Jackson Hole Christmas Bird Count

Trumpeter swans were observed in abundance Saturday on ponds across the National Elk Refuge.

Seen any swans lately? This can be a good time of year to observe and enjoy them, and you don’t have to go far to do it. Here’s something from one of my “Far Afield” columns in 2005. Maybe it will help you tell your tundras from your trumpeters.

“November, and the natives are restless.

“So are their relatives from up north, tundra swans. Trumpeter swans and their more northerly kind, tundra (whistling) swans, are leaving or have left their summering and nesting quarters, heading for wintering grounds. Impressive numbers of each of these large, white waterfowl customarily spend some November days on waters in Jackson Hole, often at the north end of Jackson on Flat Creek. Several viewing spots permit observers (and photographers) great opportunities to admire, study and photograph swans on the National Elk Refuge.

“And it’s a good opportunity to sharpen identification skills. It’s not always easy to tell trumpeters from tundras — they are each impressively large, although if side by side trumpeters are much larger. A trumpeter swan is about 5 feet long, sometimes 6 feet. Wingspan about 8 feet. Our largest waterfowl.

“Tundra swans are about 4 1/2 feet long with a shorter wingspan of 6 or 6 1/2 feet. Big, but not as large as trumpeters.

“Identification by voice is certain. Tundras are vocal, uttering a high-pitched who-ho, woo woo who-who call, sometimes resembling the baying of hounds. Trumpeters — well, trumpeters trumpet. Calls are much deeper in tone and louder.

“Trumpeter swans generally hold their necks kinked at the base so the necks seem to rise from the forepart of the back; tundra swans hold their necks from the very front of their bodies. Most field guides do show this feature but don’t call attention to it. The Trumpeter Swan Society mentions this characteristic and also that when alerted, trumpeters hold their bodies at an angle, whereas tundras keep their bodies held horizontally.

“Trumpeters frequently bob their heads and necks up and down. Head bobbing and accompanying vocalizations are communications between individuals and within groups. Before taking flight, trumpeters often increase this activity. Tundras don’t bob their heads and necks in that pattern.

“Watch closely when swans take off. Trumpeters pull their necks up into a shallow ‘S’ curve just as they become airborne and only for a few wing beats. Tundras hold their neck straight throughout takeoff runs and initial flight.

“And watch closely wherever you see swans, for swans can be found throughout the Intermountain Region and beyond. Biologists working with trumpeter swans have, indeed, worked to expand their range.

“Trumpeter numbers are slowly increasing after nearly being wiped out in the Lower 48 about a century ago by overhunting.

“But swans aren’t just big, just deserving of our concern, just impressive; they’re beautiful. On the water, in the air, even asleep. Beautiful.”

Field notes: Trumpeter swans and tundra swans are making their way south as the days shorten. There have been reports of 20-plus on Flat Creek north of Jackson, and larger numbers can be seen at Harriman State Park, near Island Park, Idaho, reported Bernie McHugh.

Blue jays continue to make occasional appearances, spotted by Becky Pedersen, in Bedford, and in town near Flat Creek by Franz Camenzind. Local feeders are attracting Clark’s nutcrackers, nuthatches, chickadees, goldfinches and the occasional junco. Bru Wicks found two brown creepers.

On Saturday, Frances Clark and Mary Lohuis watched 15 bighorn sheep midday on the south end of Miller Butte. Three or four ewes were dashing about between two groups of adults, juveniles and yearlings, and periodically one of the two groups started running. There was no ram around. It was unclear what was going on with the racing back and forth.

Susan Marsh reports being glad not to see any pronghorn. Hope they are on their way east and south.

On Saturday, 5-year-old Sally Keenan found a flammulated owl that had apparently died from a window strike at her home in Jackson. This young ornithologist then educated herself about owls, with the help of her friend, Tom Segerstrom, and was fascinated to learn that their eyes do not move, so they need to move their heads nearly 180 degrees, both right and left, to view their surroundings completely. She also learned that owl feathers are extremely soft, breaking up the air as they move, enabling owls to fly silently while hunting.

Thanks, Sally, for contacting the Teton Raptor Center and taking your find to it for educational purposes.

Bert Raynes writes weekly on whatever suits his fancy with a dash of news on nature. Contact him at columnists@jhnewsandguide.com.

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