The Trumpeting Swan (P2)

Bill Kleinfelder photo

"And over the pond are sailing
Two swans all white as snow;
Sweet voices mysteriously wailing
Pierce through me as onward they go.
They sail along, and a ringing
Sweet melody rises on high;
And when the swans begin singing,
They presently must die."

-- Heinrich Heine

Thankfully the connection between Swans and death is nothing more than a myth. Nonetheless, like all other living creatures, proper management is vital to keeping the species abundant and strong for years to come

It is no wonder these beautiful birds have caught the attention of poets and novelists alike. Their graceful yet majestic bearing and their deep and resonant cries stir our imaginations - and often our affections.

However, it was their beautiful plumage which almost lost them to future generations. The 19th century will forever remain our season of stewardship shame. Many species came close to extinction as they were over-harvested to fill public demand. Quills for pens, powder puffs for the ladies, and fashionable hat decor nearly wiped out this magnificent bird. And then what? Would quills and fashionable hats and down-soft powder puffs have replaced the Trumpeters lost to perpetuity? Hardly!

According to the Trumpeter Swan Society, by the late 1800's Trumpeter Swans were believed to be extinct. Thankfully this was not the case. A small non-migratory group of Trumpeters who lived in several remote mountain valleys in Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana had escaped notice. While only two nests were found in Yellowstone in 1919, by 1932, 69 birds were known to live in the area.

Jerry James Photo

There's a double beauty whenever a swan
Swims on a lake with her double thereon.

Thomas Hood

Certainly if Mr. Hood's lines carry any truth, they must be multiplied one hundred times when one catches these gorgeous birds strutting their stuff!

Restoration efforts progressed slowly. In the early 1930's the federal government established Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge (our neighbor) to protect the area's fragile Trumpeter Swan population. The program found success and the late 1950's saw bird numbers rise to about 640 birds.

William Kleinfelder photo

In fact, so confident were their managers of success, 40 swans from the Refuge became the core of mid-west restoration efforts. However, they may have been overconfident as local numbers plummeted from the mid-60's to the mid-80's. By 1986 a mere 392 birds remained.

Studies showed a close correlation between adequate winter food supplies and productivity. Thus for many years the Red Rock swans received supplemental grain to boost their chances of survival.

An adequate supply of open water offering abundant amounts of the necessary aquatic plants is critical for the swan's survival. For this reason, the Trumpeter Swan Society has challenged the Refuge's decision to drain Culver Pond.

The competition for open water can grow stiff as many birds from Alaska and Canada winter on the limited sections of open water available in the Tri-state area. To further complicated matters, while some swans seem to adapt well to bustling human activity (for example the hundreds of swans which spend at least part of the winter on the highway-bordered Snake River in Island Park), others are greatly disturbed by human presence. Thus offering a variety of open water options seems in the swans' best interest.

Today, largely through the efforts of government efforts such as the Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge and private groups such as the Trumpeter Swan Society, these beautiful birds have made an amazing recovering. It is estimated there are over 17,000 birds populating North America today. This is, undoubtedly, an amazing come back.

Yet, proper oversight is still required lest we do squander our blessings. I cannot imagine anyone privileged to observe these birds in their native habit and going about their everyday lives could walk away untouched by their grace, beauty, and majesty. Surely the Trumpeter Swan deserves continued protection and abundant appreciation.

For as Han's Christian Anderson put it: "Being born in a duck yard does not matter, if only you are hatched from a swan's egg." Yet, without responsible management, the day could come when no swan's eggs remained - - even in the duck yard. May it never be!

Lady of the Lake


The Trumpeting Swan

"For a perfect conception of their beauty and elegance, you must observe them when they are not aware of your proximity, as they glide over the waters of some secluded inland pond. The neck, which at other times is held stiffly upright, moves in graceful curves, now bent forward, now inclined backwards over the body. The head, with an extended scooping movement, dips beneath the water, then with a sudden effort it throws a flood over its back and wings, while the sparkling globules roll off like so many large pearls. The bird then shakes its wings, beats the water, and, as if giddy with delight, shoots away, gliding over and beneath the surface of the stream with surprising agility and grace. Imagine a flock of fifty Swans thus sporting before you. I have more than once seen them. And you will feel, as I have felt, happier and freer of care than I can describe."

-- J. J. Audubon

The soft grey dawn light wraps round like a blanket. Standing. Listening. Relishing. Ahhh - Do you hear it? The murmuring and gurgles on the lake? Then, without warning, a french horn sounds! No call to battle this. Merely the Trumpeter Swans greeting the dawn.

