Swans at Phillips Lake

On this damp, cloudy and chilly morning, my wife and I decided to take a walk around Perry Phillips Lake, in south Columbia.  After all, from now through the end of January, Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area is occupied by duck hunters and Phillips Lake is one local alternative for those hoping to observe migrant waterfowl.

To our surprise, two swans turned up as we circled the lake, gliding across the calm waters.  Initially assuming they were trumpeter swans that are increasingly common in the Heartland (see Midwest Trumpeters), I zeroed in with my binoculars.  I noticed that they had pinkish bills with black tips, indicating a juvenile status, and could not find a yellow spot at the base of their bills, present in most (but not all) adult tundra swans.  On the other hand, their necks extended straight up from their chests without the curve typical of trumpeter swans.  They also seemed a bit slim for trumpeters, especially when they flew away at the end of our visit, and leg bands were not observed as they passed overhead (most reintroduced trumpeters are banded).  Unfortunately, the visitors remained silent and thus could not be identified by their calls.

Distinguishing juvenile trumpeters from juvenile tundra swans is a bit of a challenge for most birders, especially when a direct, simultaneous comparison cannot be made in the field.  While tundra swans are far more numerous in North America, most migrate to coastal estuaries and relatively few are encountered in the Heartland; then again, a fair number turn up along the Missouri and Mississippi Valleys.  By contrast, trumpeter reintroduction programs have become widespread across the Upper Midwest and this largest species of American waterfowl is increasingly common in the Heartland.  I'm leaning toward the decision that this morning's visitors were juvenile tundra swans but, either way, it was a pleasure to see them.