Meet Charlotte

April 18th, 2015     0 comments     permalink

Ty trumpets his dominance of his realm

Charlotte is as beautiful as TyTy, the Brighton millpond’s newly arrived cob (male mute swan, above), has bonded with a pen (female mute swan) he found somewhere in a nearby pond. I’ve named her Charlotte which was Ty Cobb’s first wife. I began writing this post in late March, but Charlotte disappeared shortly after I started preparing this post so I put it on hold. After a week or so, Ty was with another swan and I assume it was the same pen. There were no identifying marks on either of his partners.

Ty is obviously from another park. He's very friendly with humans.Ty is obviously a bird who is fond of handouts offered by humans. Within a week after arriving at the millpond, he was approaching humans feeding the ducks and geese to get what he felt was his fair share (left).

Ty attacks Maggie and chases her out of the pond Ty probably came from another park. Wild swans wouldn’t be as friendly, but don’t get the idea he’s a softy. Once Charlotte arrived, he and his beloved made life miserable for Maggie, the immmature swan that had settled into the millpond before either of the other two birds arrived.

Maggie hides at the edge of the pond to avoid Ty and Charlotte

I got reports from several people that Maggie was resting in parking lots because she was chased out of the pond by the bonded pair. I personally saw Ty viciously attack and chase her through shoreline saplings that could have injured her feet and wings. Fortunately, she was rescued before she was injured or killed.

The two seem to be settled now though I haven’t seen any serious nest building. Usually by now, swans have selected a location and have begun to gather cattail reeds and other plant life to build a massive nest that’s at least 6′ in diameter and about a foot above water level. Cygnets (swan chicks) are usually born in the beginning of June in this region so they still have time, but one of the birds might be too young to start a family. That would please Michigan’s DNR that is in the process of reducing the mute swan population in our state from 15,000 to 2,300 within the next decade or so. They are considered an invasive species and a threat to our alleged native Trumpeter Swans.

Charlotte and Ty are beginning to court

Raising a family isn’t simple for swans. Nest building takes 2-3 weeks then an egg is laid every 12-24 hours until the entire clutch is completed. Then the swans will share incubating the eggs from 35-45 days with the average being about 42. Young birds take a lot of care until they can fly 120-150 days after hatching. Swans are protective parents and can be downright aggressive which is one of the reasons DNR is reducing the flock.

King Arthur was the resident cob on the millpond for many years. After he was found dead in January, 2014, another pair nested in the pond that summer but fled after two of their six cygnets died. We never found out where they went. King Arthur was a favorite and had success raising families, but rarely did they survive due to the appetites of our resident snapping turtles. In the last three years of his life, only one of his cygnets was known to survive until it left its parents before winter began.

Charlotte searches for tidbits while Ty watches over her

So don’t expect great success from Ty and Charlotte. If they happen to raise a thriving family, it will be a pleasant surprise for you to watch them grow.

The King is Dead

January 13th, 2014     10 comments     permalink

King Arthur was found on top of the snow beside Grand River at the north end of the millpond

Damn. I found King Arthur’s body on top of the mound of dirty snow beside Grand River Avenue at the north end of the pond last night (above). It seems an unnatural resting place unless he was hit by a car and thrown there. Perhaps the driver stopped to move his 25 pound body off the road.

Examining the bird's right foot proves it is King Arthur There was no sign of injury other than a trickle of blood on his bill. There were no ruffled or shaved-off feathers only some dirt on his beautifully groomed body. Maybe he collided with an overhead wire on his final approach gliding into the pond. Two years ago, his last surviving offspring for that season was found dead no more than fifty feet from this location after what I suspect was a mid-air collision with a wire.  I spread his toes to confirm King Arthur’s torn webbing. It was there (left).

The night before he died, he spent time "reduckerating"Less than 24 hours before, the night was warm enough for me to spend time photographing him standing on the water-covered ice during the thaw. He looked great standing with his reflection making him look even taller than his 5′ height. There was no evidence he was sick or injured at that time.

He had a hearty appetite and spent part of my visit “reduckerating,” a term I coined a year ago to describe how he would grab ducks and place them out of his way so he could eat (right). I never saw him injure a duck although he had the power to kill them if he wanted to do it. A photographer suspected a death happened at one time, but it couldn’t be confirmed.