Nine years at Elk Lake. Nine years in the heart of the Trumpeter Swan restoration area. Surely I have been amiss to not have shown the spotlight on these amazing birds!

And so, I plan the next two posts to focus on North America's largest largest waterfowl, and the one with a most notable call.

Trumpeter Swans mate for life. Only if one dies will the other seek another partner. Young swans begin pairing between ages 2 and 3 while at their wintering grounds. That spring, after mating, the pair builds their nest - sometimes on new ground, sometimes close to where the pen (female) hatched.

They often arrive at their nesting local before the ice has conceded to the summer sun. The pen choses the nest site. The cob (male) defends it. According to the Trumpeter Swan Society, "If a pair spends at least two summers at the same nesting location, it will form an almost unbreakable attachment to the site."

Trumpeters prefer nesting on muskrat houses, beaver lodges or large beds of marshy plant life. The pair which nested on Elk Lake (photo above - courtesy of Newt Purdue) chose a large reed bed surrounded by water.

Home building is a time-consuming affair. Beginning mid April the pair will spend up to 2 weeks perfecting their nest. At its base it can reach 6 feet in width - narrowing to about 1 1/2 feet at surface level. Once built, the pair may return to it for numerous years, rebuilding and reusing the same site over and over.

In late April or early May the pen will begin laying several off-white oblong eggs (each 4 1/2" by 3" and weighing about 12 ounces). She will lay 3 to 9 eggs, one every other day. Upon completion the pair will have a noisy celebration.

For five weeks (33 days) the pen faithfully attends her eggs, leaving daily only for short periods to feed, bathe, or preen her feathers. Unlike some bird species, the male (cob) does not take part in hatching the young. When the pen leaves, she covers her eggs with nesting material. Her mate stands guard.

Trumpeters are very protective of their nest and young. They will attempt to drive off any would be invaders, and, if successful will celebrate their victory with much loud trumpeting, wing quivering, and head bobbing.

Within a day of hatching (usually in late May to mid-June), the cygnets begin paddling around on the water. Early on their diet consists of crustaceans, insects, and aquatic beetles stirred up from the bottom by their parent's rapid paddling (called puddling). The cygnets grow rapidly, gaining over a pound a week until they reach maturity (an average gain of 20% of their body weight a day!).

The young are vocal (although they cannot trumpet until 15 to 20 weeks - about the same age their parents begin urging them to fly) and active - dashing about and diving under the water, little swans mimicking their large white parents.

By the time they reach six weeks, grey feathers (typically) begin to replace grey down. Within 3 to 4 weeks they will have all their adult feathers. During this time at least one parent molts. The adult swans stagger their summer molt so one parent is always able to fly.

By late September the cygnets are deep into their most important lesson to date - flying. A young swan unable to fly by ice-up would be doomed to death. Thus the adults urge them on through their bouncing and struggling as they flap and run over the water seeking to get their large frame airborn.

It is an amazing feet of aerodynamics that allows this large bird to get its weight off the ground. Note the body size of the bird above. A mature bird weighs 20 - 30 pounds (although some large males have tilted the scales closer to 40 pounds).

While their wingspan can reach an impressive eight feet, getting their bulk up, out of the water, and into the air takes grace, speed, balance, and the ability to run on water as you can see from the series above. Yet flight is an imperative ingredient in the swan's repertoire and critical to the bird's survival. It not only allows the birds to escape threats and predation, it also equips them to travel to their wintering grounds.

This amazing bird exudes grace in spite of its vast size. Its call is very deep and majestic, its bearing noble, and the simplicity of its markings distinctly royal. The more I learn about this amazing creature, the more I am in awe of its Creator. Next time we'll study a few more characteristics which make the Trumpeter Swan 'not just your local swan'! (Note: All material from either the Trumpeter Swan Socity or Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge websites.

Lady of the Lake


Centennial Valley Photography Workshop

Have you ever thought: 'I wish, just once, I could take a picture that looks like that?' (That, by the way, is an American Avocet.) I have! More times than I can count.

Yes, I take a LOT of pictures. I post many. However, rarely do I catch 'just' the photo I want - and even less often is the lighting, the clarity, and the composition everything for which I had hoped. In fact, I can not remember the last time all three came together for the perfect wildlife photo opp.

That is why I find Ron Bielefeld's photography skills so awe-inspiring. That is what makes the workshops he is offering so attractive.

