Plants and Animals

Trumpeter Swan

With the cold winter winds comes this large graceful waterfowl to Missouri rivers, lakes and marshes.

Every fall, as cold winds push waterfowl southward along the Mississippi Flyway, my thoughts turn toward trumpeter swans. I’m fortunate to live within an hour of a popular overwintering area for these gentle giants, Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary, known to locals as Riverlands. Riverlands, which flanks the Mississippi River near its confluence with the Missouri River in St. Charles County, is managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Each winter, trumpeter swans are drawn to Riverlands by its flooded prairies, ponds, and a huge backwater known as Ellis Bay. As many as 500 trumpeters return to Riverlands each winter and they provide a unique experience for birdwatchers, photographers and nature lovers due to their enormous size and resonant call which indeed sounds like a trumpet.

Although trumpeter swans (Cygnus buccinator) now number close to 16,000 individuals, they were near extinction in the 1920s. In the 1800s and earlier they were hunted indiscriminately, not only for their meat but for their feathers, which made premium quill pens. Eventually protection, research, management and education by state and federal agencies and private organizations, such as The Trumpeter Swan Society, led to recovery of the species. Now more people than ever have the opportunity to observe trumpeters in the wild. Trumpeter swans are completely white with a black bill, except for juveniles (cygnets), which are a beautiful gray color. Male trumpeters have a wingspan of 8 feet and can weigh almost 40 pounds! Although trumpeters can be found with other swan species, you will be confident about your sighting as soon as you hear their trumpet call.

Trumpeter swans usually mate for life and nest in the same wetlands each year in northern states such as Minnesota and Wisconsin and farther into Canada and Alaska. After the eggs hatch and the young are raised, many trumpeters head south for wintering areas, such as Riverlands, where their number usually peaks in January. During their stay in Missouri, trumpeters not only feed on aquatic vegetation in ponds and wetlands, but also on crop residue in farm fields, especially corn. By mid-March, most trumpeters begin their trek back north to breeding areas.

This year was special for me as Charlie Deutsch, the environmental manager at Riverlands, asked me if I would photograph the area’s trumpeter swans under a special use permit. I accepted the offer and began weekend visits to the area, focusing on one of the flooded ponds where the angelic birds concentrate each fall. I used my camouflage kayak as a platform for my photography so I could be moderately close to the swans without disturbing them. The kayak also placed me at a low point of view, which made the images appear more natural. During the assignment I was successful in obtaining some vivid photographs, especially during the magic light of sunrise each morning. Hopefully, these images will encourage others to visit the Riverlands to pay their respect to our nation’s largest waterfowl.

—story and photo by Danny Brown

To learn more about trumpeter swans, including listening to an audio recording or watching a video of trumpeter swans, visit www.mdc.mo.gov/node/3851.