King Arthur had been spending time elsewhere and many of us hoped he'd bring back a new mateLately, Arthur was palling around with the lone goose (left and below). I wouldn’t call it a friendship but they were often in close proximity even though they didn’t appear to relate with one another.

I’ll miss this bird. Some mute swans are very aggressive, but he was gentle in all of his encounters with me. He’d let me get within a couple of feet of his cygnets even though his mate (vanished in November, 2012) would hiss at me. One time, I was standing next to him telling visitors about his history on the pond. Someone in the group asked me if I had ever pet him. It never occurred to me to try so I slowly reached out and softly touched his back. The King was not amused. He didn’t rush away, but the look he gave me let me know it was a violation. I never tried it again. I would occasionally hand-feed him with a glove or from a jar lid because he unintentionally drew blood with the serrated edge of his bill a couple of times.

Other than his annoyance with ducks getting in his way (which lead them to keep a circle of respect around him, below right), his only acts of aggression were toward Canada geese if they got within hundreds of feet of his offspring. He would raise his wings and slowly charge. If that didn’t encourage them to leave, he would accelerate his swim. If they stood their ground, he would fly toward them slapping his wing tips onto the water creating a frightening racket which always convinced the geese he was a lunatic, and they would flee.

He was a doting father until his cygnets would reach about four months old. Then he would spend time alone grazing on submerged vegetation but still check in with them. Only one of three cygnets survived during the 2010 and 2012 seasons, and none of five survived 2011. Turtles killed most of them during their first months of life.

The King was a beautiful 25 pound bird with a wingspan approaching seven feet The King was often near the lone Canada goose this winter, but I wouldn't call them "buddies" The ducks gave the King a circle of respect

Seeing Arthur in flight was incredible. he would occasionally fly from the north to the south end of the millpond. His wings were probably close to 7′ from tip to tip. Mute swans are one of the largest birds in the world capable of sustained flight.

Now that he isn’t patrolling the pond, there’s a good chance another pair of local swans will make it their home. I hope that happens, but I doubt any will be as tolerant of humans as King Arthur was. May he rest in peace.

The worst is behind us

January 9th, 2014     0 comments     permalink

The earthbound 19 sits on the ice

The ice tunnel at the dam is completely covering the falls nowAll 19 of the earthbound domestics (above) near Main Street survived the brutal three nights and seemed more relaxed now that the temperature is 27 degrees warmer, a balmy 12 degrees!

The ice tunnel at the dam has completely covered the falls now and is about a foot thick (right). The ice at its base has formed a shark fin shelf above the moving water. Bubbles can be seen through the transparent portions and it has a beaded edge that catches the light from my flash (below).

There's always something beautiful to photograph if you look around

The new veteran's memorial beside the millpond is the only section fully maintainedThe snow on the bridge near the dam was plowed once before the majority of the storm hit, but it now has 18″ of drifted snow and a footpath down the middle. At the end, the new Veteran’s Memorial has been completely plowed. I imagine vets made the commitment to keep it cleared when the memorial was planned.

Open water is hard to find at the top of the damThe south end ducks haven’t done a great job of keeping the water open. Only a 12′ oval is left, but it’s enough for them to bathe. So many people have been worried about the ducks there is no shortage of food on the ice. There is duck chow donated by the Wildernest store along with bread, crackers, bagels (inedible for ducks due to its hard crust and size), and corn. More straw has been provided so they have a dry spot to rest, but they seem to prefer being on the ice and snow (top), oddly enough. It shows how well they are adapted to cold weather.

Steam rises at the north end of the millpond

The majority of the ducks spend their nights at the north end (above and below). Their activities keep a larger area of water open. A few years ago, when temperature dipped below zero, this area froze completely. Even though the thermometer reached -15F, the water has remained open because more ducks are wintering there this year.

The waterfowl at the north end are so well fed they didn't bother getting up to eat

There was straw, chow and corn left for them so I only tossed a few handfuls of chow to the ducks on the far side of the open water. They were so well fed, they remained on their bellies to eat. King Arthur and our lone goose nibbled their share of the snack. I haven’t seen any ducks suffering ill effects from the cold. Historically, our coldest weeks are still to come — the end of January or early February — but I doubt the weather will be worse than what we’ve already endured. Forecasts say temps will rise into the 40s this weekend. It will give our region time to dig out and the water birds a chance to find natural foods along thawing edges of the millpond.