Bufflehead Female With Young

Many invest great sums for camera equipment they never learn to really use. If we are going to point-and-shoot, why not use our cell phones or cheap pocket cameras? Do we really think merely owning an expensive camera guarantees high-quality photographs?

Then there is subject stress. In our attempt to 'capture' the perfect image, I wonder how often we antagonize? Thus learning from someone who understands the pitfalls, the equipment, and the wildlife just makes good sense!

Yellow-Headed Blackbird Female

Last week I introduced Ron Bielefeld, a biologist and skilled nature photographer who is offering two photography workshops in the Centennial Valley - spring and fall 2013. Ron brings many skills to the table, but, first and foremost is his knowledge of wildlife behaviors. This allows him to approach his subjects without harassing them.

Take this Yellow-Headed Blackbird Female. It is uncommon to catch her going about her normal daily activities. These flighty birds live in the middle of a marsh. Look closely at Ron's photo. The bird is at ease! If you love wildlife, this alone is worth the price of the workshop.

Trumpeter Swan - Adult

Yet, these photography workshops offer so much more. Under Ron's tutelage you will learn:

  • How to capture birds "doing what they do naturally" without false stimulants or rigging.
  • How to capture the 'little' details which will make your photographs come to life.
  • How to get large, frame-filling images which capture the details (and provide a quality enlargement).
  • How to reduce your dependence on weighty and awkward tripods.
  • How to prepare yourself for quick reactions in any shooting condition - thus catching more quality images.
  • How to use Photoshop to make your photographs even better.
  • How to critique your images and use what you have to improve future photographs.

American Avocet in Flight

Furthermore, Ron clearly has the skills to stand behind his claims. I encourage you to click on anyone (or all) of these photos. While they have been reduced to load quickly, their detail is amazing!

Ron has compiled an irresistible package:

  • A price which will not break your pocketbook. Nothing worth having is free, but Ron is a regular working guy who knows the value of a dollar. Thus his prices are very competitive.
  • Teaching ability honed over the past 20 years.
  • Twenty years experience as an avian biologist. Thus you will not only learn photography, you will away better understanding your subjects. This knowledge will get you in closer more.
  • A hard working philosophy which will get you to the best location at the best time for the best possible shooting opportunities.
  • Affordable basics. Yes, shots like these require a large lens (Ron uses a 500 mm with a 1.4x teleconverter), but I have seen his students use rented lenses attached to a decent (but by no means high end) camera body - and, they have returned with jaw-dropping photographs!
  • One-on-one attention. Ron's groups never exceed three students. Everyone receives individual attention and instruction. How's that for getting your money's worth?

Marsh Wren on Reed

Green-Tailed Tohee

Many amateur photographers understand lighting is key. Few know 'what' light is best. Ron will teach you.

Can you think like a bird? Does it matter? Thinking like your subect is necessary for quality wildlife photographs. Birds are flying creatures living in a world more three dimensional than ours. Sometimes we must think outside of the box to capture them in their element. Ron will show you how.

Mountain Blue Bird Male

Mountain Bluebird at Nest

Most birds are small and all move quickly. It takes skill to determine the proper shutter speed and setup to capture the best images. Ron's photos prove he understands how this is done. He can teach you a method which will allow you to set and change exposures in an instant. Just this one technique will ensure you capture more well exposed images than ever before.

Northern Harrier In Flight

If a photographer has the skill to capture crystal clear, full-frame, quality images of birds in flight living their 'every day' lives, they have developed their skills far beyond the norm. If they understand the techniques required to capture these illusive creatures blended with the skills to teach others, they are worth listening to. If they are willing to share their skills, knowledge, time, and techniques with YOU - at a very competitive price, why not take a second look?

Bull Moose In Velvet

Just in case your interests run to the four-footed beasts of the field - Ron's lessons reach across the gap. Once you learn to photograph, with skill, our flighty feathered friends, you will be equipped to capture the furry beasts with much greater ease and skill.

Are you tempted? Want more information? Drop us a note or give us a call. We'll put you in touch with Ron. You can also contact him directly through his website Whistling Wings Photography. Whatever you do, don't wait. This is an opportunity too good to miss. Ron is only offering two workshops with a maximum three participants each in 2013. Do not wait. They will fill quickly.

Lady of the Lake


Great Photographer - Great Teacher - Great Opportunity

Elk Lake is just one of those places - - - special enough to draw in talent, natural enough to entice the every-day guy (or gal). This means we rub shoulders with all types - and we like it that way!

