Tundra swans like these look so much like trumpeter swans you have to look closely to tell them apart if they aren’t side by side for a size comparison. This one shows the characteristic yellow marking on the bill just under the eye. Photo courtesy Gary Myers.
Hundreds of large snow white birds floated on the blue waters of unfrozen portions of the marshes at Bear River National Wildlife Refuge near Brigham City, Utah. At the visitor center they told us to expect mostly tundra swans, yet at the distance we were looking, they appeared to be exactly like the trumpeter swans we commonly see in Eastern Idaho.
Tundra swans are smaller than trumpeter swans. A typical trumpeter swan may weigh over 25 pounds with a wingspan of six feet. On the other hand, a tundra swan typically weighs around 15 pounds with a wingspan of five to five and a half feet. But at a distance and without trumpeter swans for comparison, that was a hard call to make.
Calling would have distinguished the two species as well. The call of the much larger trumpeter is a loud and brassish, HoHO; that of the tundra swan is higher pitched and more mellow.
Finally, a couple of swans drew close enough that with binoculars we could clearly see the best diagnostic between tundra and trumpeter swans: tundra swans have yellow markings on their otherwise black upper bills and these had the marks.
The tundra swan also has one other diagnostic characteristic, one that has been acknowledged for several hundred years. On Sunday March 9th 1806, referring to the tundra swan, Meriwether Lewis noted in his journal, “from the peculiar whistleing of the note of this bird I have called it the whistleing swan.” Indeed, their wings do whistle in flight.
Although we only see them during the winter months, tundra swans are the most numerous swans in the Americas. During the summer months they spend their time raising families on the tundra of the Arctic. Huge flocks descend out of their tundra homes each fall to spend winter months wherever they can find ice-free waters. Some make round trips exceeding 3,700 miles.
Unlike trumpeter swans, tundra swans nest on the ground, not on a floating island of vegetation. Their nests are subject to predation by a wide variety of marauders and parents are ever vigilant during the nesting season. An aggressive tundra swan mpair can drive off even fox-sized predators.
Swans make flying look effortless but it is easy to imagine the difficulty of getting 15 or more pounds airborne, even on five to six foot wings. Swans will run across the water for up to 100 yards, wings beating furiously and long necks outstretched. Once in the air though, they become elegance in motion. All the effort to become airborne translates into fluid motion and there is nothing more striking than a flight of pure white swans against a winter blue sky.
Besides beauty and grace, tundra swans and trumpeter swans share another quality that makes them romantic symbols and role models for humans. It is believed that they mate for life. From the time they are two to three years old and choose a mate, they spend the rest of their lives together. For a swan, their vows are inviolate, dissolvable only upon death.
Wildlife License Plates
Idaho Wildlife license plates provide essential funding that benefits the great diversity of native plants and wildlife that are not hunted, fished or trapped—over 10,000 species or 98% of Idaho’s species diversity. Game species that share the same habitats (such as elk, deer, antelope, sage-grouse, salmon, trout) also benefit from these specialty plates.
No state tax dollars are provided for wildlife diversity, conservation education and recreation programs. Neither are any revenues from the sale of hunting or fishing licenses spent on nongame species. Instead, these species depend on direct donations, federal grants, fundraising initiatives—and the Idaho Wildlife license plates.
Both my vehicles have Bluebird Plates. I prefer the bluebird because the nongame program gets 70 percent of the money from bluebird plates, but only 60 percent of the money from elk and trout plates - 10 percent of the money from elk plates supports wildlife disease monitoring and testing programs (to benefit the livestock industry) and 10 percent from cutthroat plates supports non-motorized boat access.
Incidentally, in 2014, the Idaho Legislature denied the Department of Fish and Game the ability to add new plates or even to change the name of the elk and cutthroat plates (very specific) to wildlife and fish plates, a move that would have allowed for changing images occasionally and generating more revenue. It would seem that they believe that we Idahoans don't want a well funded wildlife program. Go figure.
TAX DAY is coming! Here is a chance to do something good with a bit of your tax return and make the day less painful.
Donate part of your tax return to support wildlife in Idaho!
On the second page of the Idaho Individual Tax form 40 you have the opportunity to donate to the “Nongame Wildlife Conservation Fund”.
Check-off this box on your next return or ask your tax preparer to mark the Nongame check-off on your behalf.
If you are not from Idaho, check with your own state wildlife agency about how you can help. Many states have a similar program.
Help Idaho Wildlife
When we traveled across the state in October, most of the vehicles we saw using the wildlife management areas did not have wildlife plates.
C'mon folks, let's help Idaho's wildlife by proudly buying and displaying a wildlife license plate on each of our vehicles!
See below for information on Idaho plates. Most states have wildlife plates so if you live outside Idaho, check with your state's wildlife department or vehicle licensing division for availability of state wildlife plates where you live.
"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson
That is embarrassing but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), it is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.
Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.
Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.
"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman
"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.
To read more and to order a copy, click here or get the Kindle version
Copies are also available at:
Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls
Perfect Light Photo Supply
Museum of Idaho
Valley Books, Jackson Wyoming
Avocet Corner Bookstore, Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Brigham City, Utah
Craters of the Moon National Monument Bookstore, Arco, Idaho