Yes, it’s the King

January 8th, 2014     0 comments     permalink

Note the King's torn webbing on his right foot

The duck watchers were fairly sure the mute swan who came to the pond a couple of weeks ago was our beloved King Arthur, but the only way to identify him is the torn webbing on his right foot. This photograph confirms it’s the King. Now if we could encourage him to fly off and bring back a new mate, we’d all enjoy cygnets this next summer.

In reviewing this photo, I noticed a duck looking frail just to the right of the blonde duck, lower right. It might just be the angle at which it was photographed. I’ll keep my eyes open for it on future visits, but there is probably little we can do to rescue it in this season.

The old “headless swan” gag

January 4th, 2014     0 comments     permalink

The ducks had seen King Arthur's routine before so they weren't impressed

King Arthur is such a kidder. He tried to amuse the ducks by pulling off his “headless swan” routine again (top). The ducks have seen him perform this stunt many times before so they weren’t shocked or entertained. They knew he was just eating the duck chow pellets they let drop to the bottom of the shallow pond (below).

Actually, the King was eating the pellets the ducks let drop to the bottom of the pond

Hello, I must be fleeing.

January 2nd, 2014     2 comments     permalink

Note King Arthur as a duck on his back

Quick to arrive for winter handouts (above) and quick to flee danger, the 120 ducks at the north end of the millpond act as a unit. Flocking behavior provides more protection for individual members but increases the chances of injuries in the chaos and depletion of energy from false alarms.

Like children running to an ice cream truck, the ducks rushed toward me last night. Notice how one duck climbs over King Arthur, the swan, in his mad dash. The other two photos are ducks fleeing after they sensed danger while feeding. I checked. There was nothing threatening them.

In chaos, the ducks flee to the pond after sensing dangerDucks flee first then determine why they fled afterward. Usually, one duck gets skittish and bolts. That ignites the entire flock to elbow each other into the air. Note some strained positions of wings and legs in the photo below during a rush to safety.

By the time the birds reached the pond, they already realized there was no danger and immediately returned to their food.

Ducks fly and run toward safety as King Arthur watches

The King has returned to the pond

December 18th, 2013     2 comments     permalink

The King has returned to the Brighton millpond

King Arthur has returned after more than a month on holiday in places unknown. The duck watchers will be happy to discover him patrolling his kingdom again, but the ducks aren’t as thrilled. You can see how they stay a neck-length away from him unless food is involved. Many had hoped he would return with an orange-billed maiden. He’s been baching it since November, 2011.

Note how the ducks usually stay a neck length out of his reachThere’s plenty of time before nesting begins in April so we can hope for cygnets next summer. Where he goes on his journeys is unknown. Maybe it’s the cattail-lined pond on the other side of Grand River. I’ve been told many overwintering water birds including swans that congregate in the open water of the Huron River less than five miles away.

Arthur is quite happy to accept duck chow to celebrate his arrival

Huzzah: The King hosts a young damsel

August 27th, 2013     0 comments     permalink

It was a very dignified encounter, one the royal watchers would love to see lead to something

The female swan anxiously approached the KingAugust 22: To the delight of royal watchers, a young female mute swan (a “pen”) paid the King (a “cob”) a visit. She was tentative in her approach and bobbed her head hoping King Arthur would accept her presence. He did. They dined on submerged greens together, but she hasn’t been seen since. It’s time for the King to emerge from his period of mourning and provide us peasants with the diversion royal cygnets could bring to our dreary lives in 2014 after this barren year.

Waterfowl Puffery

June 7th, 2013     0 comments     permalink

A Canada goose spread his wings to show the swan how big and strong he is

The ducks, geese, and swan all do it. They attempt to look bigger when challenged. Duck puff up their feathers and nesting females will inflate their bodies if you approach. The millpond’s resident swan raises his wings off of his back to appear three times larger as he chases geese off of his territory. In this photo, the four goslings of this Canada goose horned in on the swan’s duck chow ration so the swan took a poke at one of them. Daddy goose wasn’t amused and extended his wings to show King Arthur he was big and strong so he’d better watch his step. All three of these species hiss like snakes if provoked, but geese are the easiest to threaten. It’s almost always bluff. If you take a step toward them, they quickly retreat.

A dance lesson from King Arthur

March 21st, 2013     3 comments     permalink

The pickings in the pond must not be good. King Arthur climbs up the bank to join the duck feast.

