behaviors, but often, mated pairs renew their bond in the fall before migrating to warmer climates with open water.
Trumpeter Swans pairs exhibited their neck bowing and chest-to-chest-wing flap and trumpet greetings with each other on Lake Vadnais yesterday with gusto.
Neck bowing behavior, up and down, from fully extended to completely bowed, repeated several times, both while swimming in parallel and while facing each other.
Because these birds often don’t breed until they are 4-6 years old, cementing their partnership early is integral to their eventual breeding success, in defending their nest territory as well as protecting their offspring, which single individuals cannot do alone. Their synchronized neck bowing behaviors occasionally escalated to more vigorous displays of wing flapping and chest bumping (kind of remniscent of football players in the end zone after a touchdown).
Muted trumeting accompanied the wing flap face-off between these partners.
But then, one swan seemed to be trying out a couple of different partners as it first performed the neck bowing sequence with one individual and then took-off flying and pursued another individual, bowing and wing-flapping with it, and then eventually settling down to feed side by side. I wonder if this is the equivalent of swan dating?
Swan in the lead with partner #1, performing the head bowing behavior as they swim
Suddenly the lead swan takes off, trumpeting, chasing another swan into flight. Huge webbed feet paddling against the surface of the water help these large-bodied birds get aloft.
Once landed in the same area, vigorous wing-flapping and trumpeting occurs for several seconds, following by neck bows, and finally feeding side by side.
I might have thought this was one male chasing another, except for the behavior that followed.
Just another day in the lives of the Trumpeter Swans, even if confusing to us human observers.
It’s amazing how much you can see early in the morning before the cyclists and hikers have hit the trails around the local marsh. And it always amazes me to find such a diversity of wildlife inhabiting a small wild oasis in the urban landscape! I’m sure if I had spent more time on this hot, humid morning, I would have seen even more.
Dense mats of cattails float around the marsh propelled by the prevailing water flow. They attract a wide variety of wildlife that may hunt from their edges, nest in their stalks, and hide within small crevices from the peeping eyes of photographers.
Great Blue Herons are often found along the shoreline, usually obscured by the vegetation.
Another heron was making its way down toward the shoreline — perhaps the mate of the other one?
I can always count on seeing a Great Egret or two foraging near the edge of the marsh.
What else is hiding here in this vegetation near the shore? A Green Heron pops up to see if I’m a dangerous predator.
A less nervous juvenile Green Heron hunted in the shallows.
Out in the water, a Common Loon swam by.
Nearby, a double-crested Cormorant surfaced from its dive, and took a look around.
I spotted something white way out in the middle of the marsh, swimming quickly away from me, and grabbed a quick shot of a Trumpeter Swan family with their two, seemingly newly hatched, cygnets.
It’s a bit late to find these newly hatched chicks; perhaps the first nesting failed and these are result of a second nesting attempt. The chicks have a lot of growing to do before they reach the body size of the adults which can weigh more than 20 lb.
I met a fellow nature photographer (Jim Radford) quite by accident at a marsh near both of our homes, and he has graciously shared some of his amazing photos with me. I asked him if I could share some of them with my blog readers because they illustrate the subject of my last blog post (“red-necked swans“) so nicely.
Trumpeter Swans showing the rusty head and neck from iron staining are quite common among the thousands of swans overwintering at Monticello, MN. Photo by Jim Radford
Close-up of the iron staining on head feathers of a Trumpeter Swan. This stain does not leach out, but will only disappear when the head feathers are molted. Photo by Jim Radford
A good view of the many colors of Trumpeter Swan plumage. Juvenile birds (hatch year) have gray plumage, which gradually turns into pure white by the spring of the next year after hatch. A few birds in this shot show light patches of rusty-colored feathers from iron staining. Pristine white swan heads may be from birds with newly molted feathers, or birds may not have fed in streams or lakes with high iron-content water. Photo by Jim Radford
Is there anything more beautiful than the white on white of Trumpeter Swans flying overhead? Photo by Jim Radford
No, there is no such species as a Red-necked Swan, and no, they aren’t from rural hilltops in Appalachia — these are Trumpeter Swans that apparently have been feeding in water rich in iron salts which have become deposited in their white head and neck feathers.