Like most, Ron Bielefeld arrived at Elk Lake without fanfare. Just a guy on family vacation with a super large lens practically glued to his side. By the time they left, I knew Ron for what he is: a knowledgeable biologist and skilled bird photographer in one! Thus when Ron expressed interest in conducting photography classes at Elk Lake Resort, I was more delighted than surprised.

The first test of any teacher is their own work. The photos which follow show Ron has the photographer's 'eye'. Perhaps of greater value (and vastly important to those seeking a skilled teacher), Ron's images have recently been honored in two of the most prestigious nature photography competitions. While the two photos which follow were not taken in Montana, they show the quality of Ron's work.

Receiving a Highly Honored recognition in the annual Windland Smith Rice Competition put on by Nature’s Best Photography is a marked distinction. Being highly honored means Ron placed in the top 50 of around 30,000 images submitted from around the world. Thus his image will be featured in the Nature’s Best Photo magazine, on their website, included in a slide presentation to be displayed at the Smithsonian Institution, and printed and displayed at the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian Institute. What an honor!

Placing in the top 10 in the North American Nature Photographers Association annual competition is also a high honor. Competing against nearly 10,000 entries an image which scores in the top 250 is considered spectacular. However, every competitor's goal is to be in the top 10. Ron's image is due to be printed huge in front of their magazine, featured on their website, and framed and honored at their annual banquet - certainly another noteable achievement.

Yet, the trait most commonly lacking, even among skilled photographers, is the ability to transfer expertise and skill to others. While William Kleinfelder is no amateur, he would be the first to tell you Ron has helped him to greatly enhance his skills (highlighted in this earlier post).

However, Ron's scientific background may be his best asset. His autobiography is impressive. "I hold B.S. and M.S. degrees in Wildlife Ecology and Biology and have worked as a professional wildlife biologist for 3 states over the past 20+ years. All of my photographs are of wild birds and none were baited in to get them close enough to photograph. To me, part of photographing nature is capturing it as it occurs "naturally," as if I were not there"

Thus, when Ron offered some photos from his recent visit to the Centennial Valley for posting, I asked if I could showcase his skills. He complied. Thus I invite you to sit back and enjoy some amazing photography while tasting what Ron has to offer in knowledge and skills.

Ron says, "I love dynamic images and have a special passion for capturing birds in flight." During an afternoon conversation Ron said he realized true skill requires a distinct focus. Obviously not one to stick to the easy path, Ron chose a medium most avoid as too difficult - birds on the wing.

A common sight, sparrows are often considered the 'back-step fowl'. Like miniature chickens they gather at our door. Yet one would be amiss to dismiss the White-Crowned Sparrow as ordinary. The Cornell Lab of Orinthology says "A young male White-crowned Sparrow learns the basics of the song it will sing as an adult during the first two or three months of its life. . .Males on the edge of two dialects may be bilingual and able to sing both dialects." Amazing!

Crisp photos are a challenge, even when shooting a static landscape. The odds against a decent photograph climb dramatically when the subject is in motion. Birds are common companions but they are quick and illusive. Ron agrees. "Getting tack sharp images of birds in flight is the most difficult aspect of avian photography." Yet he says, "I can definitely arm you with the methods needed. . ."

Trumpeter Swans were, for many years, the heart and soul of Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. The Refuge was a key player in the fight to bring them back from near extinction. Now that their numbers have returned to solid ground, the Refuge has broadened its focus. Yet, the Trumpeter remains an important focus. I am sure its unique grace, beauty, and size are one reason.

With a 10 foot wing span, a body length reaching 5 1/2 feet, and weights exceeding 35 pounds, the Trumpeter Swan reigns undisputed as the largest existing waterfowl species on earth and the heaviest bird native to North America. How are they so graceful?

Does the idea of capturing clear images of wildlife interacting within their natural habitat appeal to you? While this all may seem terribly complicated, Ron prefers to keep things simple. He promises not to throw technical terms your way unless that is your wish.

He will show you simple techniques to increase your reactions increasing the number of images captured. Better yet, he can show you how to ditch the extra "gear and become a lean and mean shooting machine."

Hopefully next time I will have more glorious images and more interesting photography and scientific tidbits.

