What a pleasant surprise to have a prolonged period of snow cover this past December. This reality went a long way to ease my addiction to explore scenic areas of our local environment on a pair of cross county skis.
If my memory serves me right, these snow conditions haven't existed since December of 1996.
Last winter (2006-07), my ski outings were restricted to about one inch of snow covering the frozen backwaters at the head of Lake Pepin.
In addition to observing numerous bald eagles feeding and resting along the open river on my daily excursions, the highlight was to observe my first trumpeter swans in the Red Wing area. For a two-week period last February a pair of swans rested and fed along this section of the river.
With the aid of a pair of binoculars, it became apparent that one of the birds was wearing a yellow neck collar. According to Carrol Henderson, Minnesota DNR Non-Game Wildlife specialist, it is likely that this bird was tagged as a part of the Hennepin County Park Reserve district restoration program.
Henderson indicated that as of seven years ago, Minnesota switched from yellow neck collars to bright orange wing tags. Other states in the Midwest restoration program use their own distinct colored marking system.
Currently the state of Wisconsin uses yellow neck collars with black numerals.
You might wonder why a restoration program is necessary for this beautiful bird.
The answer is that in the 1800s the swan was heavily hunted by early settlers for its meat, skin and feathers. One can easily imagine the excitement of a pioneer observing a 30-pound bird on a nearby wetland. This large bird would have provided food for his family for several days. At the same time, there was a big demand for swan feathers in Europe for making fashionable hats.
According to Carrol Henderson, early historical records from the Lake Pepin area report hundreds of trumpeter swans.
Unfortunately the trumpeter swan had disappeared from Minnesota by the 1880s. In fact, in the early 1900s the trumpeter was thought to be extinct.
Surprisingly, around 1930, a flock of 69 swans was discovered in a very remote area of southwestern Montana near Yellowstone National Park known as Red Rock Lakes.
In 1935, the U.S. Government established Red Rocks Lake National Wildlife Refuge to protect this remnant trumpeter population.
In the 1960s, Minnesota began a trumpeter swan restoration program when Hennepin County Park Reserve District received 40 swans from Red Rocks Lakes to start a breeding population of its own.
Today this population numbers around 2200 birds of which there are approximately 250 nesting pairs. Hundreds of these swans spend the winter months in the open water of the Mississippi River directly below the Xcel plant at Monticello, Minn.
A closer location to observe wintering swans is in the open water at the confluence of the Willow River and the St. Croix in Hudson, Wis.
According to Pat Manthey, DNR non-game specialist for Wisconsin, one can regularly see upward of 150 swans in this area.
You might next be wondering how to distinguish a trumpeter swan from the more numerous tundra (formerly known as whistling) swan that we frequently observe migrating through this area in the spring and fall.
Because of their similar white color and black facial markings it is very difficult to tell them apart on the water. However once airborne, the task becomes much easier.
First, trumpeter swans travel in small flocks compared to the tundra swans. The former are native to this area and migrate only from winter open water to their nearby spring nesting areas.
The trumpeter weighs from 20-30 pounds and is the largest waterfowl species native to North America.
In Minnesota, only the white pelican can compete with the trumpeter for having the greatest wingspan at 8 feet.
The easiest way to tell the two apart is by their call. Late one afternoon last February on my ski tour out to the river, I was unable to observe the swans.
After thoroughly glassing up and down the river, I was in the midst of turning around to head for home. All of a sudden I was startled by the deep sonorous honk of these amazing birds as they flew directly overhead.
Caught fully by surprise, I stood transfixed to this remarkable conservation success story as they flew into the colorful sunset on this frigid winter evening.
Hopefully if you spend some time along the river this winter, you will be treated to the same experience.