Saturday, March 23, 2013

It Was a Swan

In the eyes of its mother every turkey is a swan
       -Luxembourgan Proverb

Ah, but the real question is what type of swan? Perhaps I am getting ahead of myself; Let's start from the beginning.

On Thursday, I went bird watching with a real birding pro (he's the one who took me out last week and is a well-established birder here in the Peterborough area). For the purposes of this post, I will simply call him, "The Birder". So anyways, I picked up The Birder at 7:30 a.m. and we headed up the Otonobee River where we stopped at a couple of places to count the geese, goldeneye, and the odd mallard here or there. It was otherwise uneventful until we came around a bend in the river, just past Lock 25 (sidebar: the Otonobee River has a series of locks which allow for the safe navigation of boats from Lake Ontario into the Kawartha Lakes, and these locks provide simple markers of one's position) and that was when I saw the three swans.

"What do we have here?" I quipped as I pulled the car over to the shoulder. The Birder and I got out of the car and moved in for a closer look. The swans were on the other side of the river and, without a scope, it was hard to get a really good look through our binoculars. The Birder mentioned that there were two possible swans (the tundra and the trumpeter) and that you could tell them apart based on the shape of bill and how the black part of the bill connects to the eye (see drawings below). Tundra swans can also have yellow at the base of their eye but the amount and prominence of this coloration can vary. Even though I remember thinking that the bill had a distinct conclave nature to it, it was only for a second did I think that they could be tundra swans. I then reached another and different conclusion. With the swans off in the distance, I guessed we were looking at the much more common trumpeter swan.

How to identify a swan, from Sibley
"So we got a great look at trumpeter swans" I posed somewhat as a statement and somewhat as a question as we continued our drive up the river, and The Birder answered in the affirmative. And it was settled! We continued our trip and he showed me two new birding spots: the Lakefield sewage lagoons and the location of a bald eagle's nest. After a quick trip to Peterborough's Little Lake cemetery (where we saw a merlin), I dropped him off at his place and I headed for work at the university.

Later that morning, I received an email forwarded from a colleague who is on the bird-watchers distribution list, which had a photo of two trumpeter swans seen on the Otonobee River, though much closer to Peterborough (miles from where the where we had seen swans that morning). It turns out our morning sighting had lit a fire under the local birders and they had already been out looking for the swans, though I personally find this quite funny that teams of birders heard "swan" and dropped everything to go see for themselves. Anyways, the swans had appeared to have moved closer to town and now there were only two of them. After lunch, I wanted another look and went with my ornithologist colleague up the river to where I first saw the three swans and they were now nowhere to be seen. We drove back down the river and found them closer to the city: two trumpeter swans sitting on the ice.

The following morning I heard that there was now some question about the three original swans that were seen near Lock 25. Another birder found them late the day before and, using a high-powered scope, got a really good look at them. This would mean that there were actually two sets of swans on the river and it turns out that one set of swans were actually tundra swans! A highly unusual double swan species sighting on the Otonobee River! Sadly, this was a bit of an embarrassment for The Birder because mid-identification is, well, embarrassing. It almost makes you feel like a turkey. Upon hearing about the swan mis-identification, I felt a tinge of responsibility given my contribution to the confirmation of the original identification as told above. My conclusion was based on an assumption regarding commonness; tundra swans are quite rare so it couldn't have been them. Alas, we were proven quite wrong and next time I will be much more likely to accept my original hunch (and then will probably commit a Type I error instead, c'est la vie). On the other hand, after Damon's recent mishap with the red-headed woodpecker, perhaps I should try to more careful when making a definitive identification.

You might be wondering what the swans looked like. Well, without my camera I wasn't able to take any nice photos but I am happy to share photos taken by Walter Wehtje and Don Sutherland (BTW, if Walter or Don are out there and want us to take these down, just let us know. Thanks! -PF).

Trumpeter Swans on the Otonobee River. Photo by of Walter Wehtje.
Tundra Swans on the Ontonobee River. Photo by Don Sutherland.
See the difference? Now imaging looking for these differences with binoculars with the birds 80 yards away. So yeah. Anyways, long story short- I added three swan species to my list this week (including the mute swans from the weekend before) and helped spark The Great Peterborough Swan Controversy of March 2013.

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