There are a lot of Swans in the area this fall. Both Tundra and Trumpeter Swans are hanging out on area lakes and rivers.
The Tundra Swan is slightly smaller, but that can be difficult to determine if there’s nothing to compare it to. There really is no easy way to tell the two species apart. The best way is probably by their voice. If you can hear them vocalize there are distinct differences. The Trumpeter Swan, Cygnus buccinator, trumpets loudly and sounds very much like an old-fashioned car horn, while the Tundra Swan, Cygnus columbianus,sound more like a Snow Goose. In the old days, the Tundra Swan was called Whistling Swan, which I kind of like better. Both of those names refer to the sound they make and while that’s the best way to differentiate between the two, the old name Whistling Swan would remind you of that when out in the wild.
The other way to tell the difference is by their habits. Trumpeter Swans stay and breed in Minnesota so if you see a Swan in the summer time, it is most likely a Trumpeter. Their numbers are increasing every year since they were re-introduced in the 1970’s and through out the 80’s. Trumpeters can have up to 5 cygnets in a brood and the juveniles will stay with the family group until the next breeding season. The juvenile swans are gray in color. So if you see a small group of 3 to 5 Swans, with some gray colored Swans mixed in, they are most likely Trumpeter Swans.
Tundra Swans breed way up north on the Tundra and only fly through Minnesota in migration. They are usually in a bigger flock migrating like Geese. They use their voices to stay in contact with each other while flying and as they go overhead they can almost sound like a pack of hounds baying. Snow Geese will have black wing tips while Tundra Swans are entirely white.
Both Swans are pretty much the same size as each other, but the Tundra Swan will sometimes have yellow lore’s (the part between the eye and the bill), so if you can see that it is a pretty reliable field mark. But, Tundra’s don’t always show that yellow. A field mark for Trumpeters is a red color on the lower mandible of their bill, but sometimes Tundra’s can also have that red coloring. So what seems at first an easy identification can get complicated. Oh well, for me, just seeing a majestic Swan is enough to get me excited!
Last summer I was doing a survey for the new Breeding Bird Atlas, that is a 5 year study just started last year, and part of my block was northwest bay of Crane Lake. I hadn’t been to that part of the block until July 4th when my husband and I took a quick trip to see what was happening. I was scanning the shoreline to the north and lamenting that there wasn’t even a Mallard Duck to be seen, when my husband said: “what are those big white birds behind us?” I swung around and couldn’t believe my eyes! That’s when the Chinese fire drill started as I dug out my camera and set up exclaiming OMG, OMG, OMG!!! There were two adult Trumpeter Swans and 3 baby Swans! We stayed around long enough to get a few photos and then we got out of there because I didn’t want to disturb the young family.
After I got home I found out that it was perhaps a St Louis County first nesting record (although there are breeding Trumpeters to the west of us in Koochiching County in the Voyageurs National Park). My excitement was building as I researched the Swans on line and read that the young Swans can’t fly until they are 100 days old. It was going to be a fun summer watching the Swan cygnets as they grew up. Unfortunately my excitement faded as time went on, because I never saw the Swan family again. I tried many times through out the summer to look for them and my disappointment grew when I was unsuccessful in finding them. Perhaps something got the baby Swans, or hopefully, as I studied detailed maps of the area, they hid out in the myriad of swamps and streams and beaver ponds that dot the landscape to the north of Crane Lake and stayed out of harm’s way.
Trumpeter Swans have been re-introduced in Minnesota with great success, but there are problems. The Swans don’t know that they are supposed to migrate and most of the Minnesota Swans over winter on the Mississippi River at Monticello, MN just down river of the Elk River power plant. The number of Swans are increasing every year at this location and it is estimated that 1,400 Swans gather here in the winter. Biologists worry that the concentration of birds might be bad for the Swans that gather there as a virus or some disease could sweep through and devastate the birds and in turn that could be threaten the entire flock of Trumpeter Swans in Minnesota.
Tundra Swans on the other hand merely migrate through Minnesota and fall is the best time to witness the migration. Tundra’s have a pretty interesting migration path. They fly through Minnesota on their way to Chesapeake Bay in Maryland where they spend the winter on the protected estuaries of the Atlantic Ocean. But on the way they stop in Minnesota to re-fuel, and thousands gather on the Mississippi River down by Winona. Right now it’s estimated that there are 12,000 Tundra Swans gathered in that area. It has become a tourist attraction as the Swans re-group there for a month or so before moving on to Maryland. This migration path has been going on for centuries for the Tundra Swan.