Pond provides home for swans

SNOQUALMIE - Snoqualmie's Mill Pond, once a hub of logging industry activity, has come full circle. Today, it is a magnet for waterfowl, and the rich diversity of species near the pond is reflected by growing numbers of osprey, cormorants and loons. But this winter brought new guests to the lush habitat as a pair of trumpeter swans settled in for the season.

"I couldn't believe what I was seeing," said Kathie Cassady, nearby Mill Pond resident for more than 25 years. "I am continually surprised by the variety of waterfowl now using the pond, but this was unique and very exciting."

With its classic "S" curved neck, snow-white feathers and 8-foot wingspan, trumpeters are the largest of the swan family and the largest waterfowl in North America. Often mistaken for its smaller and more common cousin, the tundra swan, trumpeters are distinguished by their size and grace in motion.

"A wildlife agent came out and verified the species in November," Cassady explain-ed.

Preferring wetlands near rivers, marshes and tidal estuaries, the birds were likely drawn to Mill Pond by the aquatic seeds and pond weeds that form the bulk of their diet. This year marks the first time that wintering trumpeters have been known to stay at the pond, but swan watchers are hoping it becomes an annual event.

Martha Jordan, a wildlife biologist and member of the Washington Swan Coalition, said the birds are more common in Snohomish County, but more and more of the waterfowl are appearing in King County, with as many as 20 wintering in the Snoqualmie Valley.

"The Snoqualmie Valley is a place the birds are beginning to explore more and more and more," she said.

Because trumpeter swans and humans like the same types of habitat, Jordan said when humans move in, swans often leave.

"We [humans] like all the places they like," she said. "What used to be swan habitat is human habitat."

The swans are often thought to be an "indicator species." If they make their home in a particular area, it serves as a signal of how healthy the surrounding ecosystem is.

"I always look at them as ambassadors because they really allow people to look at their environment," Jordan said.

Trumpeter swans were hunted nearly to extinction in the early 1900s. Despite a special designation and protection by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, the worldwide population dropped to fewer than 70 birds in 1932.

Now on the rebound, North America boasts an estimated 16,000 trumpeter swans. Most of them inhabit the vast Alaska tundra lands, with smaller, scattered populations in northern Canada and in the midwestern United States.

While many people were left picking up the pieces after the Feb. 28 earthquake, the swans in the Mill Pond seemed unperturbed.

"I've been following them since they came in November," Cassady said. "Just over an hour after the earthquake happened, I went down to check on them. There was a large crack between Mill Pond Road and the water, and the pond was bubbling. I thought they would leave, but they're still here."

Other disasters have not been so kind. Jordan said the 1990 flood forever changed where trumpeter swans wintered in Western Washington, and she cautioned that those who decide to see the swans be careful not to disturb them.

"If you disturb them enough, this group of birds will leave, and they will never come back," she said.

According to wildlife officials, the swans, mated for life, will likely stay until early April and then fly back to their Alaskan nesting grounds. Until then, the elegant birds will continue to be a source of fascination.

"I became enthralled with looking at these magnificent swans," Cassady concluded. "We are very hopeful that they will return next year."

Editor Barry Rochford contributed to this report.

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