Trumpeter or Tundra?

The Skagit Valley is visited by thousands of swans each winter, with the first arrivals settling down in early November. According to a count organized by the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife in Winter 2017, roughly 12,000 swans were counted in Skagit County, accounting for two-thirds of the swans wintering in Northwest Washington.

Short history

The most common swans in the Skagit Valley are the Trumpeter Swans. Interestingly, these swans did not always winter here. The first reports of Trumpeters in the valley came in 1957, when a handful of swans banded at Alaska’s Kenai Wildlife Refuge showed up at Barney Lake. Thanks to patient conservation efforts and farming practices that leave residual crops, like corn and potatoes, on the fields, the valley’s flatlands became home to the largest wintertime congregation of Trumpeter Swans anywhere.

Of the 10,000-12,000 swans in the valley during the wintertime, approximately one-third are Tundra swans. These swans are substantially smaller than Trumpeter Swans, and their calls are a higher pitch, which explains why they were commonly called Whistling Swans. Here are some helpful tips on how to distinguish the two species.

Compare the two Tundra swans on the left to the Trumpeters in the center and to the right

Size: When intermixed, you can observe an obvious size difference. The larger Trumpeter Swans, topping out at 25-30lbs, are among the heaviest birds capable of flight, second only to the Andean Condor. The largest Tundra swans reach 15-20lbs, and they are visibly more nimble than their big kin when navigating the corn and potato fields of the Skagit Flats.

Head and bill: The Trumpeter’s head is more angular and has a more massive bill. The Tundra’s head is more rounded, and the bill often (but not always) has a small yellow “tearlet” directly in front of the eye.

Calls: The Trumpeter swan’s call can be described as “shy but persistent honking.”

The Tundra swan, on the other hand, sounds more like a “squeaky whistle.”

Sound clips care of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology

The subtle reddish-orange lip, often only seen afterward when inspecting photos, is a good sign that you are looking at a Trumpeter.

More complete information on distinguishing between the swan species can be found in this pamphlet of Northwest Swan Conservation Association.

Swan Safety Reminder

Take great care not to disturb the swans. Swans will take flight en masse when approached by humans, even at some distance. This both stresses the birds and depletes their energy. Keep in mind that these birds are preparing for their return journey north in the spring. They need sufficient energy not just for the return flight but also for brooding and raising their young. Moreover, flushed swans can fly into power lines, causing injury or death.

Swan Hotline

If you see a dead, sick, or injured swan, call the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife 24-hour hotline: (360) 466-4345, ext. 266. Do not handle the bird. Leave a short, detailed message with your name and phone number plus the location and condition of the swan(s). WDFW collects information to assess the impact of lead poisoning and power line collisions, the main causes of accidental swan deaths.