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Blane Klemek column for March 28: Trumpeter swans herald the turning season

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outdoors Bemidji, 56619
Bemidji Minnesota P.O. Box 455 56619

I checked the last of my wood duck nest boxes that surround Lake Assawa on March 25.

Three of those six boxes were used by wood ducks, but only one produced a successful clutch. The other two nest boxes had been partially depredated and subsequently abandoned, as there were several whole eggs and eggshell fragments inside each of the boxes.

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Beginning March 18, I began seeing more songbirds and waterfowl streaming into the Northland. On that day I observed a few dozen dark-eyed juncos and fleeting glimpses of a species of rusty-capped sparrow busily feeding underneath my feeders.

On the 19th of March, I made a quick journey to northern Clearwater County to check if sharp-tailed grouse were active on a traditional dancing ground that I'm involved with surveying each year. The birds were there all right, but they weren't as active as they will be in the coming weeks.

Not too far from the lek -about two miles - are a number of rice paddies. Most of the water in two of the paddies adjacent to the highway had been drawn down, probably last fall, but the little water that remained was ice free. Nonetheless, each of the paddies was alive and brimming with feeding and resting waterfowl - Canada geese, tundra swans, mallards and northern pintails.

Male red-winged blackbirds are staking out their territories within last year's cattail stands as they wait for the soon-to-be arrival of the females. The males' "konk-la-ree" songs are the telltale cattail calls so common in marshes everywhere beginning this time of the year.

Indeed, over the last half of March, I've observed these and other avian friends, including sandhill cranes and American robins, too.

It was, however, on the 25th day of March that a pleasant sight descended upon the ice-covered Assawa Lake. I wondered if I'd see them again - in fact, I hoped I would. After all, I had been watching the pair since the spring of 2007. Each season since then a single pair of these beautiful birds that I assumed to be the same mated pair, would return to Assawa once again.

After I finished maintenance chores on the last wood duck nest box of the evening, carrying the aluminum ladder on my shoulder for the return trip home, I heard them before I saw them; their resonant, soothing voices drifting lazily across the lake reaching my ears a second before I observed the pair in graceful flight.

Indeed, my avian friends the trumpeter swans have come back to Assawa Lake from wherever they've been all winter long.

As the pair cleared the treetops of the lake's northwestern shoreline, they quickly began losing altitude as they prepared to land.

As I followed the snow-white pair with my eyes, the swans trumpeted excitedly to one another as they flew, side by side, toward the opposite end of the lake where open water and a big beaver lodge is located.

By this time I could plainly hear in the calm and cold evening air the sound of beating wings - their primaries buzzing with each powerful wing-stroke. The giant white birds flew down to within 20 feet of the ice - their trumpeting calls echoing against the wooded shores - flying, banking, swinging around the lake's far shore, circling back, setting their wings, large black feet extended, and, at last, skidding to a stop onto the wet sheet of ice.

Seconds later, one of the swans spread and flapped its wings, lifted itself off of the ice, flew to the middle of the lake, and landed. Its mate soon joined him or her, both birds trumpeting loudly and musically to each other.

Once together, the two approached one another with their wings fully spread -- all seven feet of their respective wingspans. I observed the pair fluttering their wings in a somewhat hypnotic manner, bodies facing each other--erect and standing tall--necks stretched to full length, trumpeting back and forth, and tossing and nodding their heads backwards and pointing their beaks skyward.

It appeared to be swan love-talk, if you will; perhaps a means of strengthening or re-establishing their pair-bond as they prepare for the upcoming nesting season. As well, I might have observed the very first time the pair had reunited with their breeding pond.

Their excitement was obvious, as if they were communicating to one another that the long migration was over, that their courtship will soon begin, that mating will follow, and building a nest after that, laying and incubating a clutch of eggs, and raising their cygnets. Who knows for sure?

The trumpeter swans I was delighted to see return are probably the same two swans I first observed on Assawa Lake in 2007. As non-breeding adults, the pair spent both the summers of 2007 and 2008 feeding, resting and roosting on the small lake.

Last summer, the swans nested for the first time on Assawa Lake. After a nest was built and eggs were laid, incubating duties soon followed. As the nest was being tended (for about a month), only one swan was seen on the lake. I don't recall observing the pair together during the entire incubation period.

Imagine my surprise, not to mention joy, when one day I saw the pair together once again, but this time with five down-covered cygnets following after them. Sadly, however, and such is the way of Nature, the five cygnets did not survive the summer. It's possible the swan parents, inexperienced as they were, were unable to fend off predators, but it's hard to know for certain. Nevertheless, the two were alone together once more.

The spring of 2010 is here. And soon, summer. The trumpeter swans of Assawa Lake will hopefully nest again in a secluded corner of the basin, probably within a hidden patch of cattail or sedge - perhaps on the very nest-site as last summer. In any event, Assawa's trumpeters have returned, and, bringing with them, and others like them, reasons enough for us to get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at bklemek@yahoo.com.

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