Pair of swans may herald return of trumpeters Related breed studied at Lake Elkhorn

December 06, 1992|By Mark Guidera | Mark Guidera,Staff Writer

The raucous quacking and honking of mallards and geese is ignored by two bone-white birds sunning on the dock of Columbia's Lake Elkhorn.

The graceful pair -- trumpling swans -- are the new kids on the block.

They represent a long-planned attempt at reintroducing trumpeter swans, the largest of all waterfowl and decimated by American settlers, to the Chesapeake region.

Scientists believe if they can get the trumplings -- a cross of two other kinds of swans familiar with the East Coast flyways -- to take hold, the trumpeters could follow.

The trumpling swans, one male and one female, were brought to the Columbia lake from a Virginia research center on Nov. 12. With wingspans close to 8 feet and standing inches taller than the brawniest of geese, the swans are imposing.

"This will be no small milestone if they like the lake and decide to breed," says Charles "Chick" Rhodehamel, as he ambles near the birds to see how they respond to inquisitive humans.

Mr. Rhodehamel is staff ecologist for the Columbia Association, the non-profit organization that manages the community's facilities and programs and owns its three lakes.

The association is assisting William J. L. Sladen, a wildlife researcher and retired Johns Hopkins University professor who heads the trumpeter reintroduction effort.

Once trumpeter swans roamed Maryland's Chesapeake region in huge numbers. Today, they are rare on Chesapeake Bay. Their stock was wiped out for food, quills and downy feathers by settlers. About 15,000 trumpeter swans remain, making them the rarest of North American waterfowl; by contrast there are an estimated 4 million Canada geese.

Trumpeters summer in Alaska and Canada, but the survivors were never shown, or "imprinted" with, the migratory flight path to the East Coast.

Most winter on the U.S. West Coast. Some never leave their Arctic summer breeding grounds. Another type of swan, called the tundra or whistling swan, still migrates from Canada to the Chesapeake region for winter.

The hope for the trumpling swan pair on Columbia's lake, dubbed Steve and Tree, is this: They'll like the lake well enough to breed and raise young swans in the cattails and hummocks of the protected shores.

If the trumplings -- a hybrid of the trumpeter and the tundra swan -- thrive, Dr. Sladen and his research aides plan to establish several trumpeter swan eggs with the pair.

Because of their rarity, trumpeter swans have not been brought to the lake, Dr. Sladen says.

Once trumplings have become comfortable with the lake as a home, a much larger step is planned, says Dr. Sladen, who operates the Swan Research program in Airlie, Va.

"Eventually we hope to imprint the flight path to the Chesapeake by enticing trumpeters to follow an ultra-light [plane] from Canada," says Dr. Sladen.

Lined up to assist Dr. Sladen's project is Bill Lishman, an Ontario resident who has trained Canada geese to follow his lead in an ultra-light, a sleek, almost noiseless one-man aircraft.

"This would be hugely exciting if we're able to get so far as to try the ultra-light experiment," said Dr. Sladen.

David Weaver, a waterfowl expert with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and treasurer of the Trumpeter Swan Society, a conservation organization based in Maple Plain, Minn., said the swan group will watch Dr. Sladen's project with interest.

"The trumpeters are rare, so any effort to re-establish their natural range would be worth trying," he says.

But it's likely the Atlantic Flyway Council will want a reintroduction effort to proceed cautiously.

A successful reintroduction of the trumpeter could jeopardize the hunting season for tundra swans. Maryland does not have such a season, but several Middle Atlantic states do.

"The tundras and trumpeters are look-alike birds. If the trumpeters were to start coming into the Chesapeake naturally, it's likely tundra swan hunting would have to be banned to prevent trumpeters being killed," said Mr. Weaver.

Columbia was selected as a location for establishing a "host" pair of swans by Dr. Sladen because the Columbia Association has a lengthy history of caring for another type of swan, called mute swans, on the city's lakes.

Dr. Sladen agreed to lend Columbia founder James Rouse several pairs of mute swans to grace the city's lakes.

But those swans, which are not a native American species, are being removed so that the native trumpeters can take up residence. The mutes, considered very aggressive, likely would chase away any trumpeters and tundras.

Over the winter, Mr. Rhodehamel and his staff will keep a watchful eye on the trumpling pair to see how they are adapting to the lake. They'll also educate visitors that the swans are wild and shouldn't be fed or petted.

Said Dr. Sladen, "Columbians could be very fortunate one day. Each spring they might have the chance to witness the unique beauty of tundra and trumpling swans migrating over their homes to stop off at the lakes en route to the Chesapeake.

"It would be a breathtaking sight. These birds are just stunning in flight."

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