From time to time, we have enjoyed walking at Swan Lake—an easy drive from our home. I finally decided to start a serious study of swans this term. Lately, whenever we head to Sumter for various sundry things, we pop in to peek at the swans, even if only for fifteen minutes. We try to find something new to observe about swans. Every time, our feathered friends have rewarded us with a surprise.
The first time, the trumpeter swans (one of two species native to North America) actually trumpeted for us! Pamela flapped out of sheer delight. Her watercolor teacher loves this picture so much that it has become the current subject of their new painting.
We first fell in love with trumpeter swans while listening to an audio book of E. B. White's Trumpet of the Swans as we drove the Alcan Highway to Alaska back in the summer of 2001. It is hard to tell the difference between trumpeter swans and tundra swans unless you are up close. Trumpeter have a slight line of "red lipstick" on the bill and no "yellow tears" where the black mask meets the eye.The other species native to our continent is the tundra swan, or whistling swan, which has both yellow tears and red lipstick as shown in the photograph below.
On our second visit, we noted several intriguing behaviors. We observed how trumpeter swans bob their heads when they honk. We shifted our focus to black swans, native to Australia, not North America. The arrangement of their feathers looks like a delightfully plushy, velvet petticoat! We watched one swan drink and caught them preening. At first, Pamela thought it was eating its feathers. After we read a bit on the subject, she decided preening is similar to how we brush our hair.
I call this whooper swan the bully. Almost every time we visit, somebody is fleeing this native of Europe. I snapped this picture right before it charged someone (note to self: film that on our next visit). When this whooper lowers its head to form a serpentine neck, start running! In the video posted above, you can even hear me warning bystanders unfamiliar with the park.
The royal mute swan, with its characteristic black bulb and orange bill, is not native to our continent. It hails from Europe, and did you know that all swans on the Thames belong to the Queen whether they know it or not. Mute swans were introduced to grace parks and estates in North America. Enough have escaped to breed in the wild. Ten years ago, we used to visit a pair of mute swans at Lake George near our former home in St. Cloud, Minnesota.
Yesterday, we did a couple of things for our study. Pamela and I watched the videos and paused at spots to spotlight what interested us. In her journal, Pamela drew pictures of the swans neck taking various actions: trumpeting, drinking water, and preening. We both noticed how the neck of a drinking swan forms a loop with the water, just as a bean stem does when it emerges from soil.
We have been collecting feathers during our walks at Swan Lake and Santee National Wildlife Refuge. Pamela drew different kinds of feathers and roughly identified what they were in her science journal. I love what she wrote and drew. The preening swan looked absolutely smashing!
With all of these new thoughts of swans swimming in our head, we headed back to Swan Lake. The weather was chilly and overcast. Hardly any swans were hanging out in their usual spot. Then, we caught one taking a nap!!! The one swan a-sleeping offered us many things to explore. I marveled at the flexibility of the swan's neck, lying along the back, to tuck its head under its wing. We could not identify it, except to rule out the black and black-necked swans. The driving factor of our walk was curiosity: what kind of swan is it? As we moved in closer, opportunities for guided participation (what RDI parents do) emerged. We walked together and spoke in whispers. If the swan stirred, we stopped and waited for it to drift back into sleep. Eventually, we only took one step at a time. Once we were close enough to see its eyes, we noticed how wary the swan was until we grew quiet. Then, the bird slowly relaxed and the opening and closing of its eyes reminded me of watching a dog fall asleep. We even caught the bird yawning at one point! I thought of a fascinating episode of Radio Lab, while Pamela thought of Steve, who loves napping after a long run. I also cracked up Pamela's suggestion that the Canada geese at the beginning of the video freaked out the sleeping swan and caused trouble. The recording shows how much more fluidly and articulately she expresses herself and how she can modulate her volume.
Imagine our surprise when we realized the swan a-sleeping was the dreaded whooper swan. I seriously doubt this is the bully because it seemed so relaxed around us.