Tundra Swan (L) and Trumpeter Swan (R)
In the interest of improving my ID skills I’ve been studying these two nearly identical species. Both can be found in Washington in winter in large mixed groups, particularly in the Skagit Valley. I do see them in the Puyallup Valley regularly in smaller groups, but are often in locations that are distant from public rights of way (right of ways?).
The main difference between the species is size, with the Tundra Swan being a foot or more shorter from beak to tail. That can be difficult to discern in the field unless the birds are side by side in the same pose.
Another difference is the bills. Most Tundra Swans have at least a small yellow patch on their bill close to the eyes. The problem is that a significant number, ~10%, lack that feature. In addition, a small number of Trumpeter Swans have a similar light area on their bills.
I recently read a piece about how to identify these birds on David Sibley’s blog. Shape of the bill plays a big part in separating the two species. The biggest take away I got from his article is that the Tundra Swan’s eye is more defined because of the way the black of the bill narrows near its eyes. The Trumpeter’s eye appears to blend into the bill. I guess even more important is to look at the whole bird and note as many details as you can see.
But none of that can dampen the enjoyment of seeing such magnificent creatures in the wild.
Tundra and Trumpeter Swans | Flickr – Photo Sharing!.
Photo by Michael Brown
I had a little extra time this morning and took my camera and binoculars out looking for Trumpeter Swans. We often have a few in the valley this time of year, but it’s hit or miss. I drove out along Pioneer Way, River Road, Stewart, 66th Avenue, and Gay Road. I was striking out early, but chanced upon a Red-tailed Hawk fairly low in a tree along Gay Road. It stayed put when I stopped and rolled down the window.
As I got my camera up and ready, I noticed it was eating something. I started snapping a few pictures and noticed that part of the hawk’s meal was dangling from the branch. I focused on that and saw that it was a fish head! Then I saw the tail on the other side of the branch attached to a spine that had been picked pretty clean.
I’ve never heard that Red-tails are adept fishers, but maybe they are. More likely though is it found a carcass that had been abandoned and took it to a nearby tree for an easy meal.
Red-tailed Hawk with fish carcass
After attracting the attention of a nervous resident in an Army Ranger jacket, I decided to move on rather than tempt fate.
Continuing back onto River Road then back over to Pioneer, I noticed a group of large white birds in the distance from 52nd Street. With my binoculars I confirmed a flock of about twenty swans too distant to photograph or sort out species, but I would guess the majority would be Trumpeters. Like in past years, they congregated near the railroad tracks that parallel Pioneer. The elevated road bed for the tracks make it so they are not visible along most of Pioneer, and where they are visible it is only a peek-a-boo view.
I drove back onto 66th, and stopped at the Pierce Conservation District office. I asked if they had a view of the field in question. Mike Baden of the PCD accompanied me out to the back of the facility and told me the extent of their property. He then left me to it and I proceeded to walk along a fence row hoping to find an open view. Once again I got just peek-a-boo views of the swans, and finally had to turn around as the soil in the field got softer and softer. Shoulda worn boots!