Kenai Peninsula a year-round home for hardy trumpeter swans

Posted: Sunday, October 07, 2007

KENAI - With winter weather closing in on Alaska, many birds already have headed to the Lower 48 for the season, but not all of the Kenai Peninsula's avian species are such fair-weather fliers. A few hardy birds attempt to eke out a living through the cold weather months, and among them are the massive and majestic trumpeter swan.

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That's not to say these ivory-colored Boeing 747's of the avian world will be staying put in their summer locations. On the contrary, trumpeters will soon be on the move, and while some may head south, there are pockets of birds that will remain on the peninsula in a select few locations.

"Some trumpeters can already be seen flying now, but these are likely non-breeders or those that failed in their nesting attempts. Most are still on the lakes and in the same general areas where they nested, but they should be on the move any day now as the cygnets (young hatchlings) start to fly," said Todd Eskelin, a biological technician with the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.

The process began back in spring, when after fattening up before the breeding season in the Moose River and on the Kenai River below Skilak Lake, trumpeters began nesting in May, according to Eskelin.

"As soon as the lakes open up they begin picking a spot," he said.

Unlike some species of waterfowl that aren't perturbed by the activity of humans, most trumpeters can be easily disturbed, so they will favor quiet bodies of water off of the road system.

"There are exceptions though. I know of one pair that nests on Beluga Lake in Homer, which has floatplanes constantly landing and taking off, but that is definitely not typical for trumpeters," he said.

Eskelin added that trumpeter pairs are devoted, but despite the romantic notions of some people, their bond may not be monogamous as some make it out to be.

"They're tighter about keeping mates than some other birds that mate for life, but there are exceptions," he said, citing some studies where it was recorded that a swan mated with a swan other than its partner while the partner was away feeding.

"And if a mate dies, the remaining bird will find another," Eskelin added.

Paired birds construct colossal containment areas for their offspring. Nests may be 6 to 12 feet in diameter and 1 to 2 feet above the water level surrounding the nest. There, females will lay two to seven eggs.

"Their cygnets hatched around July," Eskelin said.

Since the fuzzy, ash-colored cygnets are unable to fly for several months, the small family groups stay close to where the chicks were hatched, vigorously defending their progeny. The parents can be quite a handful for would-be predators, too, as according to Eskelin trumpeters average around 26 pounds in weight, may stand 4 feet tall and have a wingspan of 7 to eight 8 feet.

"Trumpeters are big ones," he said.

As the young swans begin to fledge, trumpeters will begin to make their seasonal movements typically around the end of September and beginning of October. Alaska is home to more than 13,000 trumpeters during the summer more than 80 percent of the world's population but some will head to more southern climates for the winter.

"In winter they'll move south to British Columbia and Washington," Eskelin said.

Even the trumpeters that call the Kenai Peninsula their home in the summer may make the trek, but they are replaced it is believed by birds from further north.

"We don't have banding evidence to support it, but the trumpeters that winter on the Kenai probably come from further north, possible from the Yukon or Fairbanks area," Eskelin said.

They come in search of food found in open water. Eskelin said in summer 99 percent of the diet of breeding adult trumpeters, and 95 percent of the diet of cygnets, is made up of aquatic vegetation, and the birds will attempt to maintain a similar feeding pattern in the cool weather months.

"In winter they've still got to eat, and they'll move to shallow, slow moving water like there is in big stretches below Skilak Lake. There's aquatic vegetation in there under the water, and the cool water temperatures keep it fresh like lettuce in the fridge," Eskelin said.

Trumpeters may also feed sparingly on invertebrates, salmon eggs and even the occasional coho carcass.

"It's all nutrients," he said.

Since the living is so good below Skilak Lake, Eskelin said the area draws some of the largest winter congregations of trumpeters on the Kenai Peninsula.

"We've had high counts of over 200 at Skilak and its not uncommon to see 60 to 80 trumpeters through the winter. But, below Kenai Lake is another spot that has high numbers. There is usually eight to 10 birds there," he said.

"We have a nice population here," Eskelin added.

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