The Valdez Star - Serving Prince William Sound and Copper River Basin

By Lee Revis
Editor, Valdez Star 

Swan song: cygnets reported dead at 6 mile pond

Trumpeters have been spotted on side of the road since nest was flooded


Valdez Star photo

The two cygnets making up half of the swan family near mile 6 of the Richardson Highway died Thursday afternoon according to witnesses. The swans had been spending a great deal of time on the highway’s shoulder, as seen in this photo taken Wednesday evening.

The two cygnets being raised by the pair of swans that nest in the pond near Mile 6 on the Richardson Highway have died according to witnesses.

The swan family had been seen on the side of the highway numerous times this breeding season. Last Wednesday, the family of four, whose nest had been flooded out by recent high waters in the area, where seen attempting to cross the highway numerous times, but retreated to the shoulder or brush in the ditch at the sight of passing cars.

The parent swans, believed by most of their fans to be the same pair using the same area for at least five years, were still in the area Monday.

The family was again on the side of the road early Thursday afternoon, with everything seemingly normal. Sometime after 3 p.m. the cygnets were dead on the side of the road according to people on the scene. Valdez woman Tweet Parker – a big fan of the swan family – said the parents were crowded around their dead babies.

Rumors of the demise of the cygnets swept through Valdez, with many fans of the large water fowl contacting the Valdez Star or dropping by the office to see if it was true; some offered theories of what might have caused the demise of the cygnets.

The cygnets – which were still flightless and dependent on their parents – appeared to be willing to follow mom and dad (a female swan is called a pen, a male a cob) away from the natal nest Wednesday, but settled down to roost on the shoulder whenever their parents retreated back to the shoulder, probably fearing human/vehicular interference.

It is not yet known what exactly caused the demise of this year’s crop of baby swans and their Valdez fans were stricken at the news they were gone.

“I haven’t heard anything,” Valdez police chief Bill Comer said. “I don’t think we’ll ever know.”

Valdez police are responsible for monitoring flood-prone waterways. High waters from the Lowe River had flooded out the birds’ nest earlier in the week as the meandering tributaries of the flood plain licked at the highway across the road.

“The water changes course out there,” Comer said.

On Friday, fans of the water fowl made the trip to the six mile area, desperately scanning the surrounding waters and brush to look for wasn’t there.

DOT is also monitoring the river’s rising – and meandering - tributaries.

“The river’s running pretty swift,” Robert Dunning, DOT manager in Valdez said Monday. “For now it isn’t too much of an issue.”

Dunning said melt off from Marshall Pass in the North, combined with periodic heavy rains, have worked in concert to create the high waters.

When the City of Valdez installed a tsunami warning system on the shore of the nesting site – complete with a loud speaker that sends out a thunderous verbal warning with a tone each Wednesday at 5 p.m. - it was widely believed the pair would abandon the site. It was not to be.

Last nesting season, the pair nested in a similar area about a mile up the highway, but marched their small brood back to “swan pond”, as it is locally known, later in the summer season. This year, the pair returned and managed to hatch the two cygnets despite lingering ice in the area and late season snows.

It is widely believed it is the same pair that returns to nest at the swan pond each year, though the belief is purely speculative without a true means of identification at hand.

What is known, is that trumpeter swans are long-lived and do mate for life.

Protection of Alaska’s trumpeter swan population falls under the jurisdiction of the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Its Anchorage office said that Alaska’s trumpeter swan population is actually growing and is not actively monitored.

According to the website of the Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game, trumpeter swans are the largest members of the waterfowl family.

“The young, or cygnets, hatch after 31 to 35 days of incubation. For the next 11 to 15 weeks the breeding pair guards their cygnets until they fledge,” says an article on the website that was authored by Dan Rosenberg and Tom Rothe. “During this time, the adult female completes her molt.”

Steve Revis photo

The cygnets were seen snoozing Thursday on the highway’s shoulder at around 10:45 a.m. The two were seen dead in about the same spot on the road, just after 3 p.m.

The male molts his wing feathers and becomes incapable of flight during the incubation time according to the article.

“In some years, early freeze-up causes significant losses of young for tundra and trumpeter swans,” it continues. “After this critical period in its life, a swan's chances of survival are generally high and their life span is relatively long for birds.”

Watching out for the arrival of the pair has become a rite of spring for many fans of the swans; once the pair arrives, getting a count of offspring becomes serious business, and it is not uncommon to spot swan admirers sitting on the side of the road, armed with binoculars and cameras, hoping to get a glimpse of the cygnets.

Spring of 2014 is likely to be a little extra busy in the area, as Valdez birdwatchers keep their fingers crossed, hoping for a return of the swans.


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