The 'profound, beautiful' waterbirds that have been brought back from the brink

Known for their shyness, it's not easy to get a good glimpse of a trumpeter swan. But that means that when it happens, it's all the more impactful.

Naturalist Brian Keating says trumpeter swans have come back from very low numbers of population

Trumpeter swans are one of two types of swans found in Alberta, along with the tundra swan. Trumpeter swans can be identified by their straight beaks and jet black colouring, while tundra swans have yellow colouring at their bill base. (Submitted by Raymond Turner)

Known for their shyness, it's not easy to get a good glimpse of the largest migratory bird in North America. But that means that when it happens, it's all the more impactful.

Naturalist Brian Keating said over the last couple of years, he has seen trumpeter swans in the city of Calgary flying up and down the Bow River.

When it happens, he said it fills his heart with joy.

"They're a profound, beautiful, iconic waterbird that we equate with beauty. I mean, you look at these swans, they're so graceful, they're so big, they're so white, they're incredible," Keating said.

"They're shy, too. So they're not easy to approach. And I think that just makes them that much more alluring."

It takes a lot of work to get a good sighting of these birds — or a long, powerful telescope.

A trumpeter swan goes feet first into a body of water. Naturalist Brian Keating says the waterbird can be seen all across lakes and ponds in the Calgary area, though they tend to shy away from humans. (Submitted by Raymond Turner)

In Keating's view, the increased presence of the trumpeter swan in the province is one of the real success stories in Alberta's backyard.

"We've got good boreal forest lake environments that are numerous, that are very low human population. And these birds need those quiet areas to breed and successfully reproduce," Keating said. 

Trumpeter swans don't like lakes with motorboats or areas with heavy human activity — making northern Alberta a suitable habitat.

"They've come back from very low numbers. In the United States, their population was around 70. Now, the population is up over 50,000," Keating said. "We have so many sad stories out there … but this shows us that we can do amazing things if we put our mind to it.

"This is a bird that we nearly lost, and it's coming back in good numbers. And it's because Alberta is still a good place to set up shop and raise your youngsters."

A perilous migration

There are several populations of trumpeter swans in the United States, but the significant population is related to Yellowstone National Park, Keating said.

"That used to be where the epicentre of birds was and there's been other populations that have developed since where they migrate to," Keating said. "The remnant population existed in Yellowstone in some hot spring-heated areas that allowed the birds to overwinter.

"It's from that population that our North American population managed to survive."

The birds migrate from the United States up to Canada and then back down — but migration can be dangerous. 

For example, swans are at risk at being killed after running into power lines and are subject to natural dangers like eagles taking them out of the skies.

Two trumpeter swans take their final approach. Trumpeter swans breed in the boreal forest region on remote, clean and quiet lakes. (Submitted by Raymond Turner)

Keating said he has already seen a flock of 200 swans this spring east of Calgary near Weed Lake.

"Last week, we heard hundreds of swans and saw dozens," he said. "We could hear them calling like crazy from the far end of the lake.

"But yeah, the swans are out right now and they're easily seen all around lakes and ponds all around Calgary. Piece of cake."

Keating recommended taking a pair of binoculars or a spotting scope should you be seeking to spot a flock of the bashful bird.

A trumpeter swan puffs out its chest while showing off its impressive wingspan. In the 1920s, trumpeter swans were nearly extinct in Canada, but their numbers have grown significantly since then. (Submitted by Raymond Turner)
Two trumpeter swans get into a brawl. According to the Nature Conservancy of Canada, there are now more than 60,000 wild trumpeter swans in Canada. (Submitted by Raymond Turner)
A trumpeter swan takes to the air. The bird was taken off Canada’s list of endangered species in 1996, but still face dangers as their embark on their migration journey. (Submitted by Raymond Turner)
A trumpeter flies through the air as part of a series of photos submitted by Raymond Turner. (Submitted by Raymond Turner)

For more about Alberta's wildlife from naturalist Brian Keating, check out Great Big Nature and check out these stories:


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