Mission: To promote the appreciation of wildlife and increase harmony between humanity and nature.

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Sunday, January 10, 2021


On Thursday, a pair of Trumpeter Swans graced Union Bay. There are very few sights that project such peaceful tranquility. It may seem surprising that birds, named for making loud trumpet-like calls, spend most of their time in silence.

This morning, I read a quote by John James Audubon from 1843. It was in the online application Birds of the World. Audubon implied that as long as Trumpeter Swans are undisturbed their necks remain graceful and curved.

Almost two hundred years later, his observation is still accurate. When disturbed they lift their heads, their necks straighten and they become obviously alert to any potential danger. Additional reactions vary based on the level of the intrusion. 

With a full-blown disturbance, like a human directly approaching them, they abandon their location. They will run at top speed across the surface of the water, flapping their wings and trumpeting loudly. Slowly, it seems, they gain sufficient speed to become airborne. It can take them the length of a football field. Given that they can weigh more than a Thanksgiving turkey this type of response has to deplete their energy.

While there are other birds in North America with longer wings I cannot find any mention of a North American bird that weighs more than a Trumpeter Swan.

In less threatening situations, like being surrounded by American Coots, the swans will save some energy by slowly and silently paddling off to a more peaceful location. 

I try not to disturb them at all. If they do notice me, I stop moving, keep my distance, and try to stay perfectly still. Normally, they relax and return to their previous activities.

While I observed them, they did occasionally paddle around to feed nearby. However, I was pleased they never took flight, and each time they returned to their preferred roosting and feeding location.

Their primary food, around Union Bay, is underwater vegetation. Like American Wigeons and Canada Geese, they are not divers. They are dabblers. They only reach as deep as their necks will allow. However, they can maximize their reach by turning completely upside down and using their large, black feet to help stabilize their position. 

In keeping with the concept of guilds, mentioned in last week's post, while feeding like this they can be described as "water-dabbling herbivores".

In shallower water, they feed by simply extending their necks while their bodies remain horizontal on the surface. I suspect this is their optimal underwater feeding situation e.g. minimum effort, for maximum return. 

The north side of Union Bay seems to be a particularly attractive feeding spot. Click Here and look for the white circle to see where they often feed on Union Bay. 

The Bay is the largest portion of shallow water in Lake Washington. Shallow water enables underwater vegetation to flourish and supports a variety of waterfowl which in turn supports their predators. Bald Eagles are a prime airborne example.  The eagles wisely tend to focus on ducks and fish. Healthy Swans are apparently too big of a challenge for our Union Bay Bald Eagles.

When their hunger is satiated the swans often begin preening their beautiful white feathers. Their annual molt is just finishing so their feathers are in nearly perfect condition.

Feathers serve multiple functions. They help shed water, retain heat, and enable flight. However, the feathers must be kept clean and properly aligned to successfully achieve these goals. They also have another function.

No doubt, being white helps them to blend into snow-covered environments. (This photo is from a November trip to Alaska in 2016.) 

Trumpeter Swans tend to breed in Central Alaska and in-land in Western Canada and the United States. They tend to winter along the Pacific Coast from Washington State and north to Alaska. 

I have never taken any photos of Trumpeter Swans on Union Bay after January. I am not positive when they head north, but if you want to see them, I would not delay your visit.

In the West, their smaller cousins, the Tundra Swans, tend to leap-frog the Trumpeters during migration. They winter along the Pacific Coast in Washington State and points south into California while breeding along the northern coasts of Alaska and Canada.

One of the two swans fed more often than the other. I suspect it was the female of the pair. Trumpeter Swans are said to mate for life and can live for over twenty years.

I wonder if the female is already beginning to retain the nutrients needed to create their new 2021 generation.

In this photo, it almost looks like they are breeding. I suspect it is an optical illusion due to the angle. I found a review that said it only takes two days from breeding to egg-laying for Mute Swans. I doubt it is significantly different for Trumpeters.

This photo from 2016 shows two immature Trumpeters in the foreground with adults behind them - most likely their parents. 

I find it curious that the feet of the young take many months before they turn black - like their parents. I wonder if there is some type of pigment or color that they slowly pick up from the environment that helps to darken their feet. I also wonder if dark feet are somehow advantageous. 

When landing their large feet look like skis, although, when they angle them up to slow their progress they become more like the flaps on the wings of an airplane. Given that swans are much older than our technology, I suppose the resemblance should be stated in the opposite direction. 

However, in our modern world, we are, sadly, more familiar with flaps and skis than the feet of swans.