Even though the water is just above freezing at the Brighton millpond, some plant life still grows on the bottom. I’ve see King Arthur tail-up throughout the winter as he grabs them and brings them to the surface. Last year, just a week after the ice cleared, I photographed a muskrat swimming to his burrow with a mouthful of very green plants. Still, I think the King has tired of the pond fare. For the past week, he’s been climbing the pond embankment to join the ducks when I feed them. Once he arrives, the ducks give him plenty of space so he doesn’t nip at them (above).

Arthur is in prime condition but is missing a mate this seasonMute swans can be very aggressive especially when protecting their young. King Arthur puts his energy into chasing Canada geese instead of people. He won’t let them nest at the north end of the pond. He warns me with a hiss if I get too close photographing his cygnets. I don’t push boundaries, and other park visitors give him their respect, too. There may not be any cygnets this summer. Arthur’s mate vanished last fall.

He recognizes me and many other regulars in the park. As with the ducks, I move slowly when I’m around him so he trusts me. I never approach him; I let him decide if he wants to come close. He tried to teach me a dance step, but I didn't get it.Wildfowl view moving toward them as an aggressive act especially in a public park where some people chase them. They are more likely to approach you if you stand still and make no quick movements. On this day, Arthur tried to teach me a dance step which involved a clockwise spin on the right foot (right). Since he only pantomimes instructions (being a mute swan), I couldn’t learn the footwork. I’m sure it’s a ballet move from Swan Lake.

The long neck of the law?

March 11th, 2013     1 comment     permalink

Standing on the ice, the swan extends his neck to nip at the muskrat.

Just last week I told you how the muskrats rule the millpond, but I guess the situation is more dynamic than I thought. It seems to depend upon the hunger and mood of the players. On a more recent day, King Arthur had the upper hand as shown in these images.

The muskrat raises his forepaw in warning to the swanNot particularly concerned, the muskrat often turns his back to the swan. the swan doesn't grab his tail even though it's an easy target.

The muskrat seeks shelter under cattail stalks where an entrance to his burrow is located He kept his distance but extended his neck to full length to nip at one of the north end muskrats. He was rather gentle about it. I don’t doubt he could grab the rodent by the tail and slam him against the ice, but he didn’t do that. He just nipped at him to keep the critter at bay. It appears they have a long history of encounters and want to remind each other they need their space.

It’s interesting how the muskrat handles nips to his side. He raises his forepaw above his back letting the swan know, if he nips again, he’ll pay with a scratched bill from his sharp claws. That warns the swam he’d better behave or pay the consequences. The 25-pound bird and 4-pound muskrat have discovered how to go about their daily activities in the same territory. Neither gets particularly outraged by the presence of the other, but they aren’t the best of friends. I imagine the dynamics change when either of the participants have young ones with them.

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Rulers of the millpond

February 27th, 2013     3 comments     permalink

A swan, muskrat, and Mallard duck share a meal on the ice at the Brighton millpond

As mentioned in a previous post, the Rulers of the Millpond have been declared. On a recent winter night, I tossed duck chow down to ducks from the boardwalk near Grand River. The birds rushed to it as they always do in midwinter. All was going well until the entire flock burst into frenzied flight.

I scanned the area to see if a raccoon, opossum or stray dog had arrived. Then I looked back at the ice to find a muskrat. One by one, the ducks returned but they kept a safe distance from the furred diner. King Arthur, our resident mute swan, joined the feast. Even though he’s five times larger, he kept a wary eye on the rodent. The birds inched closer to the muskrat as minutes passed. Then, without warning, the muskrat propelled himself directly at the King with a four foot leap! In a commotion of huge white wings and splashing water, the swan retreated as the muskrat popped back up on the ice to eat. Arthur kept his distance for several minutes as the muskrat dined in peace.The ducks recognized they could be his next targets.

The millpond is ruled by fluffy little rodents weighing less than four pounds. I’ve seen them swim directly at the swans to send them fleeing and, even though they often dine together, the ducks never let their guard down. I’ve never seen a duck accept a challenge from a muskrat even though they peck at flock mates constantly. While muskrats have formidable claws and teeth, they rule by their unpredictability and lightning-fast bluster rather than wounds they deliver. Larger mammals, of course, are a bigger threat to all of the pond’s residents, but the daily happenings are influenced by the moods of our water rats.

Who rules the millpond?

