Your Christmas Swan

“We’re having something a little different this year for Thanksgiving.  Instead of a turkey, we’re having a swan.  You get more stuffing.”

–George Carlin

What a bird!  I love swans.  And I don’t mean for dinner at Thanksgiving or Christmas. 

A century ago, people did eat them and shoot them for feathers.  When viewed rationally, I suppose it’s just an oversized goose with a slightly longer neck.  Indeed, there would be a lot of meat on one.  The wing feathers might have looked nice in a hat, and a swandown sleeping bag would be at least as warm as a goosedown bag.  But still…

The other day I managed to get this shot of a cold swan.  And no, this has nothing to do with Cold Duck, the bargain brand of sparkling wine.  You’re looking at one of several trumpeter swans that overwinter in my neighborhood.  They hang out on certain stretches of river that stay open all winter, even when it’s below zero. 

(The night after I took this photo, the temperature dropped to -22 F.  No matter how much down you have on your chest, that’s cold.)

Sorry for the grainy spy photo; there wasn’t much cover, and this bird became nervous when I was still a couple hundred yards away.  And even if it would have allowed me to approach more closely, I’d have been crawling a long distance on very thin ice.

I’d hoped for a close-in shot of a white swan on black water, pinkly luminous in the late-afternoon sunset.  Visitors to my blog would have been very impressed.  Somehow, however, I only get opportunities like that when I’m not carrying a camera. 

I thought about making another trip or two; I can sometimes be persistent.  But then I decided it wasn’t worth making this bird, or some other swans, nervous enough to fly off to the next convenient open water.  That’s a couple miles away, even as the swan flies.  Better for these birds to burn no more calories than necessary.  More cold nights are coming, and spring is months away.

In the spring, pairs will disperse to secluded nesting sites in isolated marshes and small lakes.  For most of the summer, they’ll make themselves scarce. 

And then fall arrives…  This particular swan must have acquired its numbered yellow collar in early September; that could even be part of the reason it wouldn’t let me get closer.  Maybe it recognized me.

Since moving to this area, I’ve been fortunate enough to get in on a couple of September swan roundups.  This involves a spotter plane and a dozen or so volunteers in canoes and kayaks.  Sometimes the mix includes a small fishing boat with an outboard; other times the swans’ nesting site is in a marsh too shallow, weedy, or inaccessible for anything but canoes or kayaks.

If we can, we capture all the young swans the pair has raised this year—cygnets, they’re called.  We capture them one at a time, and then later release them simultaneously.  But first, biologists weigh the birds, band them, take a blood sample, and give them a numbered neck collar so they can later be identified from a distance.  Then, after we release the birds, it’s time to load up and head to the next nesting area.  Usually we hit about four different marshes in one long day.

I’ve had to miss the last couple roundups.  I hope I get to join in again next September.  By then the cygnets are nearly grown, but not yet able to fly well.  (In theory, at least.  A few of them can already fly just fine, thank you.)  At this point, they’re already at least half again as large as a Canada goose.

Swan roundups are one of the rare times I can put my canoe racing background to practical use.  It’s also a rare opportunity to help chase down, net, and wrestle with a member of an endangered species—and yet somehow not get in serious trouble with the law.  It’s all in the name of science; we’re doing our part to help trumpeters recover from the brink of extinction.  

By the way…  The best part of all is when we simultaneously release three or four cygnet siblings and watch them flap awkwardly across the surface of the water to rejoin their distraught parents.  And yes, nervous or agitated trumpeter swans do sound like someone blowing on a trumpet.  Someone, that is, who doesn’t know how to play the trumpet very well.

So there’s your Christmas swan story.  And with that…

Merry Christmas, and to all a good, warm night!

The Last Happy Hour: Instant Winter Severity

Winter Severity Index

During the past 24 hours, we’ve been getting walloped by our first major snowstorm of the season.  We’ve received at least a foot of new snow on top of what we already had.

Meanwhile, today is the last day of Wisconsin’s gun deer season.  Bow season began back in September, and continues until January 9.  In October, gun hunters in some deer management units had an early four-day antlerless season.  In November, we had the regular nine-day gun season, followed by a ten-day muzzleloader season that just ended Wednesday.  Thursday morning, persistent hunters could head back out with their breechloaders for a four-day late antlerless season that will end later this afternoon.

It’s not easy being a deer.  True, all this new snow will keep most hunters out of the woods today.  But sometime early this morning, we crossed a threshold.  The weather officially became severe—doubly severe.  Last night the temperature was around ten below, and we now have over 18” of snow on the ground.  If this keeps up, we’ll have a long, severe winter. 

Wildlife biologists measure such things with a tool called the Winter Severity Index (WSI); according to the WI DNR, it’s calculated by “…adding the number of days with 18 inches or more of snow on the ground to the number of days when minimum temperatures were 0 degrees Fahrenheit or below between December 1 and April 30.  If you think of it as adding up points, a day when both conditions occurred would get two points.  At the end of the winter all the points are added up, resulting in the WSI number for the whole winter. A winter with an index of less than 50 is considered mild, 50 to 79 is moderate, 80 to 99 is severe and over 100 is very severe.”

The WSI isn’t perfect; 17” of snow topped by an icy crust doesn’t earn that day a second point–no matter how unpleasant conditions might be for cold, hungry deer.  Similarly, there’s a big difference between one below and forty below.  Still, the WSI at least allows rough comparisons from one winter to the next.

So far this month, it’s been below zero about every other night.  Five points right there.  Just checked the forecast; more subzero nights on the way.  Looks like we’ll be racking up two points a day until later in the week.  By then, we could be getting more snow. 


The Forest Around Us

Some blogs have titles, some don’t.  Later, I may give this one a title that reflects specific projects I’m working on.  Or not.  For now, at least, this will just be…  My blog.

But if I did have to pick a title now, maybe I’d choose The Forest Around Us.  Kind of like Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us, only with seas of trees.  And I could write of looking into the forest and seeing more than the trees.

Or, if I weren’t trying to be so rational and scientific, I could make up stories about the forest I see outside my window right now.  If the forest around us could talk…  It would indeed tell quite a story.  But the story wouldn’t be as long as you might think.  Those tallest white pines on the island across the bay?  The one with the eagle nest, and the others clustered right next to it?  I’m pretty sure they’re no more than about 150 years old.  Here’s how I know.

At most, they would have been mere saplings during those few short years when all of northern Wisconsin was logged off and turned into one giant clearcut.  If they even existed yet, they were too small to bother cutting. 

If they’d been even a decade or two older, they’d be gone.  No question about it.  Growing right at the edge of the river that would carry them to downstream sawmills, trees like these would have been felled first.  So that pretty much narrows it down.

Who knows?  When the loggers arrived, maybe those pines were already about the size of your average Christmas tree. Or maybe they were still just a twinkle in some pinecone’s eye. 

Still, they had to start somewhere.  And so does this blog.