Later in the day, when the sun peeked out below the clouds, it highlighted this female Mallard and her mate.

The male was dipping and dabbling just a few feet to her left.

With the perfect light and the male's fresh breeding plumage, I was focused on trying to get both birds in the photo when...

...there was a sudden explosion of wings, water, and noise. Both Mallards flew my direction and landed fairly close by. It was almost as if they were coming to me for protection. 

saw a silent dark shadow fall through the grass behind their previous location. Moments later, a river otter stuck its head out of the grass, saw me, and promptly disappeared - before I could get a photo. The situation and the reaction of the Mallards confirmed for me that river otters have a taste for waterfowl, not just their eggs.

As the sunset, I returned for a final visit with the Trumpeter Swans

They occasionally looked up to check on their surroundings...

...or adjust a feather.

As Audubon implied, the curve of their necks communicated their peaceful state of mind.

They were resting quietly, as I began paddling home.

Have a great day on Union Bay...where nature lives in the city and Black Birders are welcome!


Recommended Citation

 Mitchell, C. D. and M. W. Eichholz (2020). Trumpeter Swan (Cygnus buccinator), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (P. G. Rodewald, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.truswa.01

Going Native:

Without a well-funded Environmental Protection Agency, it falls to each of us to be ever more vigilant in protecting our local environments. Native plants and trees encourage the largest diversity of lifeforms because of their long intertwined history with our local environment and native creatures. I have been told that even the microbes in the soil are native to each local landscape. I hope we can inspire ourselves, our neighbors, and local businesses to respect native flora and to support native wildlife at every opportunity. I have learned that our most logical approach to native trees and plants (in order of priority) should be to:

1) Learn and leave established native flora undisturbed.
2) Remove invasive species and then wait to see if native plants begin to grow without assistance. (If natives plants start on their own, then these plants or trees are likely the most appropriate flora for the habitat.)
3) Scatter seeds from nearby native plants in a similar habitat.
4) If you feel you must add a new plant then select a native plant while considering how the plant fits with the specific habitat and understanding the plant's logical place in the normal succession of native plants.

My intention in my weekly post is to include at least one photo each week and visually challenge us to know the difference between native and non-native lifeforms. 

(By the way, my friend Tom Brown pointed out that the application named 'Wildflower Search' is extremely helpful. Click on the highlighted link to see for yourself.

Also, Jane Lundin has created a small package, with a lot of critical information that looks quite handy, and light, for backpacking in the mountains in Springtime. It is titled, Mountain Wildflowers of Washington.)

What type of waterfowl is sitting next to the Trumpeter swan? Is it native to Union Bay?


Scroll down for the answer.


Gadwall: Yes! Gadwalls are native to Union Bay. This male, with a wingspan of approximately 33 inches probably weighs about the same as a Mallard and approximately one-tenth of the weight of a Trumpeter.


The Email Challenge:

Over the years I have had many readers tell me that Google is no longer sending them email announcements regarding my posts. Even more frustrating when they go to 're-sign-up', hoping that will enable them to once again start receiving the announcements, they get a message which says 'Sorry, you are already signed up.' Google has not responded to my requests for help with this issue. 

My functional workaround is to set up my own email list and each week I manually send out a new post announcement. If you are experiencing the issue and would like to be added to my personal email list please send me an email requesting to be added. Thank you for your patience!

My email address is: LDHubbell@Comcast.Net

A few more final photos:



  1. Hi Larry, Splendid photos, as always. On Thursday there were a half dozen swans at Juanita Bay. I was biking in the rain w/o binos so I didn't even slow down to determine which variety. The flap analogy doesn't quite hold since the feet are not acting like foils which offer a drag/lift tradeoff. So, more like speed brakes, which just increase drag, but of course you're right that people will never rival nature for invention.
    Best, Tom

    1. Tom, Thank you. 🙂 Larry
      Ps: Although, has anyone checked? Maybe those huge feet, positioned near the rear of their bodies, do actually work like airfoils in flight?

  2. Another wonderful post, Larry. On Christmas Eve, just before sunset, Mary Sue and I were out for a walk at UBNA and heard the trumpeting before we got to the water’s edge. There were 8 Trumpeters there, including two gray juveniles. Along with an enormous number of other waterfowl. What a lovely, peaceful spot full of life! Thanks for keeping us informed and appreciative of our urban wildlife. — Dave

    1. That sounds wonderful! I am glad you got to enjoy such a delightful experience! Thank you for sharing. 🙂