February 19th, 2013     1 comment     permalink

King Arthur has been coming ashore for snacks lately

February 15: King Arthur comes ashore more frequently now. His diet of submerged plants must not be very satisfying on these winter days. Less ice and snow also improves his mobility. He’s happy to share pellets with the ducks. The ducks respect his size and remain a neck length away most of the time. Millpond muskrats are less impressed.

While the king wasn't looking, a muskrat pops up onto the ice The king lets the muskrat know he's not invited to the party The king is not amusing by the furred interloper

On this day, while Arthur was distracted by ducks grabbing his chow (above left), a pesky muskrat popped out of the water onto the ice. Arthur wasn’t amused. He challenged the muskrat as it circled him and convinced him to reentered the water (below). Moments later, the muskrat returned for another spat. Wanda, wildfowl aficionado, and I watched as the two sparred several times. At the end, there was blood on the king’s white chest. We weren’t sure if it was his or the muskrat’s.

The king sends the muskrat back into the water

Wish there was an instant replay. I think the muskrat’s claws scratched the king’s bill. Who rules the pond? Stay tuned. I may have a more definitive answer in a future post.

Ducks as icebreakers

February 17th, 2013     0 comments     permalink

As ducks join in, cracks begin to break large chunks of ice at the north end of the Brighton millpond

Ice can get a foot thick during cold winters with unrelenting low temperatures. We haven’t had that this year, but portions of the Brighton millpond have ice that’s still at least 6″-8″ thick. The combined weight of the ducks breaks the ice when it's an inch or two thickOther areas in the pond have much thinner ice due to it being above flowing water. Icebreaking ships have strong bows and their massive weight to navigate through the thick ice in the Great Lakes. Slowly, the chunks of ice begin to separateDucks don’t have those traits, but they have the power of their flock. It’s not intentional, of course, but it’s fun to watch. Ducks at the north end of the pond don’t have many visitors so when people bring them food, they enthusiastically rush to greet them, flying and waddling in from all directions.
Large blocks of ice often slide under other sheets

There are about 60-75 ducks there and, when the ice thins to only an inch or two thick as spring approaches, their combined weight — more than 300 pounds since wild ducks average 3-5 pounds each — is enough to bend and eventually break off large sheets. It usually begins with a low volume snapping sound and then the ducks’ feet begin to submerge in an inch or two of water as the ice tilts. Large plates of ice slowly drift away with a few ducks on top. Sometimes, one plate slips under another one as a result of ducks jumping onto or off of it.

When the swan arrives, he is capable of breaking off chunks of ice all by himselfIt helps when King Arthur, the pond’s resident swan, arrives to grab his share of food. He weighs about 25 pounds so he can break ice all by himself if he decides to stand on it or slide up onto it on his belly. The swan's weigh is enough to lower sheets of ice so other sheets hop on board with himNone of this bothers any of the birds. It’s just part of their daily routine, but human visitors usually get a chuckle out of watching it happen. No helicopters or hovercraft are needed to rescue them like the ice fishermen that get stranded on huge chunks of ice on Lake St. Clair almost every year.

Long neck of the law

January 13th, 2013     2 comments     permalink

The mute swan has 23 neck vertebrae, more than any other bird

King Arthur is certainly the ruler of the Brighton millpond in Michigan, but most of the time, he’s quite subtle about it. Ducks avoid getting within a neck’s length of him. They know he’ll grab them and move them out of his way although there is some evidence he’s been more aggressive on occasion. With Canada geese, it’s a different matter during the nest and child-raising season. He won’t let them get within hundreds of feet or he’ll charge until they hightail away.

The necks of mute swans are very flexible and need to be to reach the bottom of ponds to eat vegetationMute swans most notable facts: they have the most neck vertebrae of any bird on the planet, 23-25 (depending upon the source), and they are among the largest birds able to fly if not the largest (depending upon the source, again). Our king probably weighs in at 25+ pounds and flies from one end of the pond to the other most days. His main territory is at the north end where he and his mate nest.

Where’s his mate these days? That’s a good question. In 2011, she left the pond for a while and then returned. This year, she left in mid-October after raising their one surviving cygnet, but hasn’t been seen since. Perhaps she has died, but I’ve read swans sometimes separate in the fall for a while and males usually preceed females in returning to their nesting grounds. The king might be lazy. He knows he can charm handouts from park visitors who are quite fond of him. Hopefully, we’ll see her return in early spring to nest with him again.

