Last Friday morning, (November 2), I saw two swans on the lake at Burton. They were too far away from me to identify. The following day, Ken Cross drove down to look and found 13 of them! He was able to get close enough for pictures and identification – they were Tundra Swans.
There are two species of swans in B.C.: Tundra Swan and Trumpeter Swan and neither are very common in our valley. In the 1980s and early 90s I saw Tundra Swan more often than Trumpeter, but this pattern has reversed in the last 10 or 15 years. Last week’s Tundras are only the second ones I’ve seen since 2000. The two are very similar in appearance and sometimes cannot be distinguished. Most Tundra Swans have a yellowish spot near the base of the beak, and most Trumpeters do not. At close range this is quite visible, but is unfortunately not 100 per cent reliable for separating the two. The shape of the head can be used to separate the two, even at a distance, but the difference is subtle, and some practice is necessary.
Swans feed largely on aquatic vegetation which they reach by tipping up and stretching down with their long necks. Due to the ever-changing water levels on Arrow Lake, very little such vegetation exists here. With so little for them to eat, it’s not surprising that migrants such as these never stay long when they do visit here. In some parts of southern B.C., quite a number of swans stay all winter. A few hundred regularly winter along the Thompson River near Kamloops. Smaller numbers use the Slocan River for at least part of the winter.
In the Kootenays, good numbers of migrating swans are regularly seen around Creston. The valley there has extensive wetlands that provide ample feeding opportunities for many species of waterfowl. Many hundreds of swans, mostly Tundras, can be observed during February and March, and then again in October and November.
Tundra Swans breed along the Arctic coast from western Alaska to the eastern Canadian Arctic. Trumpeters have a much more restricted breeding range that includes scattered locations in B.C., Alberta, the Yukon and Alaska. In the 1930s Trumpeter Swan numbers were extremely low and it was feared that their extinction was near. Concerted conservation efforts have prevented that from happening and their numbers today are much improved.