Whether you are a longtime resident or a newcomer to the Comox Valley, it is always a thrill to see or hear the honking as the trumpeter swans announce their winter arrival.
I never tire of the beauty and elegance of these birds and continue to be in awe of their yearly migratory feat.
In one year, they make the return trip to Alaska and back. During this time, they breed and raise a family; often, they run into severe weather conditions, which takes its toll on the weak birds.
There are seven species of swans in the world, and the largest are the trumpeter swans. On average, they weigh 12 kilograms and have a huge wingspan of two and a half meters. Adult trumpeters are snow white with black legs and feet; their black beaks stretch to the inside corners of their eyes.
Sometimes they are confused with tundra swans, which are smaller and have a yellow marking next to the eye where it joins the beak. Juvenile swans have gray plumage with pink beaks and muddy yellow legs and feet.
Adult swans are monogamous, and the juveniles stay with the parents as a family unit for one year. These swans are very social in the winter, congregating in large numbers.
Winter migration starts with the first hard frosts that cause food supplies to dwindle. The swans must leave whilst there is still enough open water for them to achieve liftoff; they need a “runway” of water or ground at least 100 yards long to become airborne.
The southern migration is particularly gruelling for the families, and diligent preparation is necessary. The young swans need to be in top shape for flight and must carry enough fat supplies to last them for many miles before stopping to refuel.
Food staples in the Arctic area include aquatic plants and insects, but in the winter, the swans mainly forage for root crops and grasses in shallow flooded fields, straining the food through their serrated beaks to remove the excess water.
With their fat supplies topped up and longer daylight hours, they are ready to leave for their summer breeding grounds.
They arrive as new aquatic vegetation is emerging, and the newly hatched cygnets dine on the exploding insect population. The cycle is now complete.
Each year in the Comox Valley, a group of naturalists and volunteers conduct an annual swan count, starting in early November and continuing through March. Every Tuesday, the count is completed in designated areas and the numbers of adult and juvenile swans are recorded to assess the health of the swan population.
Although the populations appear to be stable, the future of their habitat is always cause for concern through development and encroachment of urban areas.
Any day now, MARS expects to be called out to rescue a swan — many of the first-year migrants will arrive severely emaciated, totally exhausted by the effort of migration. Too weak to feed themselves, often room and board is all they need to regain their strength before being returned to the flock.
Due to the nature of their foraging, which is often in mud or silt, they are sensitive to toxins, especially lead that is absorbed and changed into lead salts, causing the gizzard to become paralyzed, resulting in starvation. The telltale sign is a swan spinning or reeling in shallow water before it drowns.
Electrocution is also a hazard for these birds — often winter weather means poor visibility, and the swans are susceptible to hitting power lines during takeoffs and landings, especially in areas like the Comox Valley farmlands.
Finally, humans also are a source of harassment for the swans. If you wish to view the swans, please stay at a safe distance or in a vehicle; they are easily spooked, and unleashed dogs can cause mass panic amongst a flock on the ground.
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Last week, MARS released five bald eagles that had spent an average of three months in rehab, which included a transfer to a Lower Mainland centre for pre-release flight exercise. This story was covered by local TV stations and the local papers.
These five eagles made a total of 50 that were rescued and rehabbed so far this year. Together with another 400 wildlife cases, our resources have been stretched to the limit.
We are expecting a very busy winter season with all the severe storms that have already come and more predicted. I cannot imagine the plight of our local wildlife if MARS is no longer able to provide the professional care these creatures need to recover.
We are pleading with the public for any donation they may be able to make. If you can help, please call 250-337-2021 or donate online at www.wingtips.org. To report injured wildlife, call 1-800-304-9968.
Sandy Fairfield is the educational co-ordinator for the Mountainaire Avian Rescue Society (MARS). The MARS column appears every second Friday.