Early birds not fair-weather fowl

Posted: Thursday, March 30, 2000

People in the Sterling area are reporting unusual sightings of swans this month.

"I saw two trumpeter swans this morning," bird watcher Neil Marlow said March 13.

"They flew right over the house. It is incredibly early."

But winter weary residents may be in for a disappointment if they hope the great white birds with the black beaks portend mild weather.

Biologists say the swans sighted are not migrants, but a group that has set up year-round residence on the west end of Skilak Lake. Near the lake's outflow, some water usually remains open through the cold season.

Why the swans chose to stay on the peninsula through the winter is a mystery.

"I have no clue why they are not following the behavior of their fellow swans," said biologist Liz Jozwiak from the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.

"They should not be wintering over anywhere in Alaska."

The numbers at Skilak are variable but seem to be increasing. In November, the biologists counted 25 there, she said.

How new this wintering behavior is remains unclear. Older records at the refuge indicate winter sightings of swans on the lower Kenai River back in the 1960s.

The trumpeter swans, named for their bugling call, are the largest waterfowl native to North America, weighing about 20 to 25 pounds.

Nearly driven to extinction by the 1930s due to hunting and habitat loss, they have been recovering under federal protection. It remains illegal to kill or harass them.

A survey of the continent in 1990 found 15,630 of the majestic birds in Canada and the northern United States.

The only other swan native to Alaska is the smaller tundra swan, which is not resident to the Kenai Peninsula.

The wildlife refuge, headquartered in Soldotna, keeps track of the swans on the peninsula. In 1995, refuge scientists counted about 250, including immature cygnets, breeding pairs and nonbreeding birds.

The best places for people to see swans on the peninsula are the lower Moose River in Sterling, Watson Lake near Swanson River Road and, sometimes, the Chickaloon Flats along Turnagain Arm, Jozwiak said.

Of those swans on the Kenai, only about 35 to 50 pairs actually nest. The shy birds, which form monogamous pairs, prefer remote shallow lakes with plenty of aquatic plants for them to eat. The north peninsula is particularly rich in such habitat, but swans occur in many isolated parts of the peninsula as far south as the Fox River Valley.

"They are pretty much all over the area," Jozwiak said.

"They are very susceptible to human disturbance, especially floatplanes and motorized boats."

Most Kenai Peninsula swans are migratory.

Refuge studies using banding and radio-tracking traced them from the peninsula south along the coast to Vancouver, Washington and Oregon.

Every spring they return along the same route.

"We usually don't see any waterfowl until mid April," Jozwiak said.

The snow geese will show up on the Kenai River Flats about April 15, and during the month of May the song birds will move in for their summer residency.

That is when robins, the traditional harbingers of spring, will arrive, she said.

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