Nikiski swan couple gives birth to 7 chicks

Posted: Tuesday, September 02, 2003

A pair of bird watchers in Nikiski were delighted to find that the trumpeter swans that return to their back yard lake year after year to nest successfully hatched seven chicks this year.

Four chicks, properly referred to as cygnets, are an average clutch size for trumpeter swans. Seven chicks is almost unheard off.

"We've watched them nest for years, but when we saw seven chicks, we couldn't believe it," said Donnis Thompson.

She and her husband, Stan, homesteaded in the Nikiski area in 1959 and continue to make their home there. The large body of water behind the house they built for themselves they named Timberlost Lake. This lake, located behind Daniels Lake, is the area where the swans have chosen to nest.

"They flew in a few years after we got here and started to nest," said Donnis Thompson.

Trumpeters, the largest member of the waterfowl family, were considered an endangered species back in the 1900s due to overexploitation in the Lower 48.

In 1968, trumpeters were taken off the national endangered list after large numbers of breeding swans were found in Alaska; however, conservation measures continued nationwide.

Since then, their numbers have continued to rise and a 1990 census revealed that 80 percent of the world's population of trumpeters are found in Alaska.

"We would usually see three or four cygnets a year," said Thomp-son. "Then about seven or eight years ago, we saw six cygnets. We were flabbergasted!"

She said they called the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to report the event. She said the person they talked to was as excited as they were.

"The man said he had only read about six cygnets and not ever seen that many himself," said Thomp-son.

They saw six cygnets a few more times over the years, bringing the retired couple great delight.

However, this year, after nesting very close to the Thompson's house, the pair of swans took this year's cygnets out for the first swim and there was more than ever before.

"When we saw seven we couldn't believe it," said Thompson.

Trumpeters mate for life. They also are often said to be the first birds to arrive in Alaska each spring and the last to leave in fall. The reason behind their behavior is often attributed to rearing young swans.

After selecting a suitable nesting area, often an undisturbed marsh near a small lake, swans will construct a nest from uprooting plant material and debris.

Eggs are laid and then incubated for the next 31 to 35 days. Then comes the hard part, caring for and defending the cygnets from a myriad of predators for the next 11 to 15 weeks until they fledge.

"Eagles will sometimes pick off a chick," said Thompson.

"But this has been a good year. They all made it this far and now they're big enough that I think an eagle would think twice before trying for one."

Thompson said there is really no trick to getting the birds to return each year.

"People ask us what we do, but it's mostly what we don't do. We don't make noise or disturb them. Planes don't land on the lake, and our road is the only access by car," she said.

Thompson said they enjoy watching all the water birds that come to the pond, like loons and grebes, and they also take pleasure in all the song birds that come to their feeder.

However, there is something special about the swans.

"They're just so big and elegant," said Thompson. "We really enjoy them."

She said they'll continue watching them until they fly South, which usually occurs this month. Until then, they'll relish every moment of the young swans' presence.

"The young are still gray, but they're starting to turn white," she said.

"The parents are just teaching them to fly. It's been a real kick watching them learn."

Trumpeter Swans: At A Glance

The trumpeter is the world's largest member of the waterfowl family, with males averaging 28 pounds and females averaging 22 pounds.

Like all swans, the sexes have identical plumage. Adult swans are all white. Cygnets are an ash gray color, and some gray feathers may remain evident on the heads and necks of swans for the first few years.

A census conducted in 1990 indicated there were more than 13,000 trumpeters in Alaska more than 80 percent of the world's population.

Swans pair with mates for life, but if one of the pair is lost, a new mate will be found before the next breeding season.

The trumpeter female is called a "pen" and her mate is called a "cob."

Source: Alaska Department of Fish and Game's Wildlife Notebook.

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