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Some late-season swan sightings

A pair of trumpeter swans swim in the open water of a lake. (Photo by Larry Weber)1 / 2
A flock of tundra swans as seen during migration. (Photo by Mark Sparky Stensaas)2 / 2

Like many other nature happenings, the freeze-up was late this fall. With all three months, September, October and November, being warmer than normal, this autumn was recorded as the third warmest for the Northland (after 1963 and 1931) and November 2016 was the second warmest (behind only November 1899), many things that we thought were over for the season continued to linger.

As we progressed through the first half of November, I noted late sightings of butterflies, moths and dragonflies along with other insects throughout this time. Spiders continued to be active and besides watching their movements during these days, I also found some late-season webs. The local chipmunks were at the feeders and compost piles until near Nov. 20. The bat flights at dusk remained active into the first week of November. A few wild flowers always linger into early November, but this year the list was of more kinds and continued to flower until the substantial snowfall of Nov. 18. And so, it was no surprise that I and many others would record late-date sights of various bird migrants that normally would be far to the south at the time that they were seen. The two that I remember best were that of a nighthawk, seen on the evening of Oct. 10 as it circled above a swamp in the midst of big brown bats. This date is at least a month later than usual. The other was when a yellow-rumped warbler arrived at our bird feeder on the late date of Nov. 20. I had seen them in November before, but never on this date. Most warblers are gone in September.

Snow on Nov. 18 and again a few days later ended AutWin and I noticed ponds, swamps and some lakes freezing within a week. However it seemed as though the weather had a "change of mind" and the last days of November warmed enough to give rain and not only did the snow melt, so did much of the earlier-formed ice. Some lakes never did freeze over. In the first third of December, we experienced a "re-freeze up" and after having open water for a time, these same aquatic sites; and more, are freezing. This seems to be the real thing this time. Usually this December freeze-up happens in November. On Dec. 4, snow returned and a few days later, sub-freezing temperatures. And this was followed by readings that descended to near or below zero.

At the end of November, a neighbor reported seeing a couple of swans on the open waters of a nearby lake. The next day, I saw two swans. These swans were trumpeter swans. Their story in Minnesota is an amazing one. Originally native in the state, they were extirpated. Re-introduction was started in the late 20th century and they did very well in their return to this state. As they spread out and nested here, their population increased quickly. I started seeing them in the region about 20 years ago. Not only did they do well here, they seemed to enjoy the cold weather. Still today, many of these large white birds will remain as far north as possible in winter. If they find open water, they will stay. Seeing a couple of trumpeter swans in the open water of a lake in November has become a regular sighting for many of us. But there is another swan here in autumn as well.

Tundra swans are also all white like that of the trumpeter, but unlike their larger cousin, tundra swans breed in the far north; on the tundra, and only pass through this region during their migration. In a bit of a unique migration route, they fly from the far north of Canada to winter on the Atlantic coast in the Chesapeake Bay region. Such a flight includes going over our home. Resting on the route, they congregate in large numbers along the Mississippi River in southern Minnesota. Once again, this is what we expect to see during the month of November.

And so, when I was out for a walk on Dec. 6 and heard a sound overhead, I was a bit surprised to hear and see a flock of about 50 tundra swans passing over; going from the northwest to the southeast. As I continued to walk on this chilly, cloudy and windy day with temperatures in the mid-teens, I saw a second and later a third flock of these noisy, large white birds. Apparently, they took advantage of the open bodies of water northwest of here to rest and feed well into November. And when some sites began freezing, theirs did not. But with the new month of December, even these lakes were starting to form ice; it was time to go to the south. And I was at the right place and time to watch these late-flights of tundra swans moving on to warmer places.

Whether it is the lingering trumpeter swans or these migrant tundra swans, I enjoyed seeing these late-season sights and I wish them a good winter and look forward to their spring return.

Larry Weber

Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him c/o budgeteer@duluthbudgeteer.com.

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