Dear Readers, it’s always such a pleasure to arrive in Canada and to spend some time in Collingwood, Ontario before heading down to the hurly-burly of Toronto. On Sunday, I went for a walk with my husband’s aunt L and their soft-coated wheaten/schnauzer mix Charlie. Most of the bay was frozen, and so the waterfowl were huddled together. There were lots of mute swans (Cygnus olor) with their bright orange bills, but right in the middle was a slender, black-billed swan. It was my first sight ever of a wild trumpeter swan (Cygnus buccinator) and I was immediately taken with how elegant and self-possessed the bird appeared. Furthermore, he had a bright yellow wing tag, and so we could identify him as T29.
The internet is a wonderful thing, and I was able to ascertain that T29 was born to parents K09 and 038 who nest near Chatsworth. His parents and six of his siblings moved on to Port Credit, near Burlington, but T29 did not, and was spotted with his sibling T28 in Thorold. Now, T29 seems to be on his own, and is tolerated by the mute swans. Occasionally he bobs his head and calls, and I hope that some other trumpeters soon fly over and he can join them. However, trumpeter swans don’t breed until they are 5 to 7 years old, with some swans waiting until they are in their late teens. Like other swan species they normally mate for life, so it makes sense to wait for the right partner to come along.
In this of course, as in all things, I am reminded of Mum and Dad, and their 61 year marriage. ‘Till death us do part’ was accurate in their case, as it is with most swans (although ‘divorces’ are not completely unheard of). I once asked Mum what she thought the secret of a long happy marriage was, and she thought for a few moments.
‘There’s a lot of luck involved’, she said. ‘You’re a completely different person at 40 from how you were at 20. If you’re lucky, you’ve both changed in ways that your partner can cope with. Otherwise, it can be very tricky’.
And I’m sure she’s right. I hope that life is simpler for swans than for humans, and that they have less personality change to worry about.
But back to the trumpeter swan. Its beak is the longest of any waterfowl, and they also have a very long neck, which is not curved like that of the mute swan. They are also noisy birds, as their name would suggest (the Latin buccinator means ‘trumpeter’). See if you can pick out the sound of the trumpeters in amongst the Canada geese in the video below.
Yet the sound of trumpeter swans wasn’t heard in Ontario for over a hundred years – the bird was driven to extinction in the province by hunting and habitat destruction. Unlike the more tolerant mute swans, trumpeters breed in wild marshland where they will be undisturbed by humans, a habitat which is becoming harder and harder to find. Fortunately, in 1982, a biologist named Harry Lumsden set about a project to reintroduce the bird to its former heartland by rearing eggs taken from trumpeters in Western Canada (if an egg is taken from a nest at the right time, the mother will often lay another egg, leaving the original one free to be reared elsewhere). The birds were then released on wetlands across Ontario. Over 500 were released in the twenty-five years of the project, and there are now almost 2000 wild birds. Many of them can be seen at the original Wye Marsh site, where they overwinter before moving north to breed.
So, it is always a pleasure to see a new species, but I was even more delighted to spot these geese. At first glance I thought that they were snow geese, but a closer look at the field guide revealed them to be Ross’s geese (Anser rossii), a very attractive small goose that breeds in northern Canada and normally overwinters as far south as Mexico. I figure that these two were downed by the cold weather, and will soon be heading much further north.
My misidentification of them as snow geese was, I think, forgivable ( I blame the jetlag), but they are about 40% smaller, and have a softer, rounder appearance. Also, they have grey colouration at the base of their bills, and much shorter necks. This pair kept a very low profile, avoiding any interaction with the other waterfowl. It seemed clear to me that they didn’t plan to hang about, and indeed, on the day that we headed to Toronto they disappeared.
It’s difficult to describe the subtle delight of gradually getting to know the birds of a different country. I recognised the call of the first red-winged blackbirds who had arrived to claim their territories, and the pair of cardinals on the bird-feeder felt like old friends. I know that it is only the tip of a massive ornithological iceberg, but it feels like a good start. During this period of my life when so much has changed, I love the way that Canada is beginning to feel like a second home. There is so much to love about its wild places and its kind, generous people.