Archive for Wednesday, February 2, 2005

In a land called Kansas

February 2, 2005

The lake is an island surrounded by Kansas.

And the trumpeters know it.

Dave Isabell, who lives on Bear Lake, feeds trumpeter swans off his
private boat dock.

Dave Isabell, who lives on Bear Lake, feeds trumpeter swans off his private boat dock.

This time of year, when David Isabell goes out on his back deck and whistles quietly, five trumpeter swans on the far side of Bear Lake gracefully lift into the sky. They fly north, about the equivalent of two city blocks. As they near Isabell's dock, the huge birds' vast white wings tilt in unison, almost as if they're one large aircraft. They glide onto the water, landing close to one another near the dock where they will be fed.

It is a family of trumpeter swans -- a father, mother and three cygnets.

As the swans wait for Isabell to stop at the smokehouse to collect two buckets of corn, they poke their long necks into the shallow water near land, looking for food. Some tip so far into the water that only their hind quarters are visible.

Return visitors

This is the second year the trumpeters have visited Bear Lake.

These parents and their three cygnets stay close together at Bear
Lake.

These parents and their three cygnets stay close together at Bear Lake.

Isabell was quick to notice them, as he, and his wife, Patricia, always are on the lookout for wildlife that can be seen from their home tucked in at the north end of Bear Lake.

"Yesterday morning there was a bald eagle across the cove from us," said Isabell, a former city manager for Kansas City, Kan., and a Bear Lake resident for about five years.

At the lake, hundreds of Canada geese stop in the wintertime, as do a pair of mute swans.

Isabell knows the birds by their calls.

"The mutes don't make much of a sound," he said, "They make a little grunting sound with a high-pitched whistle."

Trumpeters though, can be noisy, he said, comparing their call to that of an antique automobile horn.

"When they all get to going in harmony, it sounds like an antique band down there," Isabell said.

Trumpeter swans take their time gathering corn in the late
afternoon.

Trumpeter swans take their time gathering corn in the late afternoon.

Isabell was delighted last year when trumpeters arrived at Bear Lake in mid-February.

Isabell said he knew that at least one of this year's was also at Bear Lake in 2004. That's because some of the birds wear identification collars. The large white swan is banded with a green collar labeled "F02," a number Isabell kept track of last year. He was thrilled to see F02 return -- with other swans.

"It's a ball to watch them," Isabell said. "It's fun to feed them. The trumpeters, in the mornings I can normally get them to come up and almost eat out of my hand."

It's not just the fists of corn the trumpeters are after.

It's also open water, sometimes hard to find in wintertime when lakes, ponds and rivers freeze over.

David Isabell

David Isabell

Isabell keeps water around his dock from freezing by the use of a sump pump connected beneath his dock.

Though that's a sound plan, occasionally the sump pump goes awry. And it's not because of technical malfunctions.

Last Thursday afternoon, after checking the electrical source on the hill above the dock, Isabell realized why his sump pump had gone off.

"Apparently, the geese pulled the plug on it," he said, laughing as he plugged the cord back in.

Kansas sightings

Andy Friesen, a Lenexa-based wildlife biologist for Kansas Wildlife and Parks, was excited earlier this month to see 14 trumpeter swans in a corn field near Manhattan.

Until contacted last week by The Mirror, he wasn't aware of those much closer -- at Bear Lake. He planned to drive out there to see them.

"They're just real majestic," Friesen said. "They're just awesome. ... size-wise, and they're pretty graceful. They're neat to see."

Friesen said trumpeter swans, which have wingspans of 7 feet, stand 4 feet tall. They are the largest native water species in North America. And, when grown, they weigh from 21 to 30 pounds.

Experts' view

Madeleine Linck, a biologist and part-time administrative assistant for the Trumpeter Swan Society, based in Maple Plain, Minn., said it's likely that the swans at Bear Lake were part of Iowa's swan restoration project.

Trumpeter swans are native to the United States, but by 1900, because of the demand for their skins and feathers to be used for muffs and hats, the birds were nearly extinct. Later a small non-migratory population group was found in remote valleys of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming.

In 1935, the U.S. government established a refuge in Montana to protect the trumpeter swans. Gradually, their numbers increased, because of work by the federal government, and states such as Iowa.

"Iowa began a restoration project in 1995 where they would raise trumpeter swans from zoo stocks of eggs from Alaska, and when the birds got old enough they would release them in pairs to wetlands where they hoped they would stay for breeding purposes," Linck said.

Swans from Iowa are marked with red or green collars, she said.

The birds, which can live for 20 or 30 years, nest in the same place each year, frequently in Minnesota.

A swan tips as far as it can to get to food near the shore of Bear
Lake.

A swan tips as far as it can to get to food near the shore of Bear Lake.

They don't just return to the same lake -- they return to the same nest, arriving while the lake's still frozen and standing on the ice to guard their territory.

"If they have a nesting place, they want to get there before another swan family shows up," Linck said.

And, because the birds had no families to teach them where to winter, they've been finding places on their own. Fortunately, because Bear Lake is a no-hunting area, and because there are homeowners nearby who look out for them and even feed them, the birds found their way to Leavenworth County.

"Some swans went to Missouri and people shot them there," Linck said. "They thought they were geese."

But a swan looks nothing like a goose, Linck said, adding, "They may be with geese, but if you see them side by side, there's no way you can mistake them."

Riding along

Friday afternoon, Iowa wildlife technician Dave Hoffman was driving across northern Iowa with a trumpeter swan in his back seat.

"I certainly get some looks going down the interstate when people see this swan head coming up from the backseat of my car," Hoffman said, chuckling.

The swan, which had cracked three ribs when she flew into a power line, had finished six weeks of rehabilitation, and Hoffman was taking her back to where she was found.

Though the birds are wild, they're easy to handle.

"Once you have a swan restrained, they almost play possum," Hoffman said. "They're really docile."

Hoffman knows his swans much as a grandparent knows their grandchildren.

When told the numbers on the Bear Lake swans' collars, Hoffman immediately knew who they were.

He rattled off their numbers and statistics.

"F02 -- that bird is a male that was released in 1995 and it's from Washington State where we got that bird originally," Hoffman said. "That bird was the second bird to be released in the Iowa project, so it's one of our oldest birds out there."

The other birds with F02 -- 8H4, 8H5 and 2H7, were cygnets -- offspring of F02.

"About three weeks ago I actually captured F02 and those cygnets and put bands and collars on them," Hoffman said. "I captured them in north central Iowa near the town of Webster City."

And the fifth bird at Bear Lake, the one without a collar, Hoffman knew, too.

"His mate is from Minnesota," Hoffman said. "She just has a metal leg band."

The mate, from a zoo in Minnesota, was hatched in 1998. The swans mate for life.

He was glad to hear where the birds were, as he relies on reports of sightings to track their movements.

Hoffman said he has 27 reports of sightings of where F02 has been since 1995.

"It is amazing how those birds travel," Hoffman said. "They were just up in Iowa a few weeks ago."

The Iowa project has been successful. The state with the second most reports of Iowa swans is Missouri, with Kansas ranking third, Hoffman said.

"So far, our Iowa program has released about 570 young trumpeters into the wild," Hoffman said.

Iowa trumpeters have shown up in 15 states. And some have opted to stick around home.

"In Iowa we currently have about 14 pairs that are nesting in Iowa," Hoffman said.

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