King Arthur, Brighton's resident mute swan has an injured right foot The foot injury is well healed but it might slow him slow just a bit King Arthur probably weighs about 25 pounds, maybe more

He’s the king in the water but a stumblebum on land. He rarely comes ashore. He’s not built for walking. His big webbed feet get in the way. Last night he reluctantly climbed onto the ice after studying it for a while (below). It gave me a chance to photograph his injured right foot. The webbing was torn by the claws of a snapping turtle in his past (above: left and center). This injury plus a small nick out of his bill are his only identifying marks I’ve noticed over the years.

King Arthur is ruler of the Brighton millpond, but is reluctant to climb ashore, especially on ice

The King reviews the new snow

December 26th, 2012     0 comments     permalink

Ducks are expressive. You can usually tell what one of their limited emotional states they are in, but swans always project a regal air unless they are courting or chasing a pesky Canada goose out of their territory. King Arthur just stared at the new clumps of snow plowed along the edge of the millpond (above). He’s spent several winters in the area so it’s not like it was the first time in his life he’s seen it. There’s no way of knowing what he was thinking if he was thinking anything at all.

After looking at the ice for a while, he returned to his major daily activity of aimlessly paddling around the pond looking for something to eat. The light was good on this clear day so I snapped another picture of him doing nothing special (below) because one can’t have too many pictures of such a stately beast.

The hired help cleans the King’s table

December 4th, 2012     1 comment     permalink

I try not to ascribe human traits to animals, but sometimes it’s just too much fun not to. Other than anger when our cob (male swan) decides it’s time for a pond resident to vamoose, he shows no other emotion. It gives him a king’s demeanor. Upon arriving for a snack the other night, a muskrat was busy scraping tidbits out of the sidewalk cracks with his claws and tongue. As temperatures have fallen and vegetation is in short supply, the muskrats have become more brazen. They aren’t as skittish around humans and will approach if you stand quietly or move slowly.

The swan waited patiently as if he expected the rodent to complete his job before the table was ready for him to take his seat (above left). When the muskrat turned and saw the swan, he wasn’t particularly concerned. He finished his nibbling and slid back into the water out of the swan’s reach. Swans aren’t prone to leaving the water. They walk like humans do when they’re wearing swim flippers because of their large webbed feet. The cob was happy to float beside the sidewalk while food was placed in front of him. His long, supple neck twisted in all directions so he could grab the small pellets before they turned to mush on the damp concrete.

The King comes to dinner

December 3rd, 2012     5 comments     permalink

King Arthur accepted a dinner invitation last night at the edge of the Brighton millpond. He allowed me to take this photo with his mouth open so you can see the serrated edge on the side of his bill. They help him grip vegetation to yank it out of the pond’s bottom. Note the large black “berry” above his bill. Male’s berry is larger than female’s. Brighton’s King has two unique identifying marks: A very small, well-rounded-from-wear, nick on the left side of his bill beside the black tip due to some mishap (click image to see it larger), and the webbing on his right foot is ripped from an encounter with a snapping turtle (probably). You’ll see a photo of another guest at last night’s table in a future post. Stay tuned.

The king is at liberty

October 16th, 2012     0 comments     permalink

King Arthur, the Brighton millpond’s resident male* mute swan (a cob), is batching it these days. Not to worry. It happened two years ago but not in 2011 when the family stayed together as a result of the warm winter, I think. His mate, Guenevere, is probably enjoying a vacation in nearby water and cavorting with other swans. At night he softly calls for her or other swans but there is no reply. It’s a melancholy sound not loud enough to reach other of the other local ponds. This is often typical behavior for swans following the breeding season.

After hatching of their cygnets, both parents molt and spend about 45 days unable to fly as new feathers grow in. As a security measure designed by Nature, the female molts first and then, once she can fly again, the male sheds his feathers. The King might still be molting and not able to reach his lifetime mate. Their surviving cygnet, one of three hatched, left a couple of weeks before to find a nearby flock of young adult swans. He’ll spend about four years batching it and then pair up to begin breeding somewhere isolated from other swans. Rarely do bonded pairs share small ponds with another pair.

Swans are designated as an invasive species in Michigan. The Department of Natural Resources is in the process of killing 13,500 pairs of them because they destroy vast quantities of native aquatic vegetation and aggressively defend their nests and don’t allow native bird species to nest near them. The goal is to reduce the statewide population to around 2,000 pairs by 2030. Hopefully, the millpond’s will be spared. They are favorites of the park visitors.

