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

On Instagram: @unionbaywatch

Monday, January 31, 2022

The Private Reserve

Last week there were at least fourteen Trumpeter Swans on Union Bay. According to the eBird sightingsthe first two Trumpeters of this season were seen in early November. In December, the numbers began to increase. In the first half of January, more than twenty were reported. It appears the peak may have passed and their numbers are declining. 

I wonder if some of the Swans may have already begun their migration back towards their breeding grounds - in the interior of Alaska or Western Canada. In late Fall, the Trumpeters Swans in the western portion of North America mostly migrate towards the Pacific Coast. The majority of them spend the winter in Southeast Alaska or British Columbia. Although a fair portion come as far south as Western Washington, particularly, the Skagit River floodplain. Seattle Audubon's Birdweb states, "They are now found in greater numbers in Washington than anywhere else in the contiguous United States." 

The best land-based viewing of Swans on Union Bay is from East Point in the Union Bay Natural Area.

In years past it appeared to me that the Trumpeter Swans were often visiting on day trips. They would arrive mid-morning and feed, sleep, and groom. However, when the sun would begin to set they would fly east for the night. 

However, this year, they don't seem to be leaving in the evening. It feels like an encouraging trend. Maybe we, humans and swans, are learning to accept each other. It hasn't always been this way. In the 1930s, there were less than 100 Trumpeter Swans left in the lower 48 States.

The 2015 Trumpeter Swan Survey tells an amazing and hopeful story of recovery. They went  from less than 3000 Trumpeter Swans in North America in 1968, to more than 63,000 in 2015. Sadly, this recovery is offset by the loss of billions of other birds during virtually the same period. Click Here to read more. On the positive side, we as individuals can make a difference in reversing this trend. See the Going Native section below for new information provided by the Washington Ornithological Society.

When you see a "headless" Trumpeter Swan, like the second one from the right, they are probably just feeding. They extend their long necks below the surface to pull up vegetation that Canada Geese, Mallards, and other dabbling ducks cannot reach. 

For two-thirds of the year, this special supply of aquatic food grows just below of the reach of our year-round waterfowl. Then in the winter, the long-necked Trumpeter Swans return to harvest their private reserve. 

By the way, can you identify the outline of the dark duck that is backlit by the central swan? The dark-thin bill is a good hint.

An earlier photo shows a pair of Gadwalls approaching the area. If you guessed that the bird in the photo above was a male Gadwall, I believe you are correct. Isn't it amazing how small they are in comparison to the Swans?

If you can see an eye, along with a small portion of the bill, resting in the middle of the Swan's back, the Swan is probably trying to sleep. By the way, they often sleep and feed during both the day and night.

If a Swan was fully sleeping, I assume, both white eyelids would be fully closed. In this photo, I believe the eyelid was previously closed, while the Swan's head or bill was underwater. Then, when this photo was taken, the Swan had only opened the eyelid halfway. 

Apparently, many birds are capable of sleeping and being awake at the same time. The hemispheres of their brains apparently divide their responsibilities. This results in them having one eye open while the other is closed. I am uncertain if this ability applies to Trumpeter Swans, but it sure seems like it would be useful and appropriate. Click Here to read more about this amazing skill.

When the Swans sense a threat, like a human paddling about in a kayak, they straighten their necks. This raises their heads for the optimal view while losing the lovely relaxed curves as seen in the previous photos. Normally, if a perceptive person reads the signs and stops moving, the Swans may slowly relax and return to sleeping, feeding, and grooming.

Note: One of these Swans is not like the others. More below.

I have seldom seen Swan skirmishes.

However, they will rapidly sidle away from a defensive Swan with a long neck and large personal space.

Trumpeter Swans are awe-inspiring in multiple ways. It is easy to imagine their pristine flight feathers as angel wings.

Their wingspans are wider than the height of the average human, a single Swan may weight more than a pair of Bald Eagles, and their melodic trumpeting almost certainly preceded our creation of trumpets. 

