On Saturday, April 30, birding expert Dave Larsen raced over to Regency Golf Course in Haymarket after receiving a text message from a neighbor alerting him that he’d seen swans while golfing that afternoon. When he arrived, Larsen was surprised to find three huge, white trumpeter swans meandering around the seventh hole.
It was an unexpected find for Larsen because trumpeter swans are a rare sight in Prince William County, especially in the spring.
Over the last few months, the majestic birds have been seen consistently in the wetland area at Leopold’s Preserve in Haymarket to the delight of many visitors. Birders Davis Chewning and Stephon Sterns saw 10 trumpeters at Leopold’s on April 19, as noted on eBird, a tool anyone can use to log their bird observations.
Manassas resident Jim Ward photographed the trumpeters both in flight and in the water at Leopold’s back on Feb. 27, the first time he visited the preserve.
“The swans were really a nice surprise. I don’t see many and that was by far my best opportunity to get decent photos,” he said.
Ward said he spends a lot of time at the boardwalk at Neabsco Regional Park and also Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge photographing birds. He said he will probably go back to Leopold’s to see the trumpeters again if they stick around. “I wonder if there might be some chicks in the future,” he said.
Larsen was surprised the trumpeters found their way to the Regency Golf Course because he thought that they’d already be on their migration journey north.
Back from the brink
Trumpeter swans were plentiful in Virginia waters in the colonial days according to the Virginia Natural History Society. Described as both astute and wary, the graceful birds were documented wintering in the Occoquan Bay in huge flocks of 200 or 300 hundred in the early 1800s.
While trumpeter swans once widely bred across North America from central Alaska all the way to the East Coast, they were nearly exterminated in the lower 48 states prior to 1900 due to commercial trapping for their skin and feathers, subsistence hunting and habitat loss.
Since then, due to intense conservation efforts, populations have recovered in many places. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game reports that trumpeter swan eggs have been sent to several Midwestern states to support restoration programs in areas where trumpeters have not been seen in 100 years.
Local conservation efforts are the legacy of the late William (Bill) Sladen a scientist and conservationist who worked for the last years of his life to establish a local population of trumpeter swans at Airlie Conference Center in Warrenton. After retiring from a teaching career at Johns Hopkins University, Sladen moved to Fauquier County in 1990 where he studied migratory patterns of trumpeter swans and attempted to restore the birds to their traditional East Coast wintering grounds until his death in 2017.
Larsen said all of Sladen’s trumpeter swans were tagged with numbered neck collars. But since his death, capture and tagging of nestlings has not been done consistently and some may have wandered out to nearby ponds in western Prince William and perhaps some of them are now also breeding, Larsen said.
How to spot and identify trumpeter swans
Even seasoned birders have trouble telling the difference between types of swans. In fact Leopold’s initially misidentified their visiting trumpeter swans as the more common tundra swans in a Facebook post in February.
Hundreds of tundra swans winter along the Virginia shore of the Potomac. Tundra swans breed in the Canadian and Alaskan tundra then migrate mostly to the West Coast with a substantial subpopulation travelling to the mid-Atlantic including the Chesapeake Bay, Larsen said.
If you are trying to tell if a swan is the extraordinary trumpeter swan, first take note of its size. The huge, snow-white birds are the largest of the native waterfowl in North America. Males weigh in around 28 pounds and females at 22 pounds. They measure about 4 feet tall with spectacular 7-foot wingspans. Tundra swans are much smaller.
Look carefully and you can see the differences. Trumpeters have a straight, jet-black beaks off their foreheads with no yellow. Comparatively, tundra swans have a yellow marking at the base of their bills. The telltale sign is the unique sound of the trumpeter’s call. “All About Birds” describes their call as a “deep, trumpeting “oh-OH” call, with the second syllable emphasized.” You can hear it here: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Trumpeter_Swan/sounds.
Larsen thought that he’d seen the trumpeters for the last time this year at Leopold’s on April 23. But the trumpeters continue to surprise him. Larsen said he is doubtful the trumpeters will stay in Prince William for the summer.
“Trumpeters often use beaver ponds for nesting, and I think Leopold’s qualifies as a suitable location,” he said, noting he has not observed any signs of the trumpeters nesting. “If there was any sign of nest building, I think we would have seen it,” he said.
Learn more about Leopold’s Preserve and plan a visit to get a glimpse of the majestic trumpeter swans while they are still around at https://www.leopoldspreserve.com/.
Reach Cher Muzyk at firstname.lastname@example.org