*People has asked me which parent remains at the pond because they look so much alike. I confirmed this is the male by his size and his large “black berry” above his bill. Interestingly, I discovered that the size of the berry enlarges during the breeding season but is comparable in size in both species the rest of the year. I hadn’t noticed that in our resident swans.

The cygnet is full grown

August 14th, 2012     2 comments     permalink

Now three months old (hatched May 6), the only surviving cygnet of the Brighton millpond’s resident Mute Swans is already the size of its parents. You can still identify the child by its paler bill color. In this photo, it’s the bird in the center. It’s still considered a juvenile until it begins to fly at about six months old. This is no small feat since Mute Swans are one of the heaviest of all flying birds. Males weigh in at about 25 pounds while females weigh about 20. The millpond swans get along well with the resident ducks and geese most of the year excluding times when humans are feeding them. During nesting and the first month following the cygnets hatching, the male vigorously guards the nesting area and won’t allow Canada geese within 200 yards of it.

Another millpond miracle

June 8th, 2012     0 comments     permalink

Well, I’ve done it again. After announcing that SweetPea had returned from the dead in February, I now have to report the two cygnets aren’t as dead as I said they were three days ago. I’d make a terrible coroner. Not only are they alive, they look incredibly healthy (above).

I’m chalking it up to a miracle instead of me being incapable of accurate reporting. It’s like this: One cygnet was observed being killed by a turtle and then, a few days later, both of the remaining cygnets vanished. For two days, pond visitors were all reporting the babes were no longer with their doting parents. Then Thursday rolled around and presto! There they were again. See, it’s a miracle!

What happened? I’m clueless. The cygnets are too young to fly and too young for the parents to leave unattended (or so I thought). Maybe a blog visitor will report their whereabouts during their mysterious absence. Until it’s disproved, I’m sticking with my miracle theory.

And, even though the cygnets are very much alive, snapping turtles are still scoundrels as previously reported. Trust me on that.

The Millpond Scoundrels

June 5th, 2012     2 comments     permalink

It’s easy to loathe snapping turtles, the prehistoric predators living in the Brighton millpond. The oldest ones (pushing 30, probably) have 14″- 20″ shells (head-to-tail) and flesh-ripping claws more than a half-inch long. From when they emerge in early May until they sink down into the mud to hibernate (actually, reptiles brumate) in late October, the large snapping turtles take a heavy toll on the waterfowl.

During this past week, all three of the mute swan cygnets (below) have been lost. Turtles are probably the scoundrels although other predators (foxes, raccoons, opossums, hawks, owls) are capable of the carnage. Faith, a seasoned millpond duck observer, reports she and her husband witnessed the death of one cygnet on a recent afternoon. After hearing a distress call and seeing a cygnet go under, they witnessed both swan parents take turns standing on what they believe was the shell of the submerged turtle and rocking it back and forth to force it to release its prey. It was too late. A large, clean-edged wound in the side of the young bird disemboweled it.

Can anything positive be said about these ruthless predators and the grim toll they take? To begin: They are an integral part of the natural world’s balancing mechanism. While they kill, they also clean the pond of dead things and devour submerged vegetation. Without them, the overproduction of wildfowl would eventually lead to even more painful deaths by the transmission of disease in the crowded environment and the starvation of many young birds as food resources are depleted. While they’ll never elicit the warm feelings people have toward cute little ducklings, their brute efficiency is reason enough to admire them. See past snapping turtle photos at Words4It.

The pond’s royalty visits the commoners

May 24th, 2012     2 comments     permalink

A couple of years ago, a woman told me the male swan (called a “cob”) is named King Arthur and his life partner (a “pen”) is Guenevere. They are annual residents of the Brighton millpond and much loved by the park visitors although the Canada Geese find them totally uncooperative. The cob doesn’t let the Canada Geese anywhere near his cygnets or their nesting area.

Now that the babes are more than two weeks old, the parents parade them to the south end of the pond (usually in the early evening) and teach the youngsters how to look really cute so the humans will feed them. It works every time! Imagine that.

The baby swans are more placid than Canada Goose goslings. Ducklings are the most active of the three. They eagerly explore their world while goslings and cygnets float near their parents and have limited interest in the world around them. Geese are nimble on land but swans trip over their own feet while walking. Swans easily glide through the water powered by their big webbed feet, a skill they need when chasing geese. They rarely bother ducks unless they are both vying for the same food source, but ducks are smart enough to stay a swan’s neck length away from them to avoid quick jabs by orange bills.