Although I was forced to shoot directly into the sun, which caused deep shadows on the birds, nevertheless the swans’ heads and necks are much darker than their bodies.
Closer view shows up their rusty-colored heads and necks, with minor staining of their body behind the wings.
Way back in 1955, E.O. Hohn reported this discoloration of white feathers in a variety of waterfowl (e.g., Snow Geese, another all-white bird). He was curious whether this was some aberrant pigmentation so he leached the feathers with a mild acid, which removed the color entirely. He then tested the leaching solution for iron, which proved positive.
And there you have it — rusty-colored Trumpeter Swans marked by where they have been spending their winter in high iron-content water.
You can see the rusty color better on the head of the bird who is preening, as the sun lights up its head.
NOTE added after posting: Based on the amount of reddish-brown staining of neck feathers all the way down to the breast, I might speculate even further that these particular birds were feeding in deep, iron-rich waters, where they had to “tip-up” to feed (as shown below).
A lone swan resting on the ice in the early morning in a vast landscape of white looks forlorn by itself.
I was able to stand directly across the inlet from the swan, and the bird seemed unperturbed by my presence, resting on its one leg.
Trumpeter Swans most often pair for life, but not until they are about 5-7 years old. Perhaps this is a young bird, or perhaps its mate has died — in any case, this lonely swan has been hanging out at the inlet to Sucker Lake in the Vadnais Heights reservoir system for the past couple of weeks. Pairs of Trumpeters come and go there, but there is always one lonely bird, perhaps this same one.
On another day, a lone swan swam in the inlet with a few Mallards for company.
Too bad Lonely Swan doesn’t know there is a party going on about 50 miles up the Mississippi River at Monticello, where the Trumpeter Swans feast on corn handed out to them daily.
For those music lovers in the crowd, the reference in the title of the post is to a hit song from the 70s — Alone Again, Naturally (by Gilbert O’Sullivan).
More scenes of flying birds from our Crex Meadows field trip last week-end: Trumpeter Swans on the move.
A typical scene at Crex Meadows wildlife refuge, near Grantsburg, Wisconsin — Trumpeter Swans on the far distant shore.
Crex Meadows is a 30,000 acre network of marshes, lakes, wet meadows, and intermittent oak forest, part of which is set aside as a refuge for waterfowl breeding in and migrating through the area. It is a remnant of old Glacial Lake Grantsburg that covered this area more than 10,000 years ago. A variety of bird species use it as a staging area for migration south, like the Sandhill Cranes featured in yesterday’s post. Trumpeter Swans are usually in great abundance here as well, although we only saw about a dozen of them.
Swans were feeding and preening themselves quietly in the shallows of the larger lakes.
These birds seemed quite a bit more skittish than the swans that overwinter in areas of open water near the Twin Cities. But there were hunters in the nearby area shooting at ducks (hopefully not swans), so they might have been leery of human presence.
By size alone, Trumpeter Swans are the largest living species of waterfowl. They are also one of the heaviest birds capable of flight, with big males weighing up to 30 pounds (14 kg). Even with large wingspans of 6-8 ft (~ 2 meters), taking off from a horizontal surface takes some effort. Consequently, swans typically flap their wings to lift their bodies out of the water and then propel themselves forward pushing their large webbed feet along the surface water — launching themselves into the air with a running take-off.
Slow, deep wing flaps keep their heavy body airborne until they can cruise with the aid of wind.
Swans fly with their necks outstretched, unlike the more streamlined profile of herons and egrets that tuck their long necks back in a S-curve.
It seems when a couple of swans get jumpy, the whole crew takes off. Not quite the classic V-formation but perhaps they were just hopping over to the next lake — away from us.