It’s a dance they do. Here’s the routine: The pair of geese arrives at the north end of the millpond, Swan #4 sees them, and paddles toward them to remind them they are in his territory …
… the geese may head for the nearest shoreline to get out of the swan’s way. Swans aren’t fond of walking on solid ground so he rarely follows them once they reach dry land. The swan returns to the center of the northern bay to graze on submerged vegetation.
As soon as the coast is clear, the geese return to the water …
… and the swan paddles toward them again. If they don’t leave the area the swan considers his backyard, the swan ups his game. He’ll charge toward them with his wings held upward to look larger than he is then slaps his wings against the water’s surface to make a racket.
Mute swans are magnificent while flying. Their six foot wingspan is incredible as they struggle to become airborne. Their feet “walk” along the surface before they have enough lift. If they are just treatening geese, they rarely lift more than 6 feet off the water before making another splash near the tails of the offending geese.
As the swan comes closer, the geese decide they are dealing with a crazy bird that’s twice their size so they leave the area but not for long. The entire dance happens again within minutes or hours.
Swan #4 is merely protecting his nesting territory. He built a nest two weeks ago. The problem is he still doesn’t have a mate to share it. Perhaps he’ll leave his job as millpond sentry long enough to seek a female willing to return to the millpond and raise cygnets with him. Swans are fine parents. They share parental responsibilities until their young reach full size and leave their care in late autumn.
I previously reported Swan #4 spent two days building a nest but he hasn’t been loitering there since. Nor has he flown to other ponds to find the love of his life who will bring us a fresh set of cygnets this summer.
Normally, swan eggs hatch in June after 34-41 days of incubation. So #4 still has time to run off to play goo-goo eyes with nearby cupcakes, but he has to show more ambition than he indicates this early spring. There is a possibility he is still too young to mate. Swans settle down to family life at 3-4 years old. Prior to that time they hang out with other immature swans in large groups. Since he’s alone and actively policing the millpond, I think there’s a good chance he intends to become a permanent resident of our town. We’ll know if he intends to raise a family this year within the next month.
Normally, the male swan starts building the nest but the female joins in once the location is acceptable to her and the base of it is completed. She finishes by adding a nesting cup where the eggs will be laid. The starry-eyed couple may add more reeds to the nest during egg laying and/or incubation. Incubation takes from 34-41 days.
Swan #4 has one problem: He doesn’t have a partner yet and might be too immature to understand the finer points of swan courting and mating. If one of my devoted readers speaks fluent swan, please have a chat with him so he leaves the pond on a mate search and brings her back to the millpond. Unfortunately, if he finds an older female who is set in her ways, she may convince him to nest in her favorite pond instead of playing house on ours and we’ll have a swanless summer unless another pair arrives soon after.
Since the death of King Arthur in January 2014, we’ve had at least four male mute swans claiming the Brighton millpond as theirs. I haven’t found an identifying mark on the current one yet to see if he’s the one that arrived in late summer. I imagine he is. The swan that kicked out the swan released on January 4 within 48 hours was quite adamant the millpond belonged to him and only a suitable mate would be allowed to stick around.
I’m calling this swan Swan #4 until I can discover an identifying mark on him. What I noticed this past week is that he seems to be on the gentle side with the ducks. Arthur tolerated the ducks, but they stayed a neck length away because he inflicted painful nips if they annoyed him. Swan #4 nips the ducks, too, but they don’t stay away from him in their limited swimming space. It’s as if they know he won’t hurt them. I saw one duck swim right under his neck on this night while he was nipping another one he wanted to get out of his way (above). I’m not convinced he’s going to be a long term resident. There are nights when he’s vanished.
During the summer for many years (when Buda was the Alpha drake), he moved his small tribe to the bay between the City Hall and the Court House. As winter approached, he would lead those ducks to the area near the dam where they would join the over-wintering birds, most of whom were domestics or domestic/wild hybrids.