Ducks are surely brightest of the three waterfowl. Ducks dart around to grab duck chow thrown to them. Swans have only a rudimentary understanding of gravity and become befuddled when tossed chow that doesn’t land directly in front of them. Swan, however, have one outstanding trait: They are devoted parents. They aggressively protect them, keep them close at all times, and help them find food to eat for many months following their birth.

The cygnets are a beautiful soft dove gray with taupe colored bills. In a few of the above shots, they appear to have a rosy glow, but that’s because these photos were taken near sundown. The following shot was heavily Photoshopped. I moved the duckling on the right closer to the other two so you could see them up closer than if I had posted the original.

Salads for cygnets

May 18th, 2012     2 comments     permalink

The mute swans are bringing their three cygnets to the southern end of the Brighton millpond daily now and the park visitors are enjoying the pastel gray balls of fluff with their tiny wings and charcoal-colored bills. The pen and cob (mom and dad respectively) tip up (lower left) to reach the bottom of the pond to bring submerged vegetation to the surface for their young (lower right). Sometimes one of them unintentionally dons a necklace of seaweed as a result of this activity.

The King’s realm expands as spring approaches

March 10th, 2012     1 comment     permalink

Unseasonably warm days this past week opened the entire Brighton millpond to travel for the mute swan pair. They remained at the pond all winter. There was enough open water for them to graze on submerged vegetation but they were restricted to the north end since neither wanted to skate to the south end a half mile away for human handouts.

The ice melted from north to south and they have moved with it. I thought they might nest at the halfway point this year. They lingered there near a small bay with adequate cattail cover for their nest. The cob (the name for a male swan) was often seen prohibiting the Canada geese from considering possible nesting sites in that area. He’d display his large wings and float at the edge of the ice to keep geese from entering the water. If he found them disobeying his edict, he’d charge with wings slapping the water as the geese raced away.

With the ice gone, the mutes ventured to Main Street to find vittles left by park visitors. Tossing duck chow on the sidewalk at my feet brought them close (above) so I could study them. See how the male’s black berry above his bill (right) is larger than his mate’s. He’s several pounds heavier, too.

Identifying specific swans, however, is more problematic since they all look alike. In these photos I discovered one very subtle identifier on this male. Can you find it? Click these two close ups for the larger images which might help. Don’t read further until you’ve taken the quiz.

Ready? Read on
There is a small notch on the left side of the black spot at the tip of his bill. Looking down at it, it’s on the right side in these shots. I quickly reviewed shots I’ve posted since 2010 and am pretty sure this is King Arthur and Guenevere, the same swans who nested last year and lost their five cygnets to turtles and other calamities. I’ll sift through thousands of millpond photos sometime to find other close ups to be certain. Swans usually return to their same nesting areas so it’s a reasonable assumption.

The State of Michigan has classified mute swans as an invasive species and ordered wildlife rehabilitators NOT to treat their injuries or provide them with sanctuary if disabled. While that seems heartless since the birds are graceful additions to any pond and always crowd pleasers, they don’t allow dwindling species like Trumpeter Swans to nest anywhere near them while they aggressively guard their nests. Last year, the swans allowed ducks to raise their ducklings nearby, but geese couldn’t get within 750 feet of the swan nest. Many people feel that’s a blessing since Canada geese are a noisy and poopy nuisance. In some regions (not sure about Michigan), mute swans have also depleted certain submerged native plant species because of their voracious appetites.

Mounds of cracked corn on the Main Street lawn lured the swans to leave the pond in the dark. Their grace while afloat vanishes on land. Their webbed feet are so wide and large they have trouble not stepping on their own toes. They walk like humans wearing swimming flippers. Still, standing near King Arthur as he posed for his portrait is quite an experience. From toes to forehead he’s 4.5 feet and weighs in at 25 pounds or more. In flight, or when he displays his dominance, his wings extend an impressive seven feet.

The night after these shots were taken, Guenevere retreated into the cattails near the site of last year’s nest. Instead of nesting at the pond’s halfway point as I thought they would, it appears they have selected the north end again. While Guenevere answered the urge to nest build, King Arthur slept floating near the south end resting up for ten weeks of aggressive territorial patrols. The typical clutch of 5-7 eggs need 36-38 days for incubation and will probably hatch during the last week in May as they did last year. As you can see from his prime condition, he’s up to the task.

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