Large swans spotted at reservoir during annual eagle count

Neal Whitaker was out counting bald eagles for the official national count at Marion Reservoir last Friday when he and his companion happened upon another surprise among the abundance of wildlife at the lake.

Whitaker, a park ranger with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said they spotted two swans-birds that have normal ranges in regions north of here.

Based solely on an educated guess considering the numbers of each species, Whitaker said he thinks the swans probably are the more abundant tundra swans that number 100,000 or more instead of trumpeter swans, only 6,000 to 7,000 of which are left despite restoration programs for them in several states.

Whichever they were, they were big, Whitaker said, “very impressive birds” to see, perhaps, three or four times the size of a typical wild goose.

Lloyd Davies of Marion, who apparently saw the same birds grazing wheat, said the large size is the first thing that surprises an observer, although appreciation for the beauty of the graceful, large white birds soon enters in.

Sheri Schmidt, rural Marion, said they looked “as big as boats” in the Durham Cove area.

The tundra variety, according to state and federal statistics in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Missouri, where restoration efforts are under way, has a wing span of 6 to 7 feet, and stands 3 feet tall.

The trumpeter’s wingspan can go over 7 feet, and it can stand 4 feet tall. That compares to snow geese, which have wingspans up to 3 feet wide.

The trumpeter is the largest waterfowl species native to North America, with an average weight of 21 to 30 pounds. Large males sometimes exceed 35 pounds. The tundra swan averages 13 to 20 pounds.

Besides the difference in bill shape, the tundra has a yellow spot in front of the eye in 80 percent of the variety while the trumpeter usually has a red border or stripe, like lipstick, on the edge of its lower mandible.

But individuals from either variety may also have similar yellow spots or red stripes on the bill.

The best way to distinguish them is to catch them in the act of calling because the trumpeter “trumpets” while the tundra “whistles.”

They are grazers that can use their long necks to reach down to the water bottom to uproot water plants.

Trumpeters were once thought extinct because of the millinery trade and hunting until small populations were discovered in mountain valleys of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. Then they were discovered in larger numbers in Alaska and northern Canada.

They are highly susceptible to lead poisoning from gun shot and lead fishing sinkers. Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan rear cygnets for release in the wild.

The male “cob” and the female “pen” mate for life, but may change mates if one of them dies. They have nests of five to nine eggs typically, but you are unlikely to ever find them nesting as far south as Kansas.

It is illegal even to harass swans let alone hurt them.

Whitaker said the swans still could be trumpeters. He couldn’t get close enough to determine if they have the more concave or dish-like bill of tundras.

If you are picturing the orange-billed swan of art and folklore, these birds won’t totally fit that picture. They have the black bills of American varieties. According to biologists, the typical orange-billed swan pictured is the mute swan of Europe.

This all came on a day when Whitaker also had a more successful day than usual eagle sighting on the day when all state and federal agencies to which it applies are asked to join in the national count coordinated by the Biology Resources Division of the U.S. Geological Survey.

In Kansas, the count is coordinated under the Kansas Department of Wildlife by Edwin J. Miller at Independence, Whitaker said.

Whitaker said the Friday count was 21 eagles, all of them bald eagles. Seven of them are immature eagles of less than 3 years of age with all brown color; 12 are mature eagles with the white head and other white plumage; two were too far away to make out a color pattern.

Although this is a record count for the date selected nationally, Whitaker said it is far below the highest number of eagles ever counted at the reservoir in a single day-70 of them.

The highest eagle numbers on count days were recorded for the last two years, 2004 and 2005 at 10 eagles each time.

Prior to this, four eagles were spotted in 2003, nine in 2002, seven in 2001, three in 2000, eight in 1999, six in 1998, no count in 1997, three in 1996, five in 1995, no count in 1994, six in 1993, zero in 1992 and two in 1991.

Whitaker said years of lower counts probably occurred in more severe weather conditions than this year, when the lake has typically been entirely or partially frozen over.

This year, the water was entirely open with the warmer weather, he said.

Whitaker said eagles have been making big strides in recovering from endangerment since chlorinated pesticides, especially DDT, have been outlawed.

He said the pesticides made eagle eggs, and those of related species such hawks, too thin-shelled for the birds to set on without breaking them.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed taking the bald eagle off the endangered list as fully recovered in 2000. But the proposal was delayed to decide on the bird’s future management.

The eagle is so protected that even possession of a feather or body part by a person can result in a $10,000 or more felony fine, plus imprisonment, although native American Indians are still allowed to possess them as a part of their culture.

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