For some reason this year, all of the ducks that usually spend the winter near the dam have remained near City Hall which is going to cause a problem. This area will eventually freeze over. The open water will be 300 yards away near the dam. Perhaps they will walk to it since many of the domestic birds cannot fly.
But that’s not the only problem
The resident swan has ended up being in the same small bay. While it’s getting along well with the ducks, swans normally winter at the north end of the millpond where there is more open water and submerged vegetation on which to feast.
Last evening I met two people on the Tridge carrying a large animal carrier. I asked them what they planned to catch. They explained they had just dropped off an adult mute swan that had apparently been on dry land for three days near the Meijer store.
They had attempted to find a veterinarian who would examine it but discovered most vets cannot treat domestic or wild birds. Further, they found out the Michigan DNR is reducing the mute swan population in the state so wildlife rehab facilities are to euthanize them when they arrive for treatment. The bird had some blood on its bill. They caught it with a blanket and looked for open water at the millpond to release it. They thought that solved the problem.
Unfortunately, our current resident swan (who remains nameless for now) isn’t happy about this interloper. Twice in the half hour I watched the swans, our resident forced the new arrival out of the pond. The new swan looks a bit disheveled, but that might be from its capture or an unhealthy condition. Time will tell if it will survive and make friends with the millpond’s existing swan.
I’m not sure when these two swans arrived at the Brighton millpond. I see them in the distance on my millpond visits, but haven’t gotten close to them in three months. Yesterday, they swam close to shore and noticed neither has Ty’s two-toned “berry” above its bill. Ty and Charolotte were the resident pair earlier this summer but must have been ousted at some point.
One of the swans has what appears to be a wound on her lower neck (top)so it might be Josephine who was paired with Napoleon in the summer of 2014. I can’t recall any unique characteristic to identify Napoleon. If this is Josephine she might have ditched Napoleon or he may have met his Waterloo.
Beads of water on the well-preened feathers of the two birds are beautiful in the late afternoon light. Adult swans spend hours each day preening their 25,000 feathers to keep them properly in place and well oiled so water slides off of them. To see another version of the image at right, it’s here.
Whether this pair will remain at the millpond all winter is unknown. In some past years, swans have stayed. It seems to depend upon how much open water is available for grazing on submerged vegetation. If they disappear, they are probably not far away. The Huron River is nearby. It has sections that remain open during winter due to the current.
It appears our resident mute swans are thinking about raising a family on the Brighton millpond this summer. They are building a substantial nest in the bay south of Stillwater Grill in the cattails.
Swans spend a couple of weeks constructing their nests and they are diligent in their efforts. The nest is about 6′ in diameter and at least 18″ above the waterline. Whether they will remain in this area is iffy. Last year, the swan that were at the pond created a nest in the same area, but abandoned it before nesting began. This bay is where several large turtles reside. They haven’t become active yet. When they begin swimming in the area, the swans may decide they don’t want their young to become feasts for their neighbors and go elsewhere.
Here’s a tidbit for future cocktail party banter: There are two color morphs for Mute Swans. When Maggie arrived at the Brighton millpond on January 16th, I was surprised by her mixture of tan and white feathers. The juvenile swans hatched at the Brighton millpond in past years were light gray when hatched by King Arthur and his mate. They grew white adult feathers by autumn.
I found in reading up on swans that Maggie is more typical than the millpond’s cygnets. Her coloration is of the more common “Royal” color morph. Birds with this trait retain their tan and white feathers until their second autumn. King Arthur and his broods were of the “Polish” color morph. They are born light gray or white and grow white adult plumage within their first year. Polish birds have lighter colored legs and feet with a pinkish cast while Royal birds have darker gray-to-black ones.
Mute swans without tan juvenile feathers were imported from Poland in the early 1800s where they had been selectively breed for centuries. There are advantages and disadvantages for both color morphs. In a nutshell: Polish cygnets have a higher mortality rate because their parents chase them off earlier while Royal cygnets stay with their parents longer which delays their breeding for an extra year or more.
