Trumpeter Swan Flight

Over the Snohomish


On Saturday, January 13, the winter rains gave way to sunshine.  Snow covered Cascade and Olympic Mountains reminded everyone why the Puget Sound region is a wonderful place to live.  That day was also perfect to conduct an aerial survey of Trumpeter Swans that migrated from Alaska and Canada to winter in the Snohomish River valley.


The Northwest Swan Conservation Association’s Director and well-known biologist Martha Jordan was the chief observer and photographer. The Adopt A Stream Foundation’s Director Tom Murdoch was the pilot.  This flight was part of an annual count that is conducted each winter at several locations around Washington State, the largest winter gathering spot in the world for these magnificent birds.

“We flew over all of the wetlands, ponds and small lakes in the valley from the mouth of river north of Everett, upstream past Duvall to Fall City and back again,” said Jordon.  “The biggest concentration of swans was where we expected, in ponds managed by private hunt clubs and private agricultural fields east and west of Snohomish’s Harvey Field Airport.” 


Jordan counted 1,361 Trumpeter Swans during the January 13 Snohomish River valley flight.  Counts from other locations are being compiled now and will be released soon by the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW).


Jordon and Murdoch have been conducting aerial swan surveys in the Snohomish River valley for several years.  Murdoch says, “It’s always exciting to circle above a large flock of Trumpeter Swans or Snow Geese, however, it’s a downer when we locate a single isolated swan that is not moving.”  Jordon advises that these birds are either very sick or dead from lead poisoning.

When waterfowl swallow food, they also routinely swallow small stones and gravel that lodge in their gizzards. These stones, referred to as gizzard stones, act as teeth in the gizzard that help grind hard food like corn and other seeds.  This process is necessary for Trumpeter Swan digestion. Unfortunately, swans and other waterfowl can ingest lead pellets from fields used for skeet shooting or small lead fishing sinkers in waterways like Shadow Lake in Snohomish County’s Bob Heirman Wildlife Preserve below.

Three lead shotgun pellets or one small lead fishing line sinker will cause lead poisoning and a slow, agonizing death for 28-pound Trumpeter Swans.   Dead birds are then scavenged by raptors like Bald Eagles and a wide variety of mammals that, in turn get lead poisoning.  This is a serious problem that can be easily solved.  Hunters and target shooters can use readily available toxic (lead) free ammunition and anyone trying to catch a fish can use toxic (lead) free tackle. 

Once a sick or dead Trumpeter Swan is located from the air the hard work begins.  Jordan and Northwest Swan Conservation Association volunteers wade in the wetlands or use small boats to retrieve the dead or sick swans.  All are removed from the site for analysis by the WDFW and the sick birds are quickly euthanized to relieve their suffering.

Jordan is very grateful to the famers and hunt club members that provide habitat for swans and other waterfowl in the Snohomish River valley and around the State. That habitat is also enjoyed for its magnificent views by flocks of human bird watchers.


On Thursday, January 25 at 7pm, Martha Jordan, who occasionally serves as a surrogate mother to baby swans in the spring, will be appearing at the Adopt A Stream Foundation’s Northwest Stream Center in Snohomish County’s Mc Collum Park (600 -128th Street SE, Everett WA). There, she will share information about the current gathering of Trumpeter Swans, Snow Geese and Tundra Swans in Washington State. Reservations are required by calling 425-316-8592; $5 for Adopt A Stream Foundation members, $7 for non-members.

Photos: courtesy of the Northwest Swan Conservation Association