Lady of the Lake


Some Great Reads

As the snow falls outside my window and the clouds lower their grey blanket upon my world, a hot drink, a sparkling fire, a soft throw and a great book take on an almost ethereal appeal. Furthermore, with the approaching holiday season, one begins to think about gifts. So. . .if you're looking for a great gift for your book-loving family and friends (especially if they have a love for the old west) or if you're just looking for a really good read, I encourage you to consider this series.

In the past I have focused on books which feature Yellowstone or SW Montana. However, the wildness depicted in these books is not unfamiliar to one living in the Greater Yellowstone Eco-System. Furthermore, Richmond Hobson Jr.'s books mesh the 'wildness' of Yellowstone country with the challenge of the Montana range cattleman.

I found these amazing stories in a small bookstore in Ennis, MT. Since switching to a Kindle, I rarely hold a 'real' book. However, a friend's rave reviews prodded me to make this exception. I am so glad I did!

Richmond Hobson Jr. was someone I would have liked to meet. He was just enough crazy to be a great cowboy, just daring enough to be a great visionary, and just foolish enough to put the two together. In addition he possessed the rare talent of a born story teller. Thus one can easily understand why his books garnered such interest when they were first published years ago.

His first book, "Grass Beyond The Mountains" is perhaps his best. It relates the fantastic and barely believable story of the 'development' of the largest inland cattle empire in North America. As you might imagine, the challenges of establishing a toe-hold (foothold would be far too optimistic) in such are far-flung and wild country were frequently death-defying! Hobson does a wonderful job of bringing this wild world to life in your cozy reading nook.

While the title of the second book, "Nothing Too Good For A Cowboy", earned the prestige of movie title, it was my 'least' favorite of the three. However, this series was so good, least favorite was still well worth the read.

"The Rancher Takes A Wife" takes off where the second leaves off. It returns to the high story-telling quality of the first book. My favorite part in this book is the chapter written by Hobson's new city born-and-bred wife. Here she records her first impressions as she is introduced into a world far from her own.

While I would recommend them to anyone with an interest in a rancher's life, in wild country, or in an exciting read, to enjoy these books to the fullest, it helps to have at least a rudimentary understanding of cattle, horses, grizzly bears, moose and wolves (or at least the horses and cows). These unlikely partners often play opposing roles in the story.

It is perhaps more amazing to realize Hobson, himself, was the Stanford-educated son of a New York congressman. His partnership with Panhandle Phillips, a life-long cowboy, adds the literary frosting to an already solid story cake.

Together these unlikely partners throw their heart and soul into developing a huge cattle ranch in the wild and untamed vast miles between Vancouver and the Yukon. In spite of the unreasonable odds, their story holds more success than failure.

I found Hobson and Phillips' heart in the face of unbelievable odds extremely encouraging. No, the story is not silver-lined. Neither is real life. But reading of others who have struggled and prevailed always encourages me to press on through the hard times. A great read and an encouraging one! What more can one ask of a book?

Lady of the Lake


Centennial Valley Autumn Splendor

In the Northern Rockies typically one or two seasons dominate. Their presence is so overpowering, those which bracket them are merely commas in the year's journal. Rarely do the 'pleasant' seasons truly compete with the more challenging ones. This year the commas became exclamation points! Thus we enjoyed a long, hot (for us) summer and a brilliant, long-enduring autumn.

My hiking excursions were sorely limited this fall. However, one evening we broke away to enjoy the glorious landscape wrapped in its warm cloak and kissed by the rosy evening sunlight.

Last post I majored on the 'story' and minored on the 'photos'. This time I'll step back and, outside of a few minor explanations, let those thousand words speak for themselves!

Majestic mountains in a golden setting - what could be more breathtaking! Certainly the purple - green mountains look their best when couched in a pile of gold.

The waning sunlight accentuates the beauty any time of year. Yet in the season when golds dominate, they catch the sunlight and reflect it back like a million rose-kissed mirrors.

Angel tree with halo of gold you write your Creator's glory. With each tickling wind your flickering leaves dance and bob like shy maidens flashing smiles then dancing away.

Fall means cowboy season. In come the cowboys to take their charges back down to the home range.

Of course domestic stock aren't the only critters wandering around. As fall breezes cool our backyard, the wildlife return for our viewing pleasure

And, of course, I have totally enjoyed the Elk Lake swan family. By late fall they were spending a good portion of their time at the lake's south end - in clear view for photography.

A glorious autumn season has come to an end. Winter is knocking at the door. Yet, for those long weeks, we were blessed to enjoy the most colorful and lovely fall for the past nine years. I hope you enjoy these several thousand words!

Lady of the Lake