Maggie is obviously in her first year. She either lost her parents before she was ready to fend for herself or was hand raised by humans and dumped at the millpond. She doesn’t act like other swans I’ve observed. She remains isolated from the other waterfowl (above) and allows humans to approach. Consequently, I think there’s a good possibility she was hand raised and released at the millpond when her human captor found it too difficult to continue her care.
Sidenote: Some folks have emailed to ask if I’m still alive. I’m thrilled to tell you I am. The past three weeks has been the longest time I haven’t posted since this blog began five years ago.
I’ve still visited the pond and taken photos, but business commitments have not given me time to post them. On your next few blog visits, scroll below this post. I’ll be posting out of order. The dates will correspond to when things happened rather than when I post them. Sorry for the inconvenience.
March 1: March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb, right? Our lion is a male Mute Swan who arrived on the first day of this month. Wanda, one of the devoted duck watchers at the millpond, sent me the above photo taken by her cell phone, bless her heart.
March 2: I met the new swan last evening. I’ve named him Ty because he’s a “cob,” a male swan. While I can’t be sure, I think he’s a young bird searching for a mate, something cobs do January-March of their 3rd or 4th year according to Guy Baldassarre, author of Ducks, Geese, and Swans of North America, Volume 1, a book with fascinating facts about the species and their Michigan population, the largest in the Midwest (though our DNR isn’t happy about that). Google Books makes it impossible to link to specific pages. The above link gets you to the book. Go to Page 32 for the Mute Swan section.
Ty is a beautiful beast. He’s well fleshed out indicating there’s a chance he’s older than I’ve stated. Swans allegedly mate for life, but Baldassarre dashes that claim by studies in the above mentioned book. Duration of pairs is only 1-2 years for 50% of cobs and 53% of pens (females) of birds. Only around 20% of the birds remain paired for more than five years.
Whether old or young, Ty is looking for a pen who can bring this year’s bouncing cygnets into the world. Will he stick around? I doubt it.
Maggie is too young to breed. She’s in her first year and most pens don’t sexually mature until 3-4 years old. She shows no signs of being interested in even palling around with her new millpond companion as you can see in the top photo.
It was even more apparent last night. Maggie was way off in the darkness (upper left corner, 2nd photo from top) at least 30 yards away from both Ty and the only five ducks roosting at the north end.
It’s difficult to identify specific swans unless they have a unique trait. We are fortunate with Ty. Notice how his “berry” the black lump above and between his nostrils is half-orange on his right side. The other side is more typical being solid black. We’ll be able to tell if he stays with us throughout the approaching summer because of this. Don’t get your hopes up though. I think he’s cruising for a mate and might decide the Brighton millpond isn’t the place to find one. Still, he might like the location and fly back with a sweetheart to set up house. If that’s the case, Maggie will probably be asked to leave. Her dispatch won’t be gentle either. The term “bum’s rush” comes to mind.
Swan Lifeline and the Fairford Swan Aid, both in Great Britain, have well done short articles on their efforts to preserve swans in the UK. You might enjoy learning more about these magnificent birds which are native to Europe.
On January 16th, the Wildernest store in downtown Brighton received a call about a juvenile Mute Swan roaming the parking lot behind Jimmy John’s which is next to South Ore Creek across the street from where its waters enter the millpond. She dispatched Tim, her employee with a degree in wildlife biology, to the scene. He found the bird slightly disoriented but couldn’t spot any injuries. He did the right thing; he let it be, but shot this 6-second video with his cell phone.
The Michigan DNR classifies Mute Swans as an invasive species and is in the process of culling the state’s population of 15,000. By 2030, they plan to reduce the flock to 2,200 to protect Michigan’s native Trumpeter Swans, reduce aggressive behavior toward humans, and decrease habitat destruction. Wildlife rehabbers have been ordered not to treat the birds and euthanize birds brought to them.