In Birds of the World, John James Audubon is quoted as saying, "Imagine, reader, that a flock of fifty Swans are thus sporting before you...and you will feel, as I have felt, more happy and void of care than I can describe." He said this almost two hundred years ago and yet he perfectly predicted my reaction to Trumpeter Swans.

Now is still a good time to see the Trumpeter Swans in Seattle, while visiting the Union Bay Natural Area (UBNA). 


By the way, apparently someone has been cutting the fencing and uprooting new native plants in the UBNA. If you see this happening I would recommend not confronting the person. However, when you are at a safe location the appropriate contact information for the University of Washington Police Department is:


Emergency 911
Non-Emergency: 206.685.UWPD (8973) TTY
Anonymous Tips: 206.685.TIPS (8477)


Anytime, the local Bald Eagles fly over, almost all other birds flush in a rush of beating wings and frantic feet seeking survival. On the other hand, Trumpeter Swans rarely react at all. Both the Eagles and Swans seem to realize that the Swan's strength and size outweigh any Eagle's claim to being an apex predator.

This 2016 photo, shows a young Trumpeter Swan that is most likely less than a year old. By the end of their second year, they turn white like their parents. However, they do not fully mature and take a mate at that point. They are typically between three to six years old before they reproduce. Sadly, I have not seen any yearlings in this year's flock, however, we still may be seeing some older but still immature birds. If so, it increases the possibility of the Union Bay wintering population continuing to grow in the future. It will be exciting to see how many Swans, both white and grey, show up next winter.

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:

Each of us, who breathe the air and drink the local water, needs to watch and protect our local environment. 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. (When native 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 friend Elaine Chuang shared several resources (that were new to me) from the January Washington Ornithological Society meeting. The major new concept is that specific keystone native plants enable critical moths and caterpillars that in turn provide food for the great majority of birds, especially during the breeding season. Here are the top two links from her list.

Native Keystone Plants for Wildlife:


Resources for adding plants to your Pacific Northwest Garden:



Click Here to access a King County publication that explains the best placement for a wide variety of native plants. It looks quite helpful.

Also, my friend Tom Brown pointed out that the application named 'Wildflower Search' is very 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.)

Another idea that integrates perfectly with living in harmony with nature is the concept of Forest Gardening. Native Americans collected and nurtured dense multi-layered gardens of native herbs, plants, shrubs, and trees that produced food and herbal medicines. Even after 150 years of no maintenance, the gardens are essentially intact and the diversity of life remains significantly higher than in the surrounding forests. Click Here to learn more.


In the area below it is my intention to display at least one photo each week to help challenge us to know the difference between native and non-native lifeforms. 

Can you match the names of the following species, of white birds, with their photos?

1. Trumpeter Swan
2. American White Pelican
3. Great Egret
4. Snow Goose

By the way, in the seventh photo from the top, in this post, the smaller Swan in the front is a Tundra Swan. Notice the small yellow spot on the bill and the slightly more concave shape of the bill.





Scroll down for the answer.


The unspoken question is are these birds all native to Union Bay? Even though the photos above were not all taken near Union Bay, I have seen all four of these native species between I-5 and Union Bay.

1. Trumpeter Swan C
2. American White Pelican D
3. Great Egret B
4. Snow Goose A


The Email Challenge:

Over the years, I have had many readers tell me that Google is no longer sending them email announcements. As of 2021,
 Google has discontinued the service.

In response, I have set up my own email list. With each post, I will manually send out an announcement. If you would like to be added to my personal email list please send me an email requesting to be added. Something like:

                Larry, I want to see more of nature. Please add me to your personal email list. 

Thank you for your patience and interest!

My email address is:  



The Comment Challenge:

Another common issue is losing your input while attempting to leave a comment on this blog. Often everything functions fine, however, sometimes people are unable to make it past the 
robot-detection challenge or maybe it is the lack of a Google account. I am uncertain about the precise issue. Sadly, a person can lose their comment with no recovery recourse. 

Bottom Line: 

If you write a long comment, please, copy it before hitting enter. Then, if the comment function fails to record your information, you can send the comment directly to me using email.

My email address is:  




Final Photos: