Friday, February 1, 2013

Swans, Geese, and Eagles

Swans, Geese, and Eagles

Last year when my friend Allison asked if I wanted to see swans, I readily agreed to spend the weekend with her. I’ve not seen many swans in my lifetime, had read about them long before I ever saw one. Not many swans in Wisconsin. As I packed for the weekend, I tried to remember my swan encounters. I remember walking a narrow footpath, pulling my suitcase, on my way to catch a bus to the village of Broadway. I had made reservations at a B&B and was anxious to get there. The footpath was bumpy and I was developing a pain in my upper back, for although I travel lightly, my suitcase was getting heavier by the minute. And then I saw them, four swans, three white and one black. It was like being hit, a wake-up call. Ruth, stop and smell the roses. There are four swans swimming in the River Avon. You’re in England and there’s a lovely pub across the way. All my aches disappeared.

My next memory of swans happened in Norway. I was on a train with my sister, going from Oslo to Bergen for the weekend. It was March and the snow was deep. The scenes were beautiful as we rode along. Suddenly, there was an opening in the forest and I looked down a long ravine to a river below. The trees were black against the pristine snow and at the bottom of the ravine were six swans gliding on the icy blue water. We quickly moved on, but the scene was forever etched in my memory.

And here I was now, in Allison’s car on our way to her home in Skagit County. We left the freeway and were on a county road when I saw some swans. Allison stopped so I could take a picture. These were Trumpeter swans (you know that because of their size, dark bill, and deep honking sound), the largest North American waterfowl, weighing about 28 pounds with a wingspan of six to eight feet. They can live more than 24 years and they mate for life. The male is called a cob (from the Middle English cobbe meaning leader of the pack). The female is a pen and she lays between three and eight eggs each summer. In 1940, the Alaskan bird watchers counted only 69. These birds were on their way to extinction. But people intervened and today the Alaskan birdwatchers claim nearly 13,000 swans nesting there in the summer.

I took my picture of the swans.

This was the first time I’d seen swans out of the water. They moved slowly, awkwardly, one webbed foot carefully placed one after the other. Water is their element. I noticed Allison had a sly smile as we drove away. Within a few minutes she stopped the car and pointed. “Ruth, look off to your right.” At first, I thought it was snow, and then I saw movement. Swans, hundreds of them. Made the hairs on the back of my neck move.

(The volunteer bird counters say there were about 8400 in the County.) They feed on the after-harvest crops, gleaning the fields of carrots, potatoes, corn, berries, etc. When they leave in March, the fields are fertilized and ready for plowing, a good arrangement for all concerned. And they need to fatten up for they will be going back to Siberia to mate and nurture their young, all to be ready to make the long flight again next winter. The whole business left me speechless. (If you want to know more about swans, check out Martha Jordan.) 

The swans would have made my weekend, and then Allison asked if I’d like to see the Snow Geese. I remember reading Paul Gallico’s The Snow Goose. Beautiful story, very sad ending, haunted me for weeks. I had never seen a snow goose and so the chance to see some was enticing. There were books on the coffee table about birds, so I did a little research. These Snow Geese summer in Alaska on Wrangle Island, but they winter here, grazing much as the swans do on the after-harvest veggies. The birders on Wrangle Island recognize the geese who winter here for their heads are dyed a coppery red, due to the ferrous soil in the Skagit Flats. We drove to the Floyd Jones Reserve the next morning and there they were, over 100,000. It boggled my mind.

The geese are beautiful and noisy. Every once in a while, a group would rise and swirl over the crowd. And then a flock came in like a blizzard from the north, circled the group below, and gracefully land to join the others. How do they do it? They never bump into each other or cause any accidents. There were squabbles going on, but never about the flying. It was more over some tender morsel. I could have watched them all day. 

But we didn’t stay all day with the geese as Allison had one more treat in mind. Eagles. Seeing an eagle has always been an event in my life. I remember my father pointing one out when we camped in northern Wisconsin. Such majesty and power. I knew immediately why it was my country’s official bird. I knew about hawks: Rough-legged, Red Tailed, Northern Harriers, Peregrine falcons. But eagles always were special. Still are. I love to see them in flight. But to see them sitting upright in a tree is also magical for me. It’s as if they are some kind of messenger sent just for me, either to give me strength, or to remind me all is well. Lucky this farm family: (Those black dots are eagles--12 of them.)

I am still in awe of all that beauty. I hope the feeling never leaves. Mother Nature knows what she’s doing.


  1. Hi Ruth -- paying a return blog visit. I took that train ride across the mountains from Oslo to Bergen in 1998 on my solo trek to explore my maternal grandfather's roots. I didn't see swans, but the scenery was gorgeous.

    1. Thanks for visiting the blog. Hope you'll come back again.

  2. The swans and snow geese in the Skagit Valley are among my favorite sights. Especially when the snow geese rise on a wave, hover about ten feet off the ground, glide back down a couple of feet from where they started, as graceful as ballerinas.