The youngster was not seen again until January 22 when it appeared at the north end of the Brighton millpond mingling with the resident winter ducks. It spends its time searching the pond’s submerged vegetation to sustain it though there might not be enough to last the winter.
Since that time, it’s bivouacked at the north end. The ducks are giving it a wide berth so it’s already let them know it’s the puddle czar. Ha! It apparently hasn’t met one of our feisty muskrats who will let it know who’s really in charge.
Will it become a long-term resident? Probably not. Juvenile Mutes seek other young swans in what are sometimes called “bachelor pods.” They remain in flocks 3-4 years before picking a life partner and heading for a pond or lake to raise families alone. If you’ve never seen a male swan defend its nesting territory and cygnets, you’re in for a surprise discovering how aggressive they can be.
Some of this bird’s feathers show extensive wear on their tips. It may have endured a long flight before arriving in Brighton. Flight feathers are askew on its left wing (below). Perhaps it injured them hitting a tree limb or power wire while coming in for a landing. This may be the reason it’s on holiday here — flight may be impossible or too tiring to reach its intended destination.
Since he was first to document this newcomer, Tim was asked to name it for the purposes of this blog. From this day forward, she is Maggie unless we discover she’s male. Then she’ll be Magnus. Swans are uncomfortable discussing such intimate matters, and I’m too much of a gentleman to pry.
We have royal newcomers at the Brighton millpond. A pair of mute swans arrived this week. I’m naming them King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella for no good reason other than it follows the tradition of millpond swans being crowned. They aren’t the same pair that hatched six cygnets earlier this summer. The female doesn’t have the wound in her lower neck. It’s possible the wound healed since their summer departure, but it looked like an old wound when she arrived so I believe it is a permanent indentation.
This pair seems comfortable having humans near but they aren’t begging for handouts like the spring couple that obviously came from a public pond. This may be a young pair passing through on their fall migration. Perhaps they will find the millpond to their liking and leave for the winter months but return to raise a family next spring.
I was unable to catch up with the millpond’s popular royal family until June 17, eight days after the estimated hatching of their brood. I had reports of five cygnets on their first day in the public spotlight, but on the second day, a sixth was added to the family. It was apparently a late hatcher or given a time-out at the nest before being allowed to meet the pond and park residents. Sadly, the day before I was able to photograph the family, one of the cygnets died at seven days old. Mary, a devoted pond observer witnessed it near the end of its life. Unless the wound from a turtle was on its concealed belly, the cause of death was probably parasitic or health related in some other way.
The family paraded near the south end when I met them. The parents were reaching deep into the pond with their long necks as pulling up submerged vegetation for their offspring to eat. They came near the point on the millpond walkway at the cemetery so I was photographing them from above. All five of the cygnets looked healthy. Three were a beautiful, soft gray while the other two were closer to white. The fluffy shape of their heads and necks along with their rounded tails makes them look more like stuffed animals. It will be several weeks before they begin to grow their first set of juvenile feathers.
Like geese, swan parents dote and keep their brood close. Ducks and especially Canada geese who make the mistake of getting too close are quickly reminded to back off. The male swan, called a cob, will lunge at any transgressor whether its a young one or an adult. The waterbirds are well aware of this and normally keep at least a neck length away from the swan parents, but sometimes they forget or are distracted. The cob may nip them into making a fast retreat. I’ve never seen it happen, but I imagine the swans could easily kill goslings and ducklings, but they don’t. They just want to keep their cygnets wrapped in a bubble of protection.
One hungry Mallard female brought her family too close while I was photographing them. You’ll read about the fracas in the next post.
I spoke too soon yesterday when I said we had to wait a few more days for the hatching of the swans’ clutch. Wanda reports our pair of Mute Swans have hatched five cygnets in their first season at the millpond. I searched for the young ones on Tuesday evening, but they had already returned to their nest with mom in the cattails at the north end. The pond has not had cygnets since 2012 when King Arthur and his mate hatched three. One of them survived and left the pond in the fall of that year. Young swans seek bachelor pods, groups of immature birds, where they spend about four years before reaching reproductive maturity. They then seek mates and territories. You’ll soon see photos of the newborns when they are spending more time foraging with their parents in a day or two.
The close up, below, shows you the injury on the front of the neck on one of the swans. Also note the bump directly opposite near the back of the neck. It’s a good thing the wound has healed. Wildlife rehabbers are not allowed to provide care for mute swans. Injured birds are to be euthanized as Michigan moves toward its goal of reducing the population from 15,000 down to 2,300 birds by 2030.
As a non-native species, they are believed to prevent native waterfowl (especially Trumpeter Swans) from nesting and overgrazing ponds which encourages invasive plants to flourish. Evidence at the millpond tells me the swans aren’t living up to their reputation. I think the city would be thrilled if they would snarf down more of the pond’s water plants. Last November, they had some of them mowed.
Without asking mute swans any personal questions or turning them over (which they wouldn’t appreciate and is illegal by Federal law), the ways to tell males (cobs) from females (pens) is by comparing their overall size and the black “berries” above their bills. I’ve lightened the background just a bit in the top three photos so you can see them better.
I believe we have a bonded pair. The upper bird is smaller than the lower bird (left). Ignore the raised wings of the lower bird. Just look at the body length. The male has his wings fluffed up to look bigger to impress the pair of Canada geese that he is to be feared and respected.
The berries are close to the same size on these two swans while King Arthur and his mate, Guenevere, were noticeably different. Maybe berries grow with age and the new swans are young birds. The female has a dark mark below her nostrils which will help you recognize her (right). The rust color on the head and neck of the birds is from iron in the water. They spend a good portion of their day grazing on submerged vegetation and can’t reach those feathers when they preen so they remain stained.
All three of the millpond’s common waterfowl species — swans, geese, and ducks — were in front of the Stillwater Grill’s patio last evening (left). A few days ago, the swan wouldn’t tolerate the presence of geese but didn’t bother ducks. He seems to be more agreeable now.
His tolerance might end if the pair hatches cygnets. I assume the pen is laying an egg a day now but the pairs isn’t staying close to their nest so I could be wrong. Once the pen begins to incubate the eggs, the cob might vigorously defend his territory around the nest.
These swans are comfortable around people so they must have come from another location where they interacted with humans. They appear quite placid, but keep a distance between you and them. Mute swans are known to be aggressive and unpredictable especially when they are protecting their young.
Parmenides started the whole thing circa 485 BC and Aristotle jumped in about 130 years later with “horror vacui,” the dictum that voids cannot exist in nature; “Nature abhors a vacuum.” The theory is being happily proving true at the Brighton millpond.
I first noticed a pair of new Mute Swans floating in the Brighton millpond on the night of March 20 (above and right). Their large white forms glowed in the faint light near the far shore. The clamoring of the ducks near me brought them closer. The cob (male) stood on the edge of the receding ice 25 yards away, too far into the darkness for me to get a crisp photograph.
Without King Arthur guarding the pond, this pair of swans has been evaluating it as a potential nesting ground. I can’t prove it, but imagine it’s one of the pairs from across Grand River Avenue less than 50 yards upstream. No nesting building has been observed yet, but a third swan paid a visit the following day, and the male in the pair gave chase to protect what appears to be his new territory (below).
March 24: The pair looks young although I don’t know how I’ve come to that conclusion. Maybe it’s because their feathers are in perfect condition. The male’s bill is a redder orange than the pen’s (the name for a female swan).
March 29: As ducks fed on the shore, the swans floated in the weeds just like King Arthur and his mate used to do (below). It’s apparent they’re used to humansbeing nearby. I hope the message one sent to me (right) as it sought submerged vegetation has no ill intent. I hope they allow me to photograph their first millpond cygnets which will hatch in early June if they decide the pond is a good place to raise their family.
