Trumpeter Swan

Cygnus buccinator
Range Map

The Trumpeter Swan is the largest native North American bird. If measured in terms of weight and length, it is the largest living waterfowl species on earth. Wing spans can exceed 8 feet and they can weigh as much as 30 pounds.

Beginning with the arrival of Europeans in the 1600s, the lust for white feathers to adorn lady’s attire, and their quills for smearing ink onto paper, took a toll on these impressive and elegant birds. By 1933, we believed there were but 70 individuals left in its native range, and that the species was near extinction. Fortunately, aerial surveyors later discovered several thousand of these swans in Alaska on the Copper River. Since then, there have been several re-introductions to restore its historic North American range.

Taxonomists regard the Trumpeter Swan as monotypic (i.e. there are no subspecies).

Anytime I’ve met one of these magnificent birds, it has left an indelible memory. No memory of my meetings with this species is more vivid than at Midway Lake in eastern Alaska in 2005.

I was traveling solo in my 1988 Suzuki Samurai, carrying a kayak on the roof that I’d not used during the entire 12,000 mile adventure. With most of Alaska behind me, I needed to put the boat in the water. Midway lake seemed like an ideal place to do it. I launched the boat and drove across its 3/4 mile width, never seeing a depth over six to eight feet. I took a right turn when I reached the far shore and headed to the lake’s west end. As I neared the end of the lake, I saw a Trumpeter Swan patrolling the area and I drove in its direction. To my astonishment, the great bird took exception to my presence and launched a threatening attack, flying right at me and landing with much fanfare a few yards in front of my position. Then I noticed a group of cygnets a few hundred yards away. I knew then why the adult was upset. I took a few pictures and started back to my launching point. To reach the beach, I had to drive the boat in a vector that closed the gap between me and the young swans, and this was a concern to the parent bird. Before I could get turned away from the group, they began moving in the same direction I needed to travel to leave. Initially, I thought this was good luck. I would take a few pictures and then outrun the young birds and leave them to enjoy the lake without me to disturb them. It took me a while to get around the group; they swam faster than I would have thought possible. All the while, the parent protested, believing I had ill will to its offspring. When I finally outran the young family, all were relieved; myself included.

In 2022, I journeyed through Teton National Park on my way to Canada. I was blessed with close encounters in Wyoming, and later in northern Canada. My meeting in British Columbia at Toad River along the Alaska Highway was especially fun, because of the pair-bonding displays I managed to photograph.

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