A cemetery is a place in which we often honor the dead by celebrating their lives. And life truly abounds at Terrace Heights Memorial Park.
The park’s iconic pond has long been an attraction for families, especially those with young children, because of its transient but teeming population of ducks and geese. It’s also a particularly convenient place to view and photograph trumpeter swans, North America’s largest and most magnificent species of waterfowl.
Though the swans here are captive birds and quite tame, they afford fantastic close views and a great opportunity to take a memorable wildlife photo.
Trumpeter swans are among the largest flying birds, typically weighing 25 to 30 pounds. They are about six feet in length with a wingspan of nearly eight feet.
This species historically nested over a large part of North America. It disappeared rapidly as white settlers advanced westward. By the 1930s, hunted for their meat and plumage, trumpeter swans were driven almost to extinction — by one estimate, down to as few as 100 birds.
When the remnant group was discovered in northern British Columbia, strict conservation measures were promptly enacted, saving this population in the nick of time. With protection, trumpeter swans have recovered nicely: They now number about 30,000, making the return of the trumpeter swan one of the great conservation success stories of our time.
How to spot one: Two species of swans occur in the Yakima area, both of them big and snowy-white. Unless you see them together, the trumpeter swan can be difficult to distinguish from the much more common tundra swan. The differences are subtle: The trumpeter is larger and heavier and its bill straighter, while the tundra has a yellow spot in front of the eye while the trumpeter does not.
Hearing the difference: Voice is the most important distinguishing feature when it comes to tundra and trumpeter swans. Unlike the tundra swan’s comparatively melodious call, the trumpeter swan is well-named — its call sounds like a trumpet.
(Want proof? Give it an online listen here.)
Favorite hangout: The best areas in the Pacific Northwest for trumpeter swans are the agricultural fields by the Skagit, Samish, and Stillaguamish Rivers in northwestern Washington. Many hundreds of swans provide great wildlife viewing throughout the winter. Very vew trumpeters drift over in late fall to the east side of the Cascades, where most wetlands freeze and snow cover often reduces availability of food. But when open water has persisted on this side of the state in recent winters, the wetlands and fields along Toppenish Creek have proven attractive to this species.
Chow time: In the warmer months, trumpeter swans usually feed in shallow ponds or lakes. They “upend” and, with their long necks, can reach four feet down to the bottom. They relish all parts of aquatic plants including their stems, leaves and roots. They especially like “Indian potato,” a common aquatic plant in many shallow ponds. In winter, when most open water freezes, these birds often switch to agricultural fields where they eat waste grain, especially corn in the Yakima area. Young swans in their first two weeks consume lots of insects, a protein-based diet that spurs their growth.
Courtship: Trumpeter swans establish pair bonds that are long-term, even lifelong. They migrate north in early spring to favored shallow lakes or ponds, mostly in Canada and Alaska, and occur only spottily in the lower 48 states, mostly at higher elevations.
Family matters: These swans build a big nest on an elevated platform, such as a beaver or muskrat lodge. Four to six eggs are laid, followed by a 32- to 37-day incubation period, tended primarily by the female. Upon hatching, the cygnets — as swan young are called — are, like ducklings, born quite developed, ready to waddle about following their parents. Before they’re a day old, they’re able to take to the water and swim; at just four months, they can fly.
Restoration efforts: Toppenish Creek lies entirely within the Yakama Reservation and was once a fabulous wetland home to a thriving population of swans. Activities of white settlers such as diking, diverting and channeling have much altered the value of the wetlands along this creek. A huge, 27,000-acre project is underway to restore the wetlands by the Yakamas.
These efforts are enhancing the floodplains’ value to salmon and other fish, and for many other species of wildlife, such as swans. Many channels, marshes and ponds have been restored and salmon such as coho and steelhead have already returned. Aiding swans, comeback of Indian potato has been outstanding. Swans, only occasional visitors in recent years, have returned, too. Last spring, upwards of 300 tundra and trumpeter swans were tallied in these wetlands.
• Wildlife Moment, focusing on native wildlife, typically runs in Outdoors on the first Tuesday of every month, with the cooperation of the Yakima Valley Audubon Society.