August 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.
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).
Mute 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. 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.
When King Arthur arrives at a gathering of ducks, they all stay a neck’s length away from him (left). They know he might grab them otherwise. He can fit a wing or tail in his bill and toss a duck aside if he wants to. I got a report from Mary, another wildlife photographer, today that he was rather rough with Dazzle. He picked him up by the neck and shook him like a rag doll.
If he was intent on hurting ducks, he could easily do it. Right now, he could grab one and slam it onto the ice with his long neck used to gain force. He’s five times bigger: wild ducks weigh 3-5 pounds, he weighs about 25. But I’ve only seen him grab them and forcefully move them aside. Oh, it’s not particularly gentle, but it’s not vicious either. As I watched him do it last night while looking down at them from the boardwalk above, it seemed like he was rearranging them like an interior designer would move around furniture. Reduckorating!
If he had cygnets to care for, the situation might be more serious, but in past summers, I’ve seen ducks enter the reach of his youngsters and he isn’t concerned. It’s a different story with Canada geese. He sometimes chases them for hundreds of yards and it’s really dramatic! None of the ducks he “moved” last night quacked in pain like they do when fellow ducks bite them in the rear as they are scrambling for food. Still, the ducks get the messsage that the King is in charge and stay out of his reach most of the time.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Following the death of their second cygnet, the swan family retreated into the heavy vegetation at the north end of the millpond and started ripping out plants with submerged roots to clear a small area and build a platform above the water. Note the height of the platform (above) and compare its height two days later in the video (below). It seems implausible they are building a “fort” to protect their remaining cygnet from turtle attacks or a nest for more eggs, but it appears they are doing one or the other of those things. Here’s a 18-second clip showing one parent adding more plants to the platform while the other perches atop it with their offspring. There’s lots of road noise in the background since this is so close to well-traveled Grand River Avenue.
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.
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.
On Sunday night, I walked to the store and passed the northern end of the millpond where I noticed a white mound floating near the cattails at the edge of the thin ice. It was farther enough into the darkness that I couldn’t determine what it was. At first, I thought it was a pile of snow, but that seemed impossible. Then I wondered if it was a group of white ducks huddled together on this frosted night.
At twilight on Monday, there was no mistaking the white mound. Lying on its stomach with its wings relaxed and neck fully extended, the surviving cygnet of the five born this summer lay dead. The cause of its death isn’t apparent. There are no marks on it and had appeared healthy. Perhaps it couldn’t endure the cold weather. Perhaps parasites invaded its body. Perhaps. Perhaps. Its stillness in the cold, glassy water on a clear-sky day, the purity of its well groomed feathers, and the glittering droplets reflecting the last of the sunset provided the setting for recounting its short life as its parents casually bowed their heads into the pond to graze on deep weeds down stream. It’s fitting it died within a 100 yards of where it was born.
As a cold front moved in during the night, heavy rain fell. Before dawn, I ventured out. I had hoped the rain would let up but it didn’t. In pelting rain and funky light, I waited for all of the mute swans to have their heads above water (they were eating submerged vegetation) to get this shot. It’s not a great shot, but it helps me explain swan identification.
Note the difference in size of the “black berry” above the bill on the two swans on the left. You can identify males (called cobs) because theirs are larger. The swan leading the parade is their prodigy, the lone survivor of their five cygnets if this is the swan family that nested at the pond this summer. The jury is still out on that. You can tell juvenile swans by the paler color of their bill and the smaller size of the “berry.” This one is almost the same size as the parents at six months old and strong enough to migrate. They will leave the pond soon for warmer ponds where water plants are still available. How far away? There’s no way to know.
There are thousands of pictures and stories about nature at the Brighton, Michigan millpond. Use the links at the bottom of all pages to see "Older Entries" and "Newer Entries." Use the Search feature (top right corner of all pages) to find specific topics.