Some months ago we here at 10,000 Birds learnt about Charleen Turner, and her amazingly patient (and loving) documentation of a pair of Mute Swans and their cygnets that she’d been watching through the summer. Charleen had a gift for telling a story and had taken hundreds of photos too – a combination that seemed ideally suited for a “Welcome Wednesday” guest spot. Would you be interested, we asked, in writing a post? I’d be delighted, came the enthusiastic response. And we’re very glad, because the result – as you can read below – is indeed ‘delightful’….
December 2008. As winter now approaches Long Island NY, USA, with all the leaves off the trees and a thin layer of ice forming on the pond, I know that the time is near for the cob and pen swan, the parents, to begin shooing their little baby (cygnet) away from the pond.
It is during this time, that I look back to the miracle of the swan family and the photo/essay document that I have been amassing since the end of last winter. I’ve watched, waited, and photographed. I began with a “throw-away” camera, moved on to a pocket-sized “point and shoot” and now, am a tad overwhelmed with my real grown-up big girl SLR. Now here is my story.
NO, better still, here is the story of the swans and their offspring…
Heckscher Pond, located in Huntington, Long Island, NY, USA, and all its inhabitants have fascinated me for years. It is a third of a mile walk around the pond and with each lap, new nature opportunities present themselves. The mute swans have been of my particular interest. However, when much time is spent watching swans, there is definitely a spill-over to the other wildlife and fauna. All sorts of waterfowl and wildlife present themselves minute by minute and often second by second.
Male Hooded Merganser (left) and male Gadwall
Killdeer in protective mode (left) and male Muskrat
For me though, the swan are the real stars and the photographic/literary documentation of the swans of Heckscher began at the end of March ’08 and I have followed the family from the gathering of nesting material, through mating, actual nesting, hatching, rearing and beyond.
The four major phases of this season that I really hoped to document are as follows:
- Babies on Back
- Flight School
- Off to College
Was I successful? That’s perhaps for others to decide, but I enjoyed every moment of my summer with the swans, so let’s get on with the story…
1) The Nest
Usually, the swans wisely nest on an island in the middle of the pond; secluded from predators (particularly those of the human form). This year they decided to build their nest right on shore at the bottom of a slight embankment right near a public walkway. There was a new art installation that consisted of three large orbs on the island, which, I think, may have intimidated the swans and kept them from nesting on their usual protected site.
This new nesting site, a poor choice on the swans’ part, but an excellent photo opportunity for me gave me both pleasure and great anxiety since I worried dearly during the entire incubation period and hatching until the new swan family abandoned the nest for a more unpredictable on shore place to rest.
The town workers tried to sway the swan parents to once again nest on the island in the middle of the pond by placing large twigs and sticks for nest building but that did not entice them.
Mom nesting (with domestic duck ‘hanging out’)
The swan family, with great determination, began building their nest on shore. I was surprised as to the amount of leaves and sticks and twigs that the swans could pick up and carry in their bills. The reinforcing and building continued from March into May. I had read that after the last egg is laid that there is a 35-40 day incubation period before hatching. The target date for day 35 was Mother’s Day.
The dad swan did most of the building as the mom sat. The strength that he exhibited with his bill as he pulled up large sticks and great gobs of wet leaves onto the nesting area making it larger with each new day was tremendous.
Dad swan shoring up the nest
Both swan parents shared sitting on the nest with this changing of the guard ritual that was so cool to observe. One of the parents would approach the nest and then both would dip their heads and then rear up and stretch their necks up high to the sky. This would repeat a number of times as a deep snorting sound would emanate from both which ended with and idling moped sound. I guess that it was close to a “purr.”
During those 35 days of waiting for the eggs to hatch the biggest fear that I had was humans messing with the nest. Throughout these weeks people threw bottles, flowers, and trash into the nest. Parents were even allowing their children to walk down into the nest. The town workers were kind enough to erect snow fencing around the entire nest keeping all out. The only way that you could get to the nest would be to go into the pond water. They did seem safe. I knew from past years that the family would only spend a few days in the nest after hatching and then they would have the whole pond to protect the newly hatched cygnets.
The Canada Goose nests began hatching a few weeks before the due date of the swans. The dad swan, so protective, began killing goslings one after another. In addition to the killings his intimidation factor totally cleared of the pond of all waterfowl. I have seen eighty (80) Canada geese just hanging on the shore totally intimidated by the swan. There are many ponds in the immediate area and all of Long Island Sound within walking distance so the water birds do have many options. This exclusivity will last for about a month and a half after the hatching and then he allows everybody back. You can even see the gentleness return to his eyes.
Day 35: Mother’s Day
How fitting to arrive at the pond on this Sunday morning to find one newly hatched cygnet and one halfway out of its shell. I planted myself at the nest and proceeded to stay all day every day until dark for the next 4 days. Over the course of a few days, five cygnets hatched out of the seven eggs. Two of the little babies were white at hatching since, like their mom, they are a genetic mutation called a Polish Swan. Normally Mute Swans have black legs but in this mutation the legs are beige/pink and cygnets hatch white instead of the usual gray.
After 3 days all the cygnets were in the pond swimming with the parents. The last one to hatch stayed in the nest a bit longer but the dad swan stood guard and gently encouraged the little one to take to the water, which he/she eventually did.
There was a more flat entrance/exit to the water which the parents did not choose as they led their little ones for their first swim. The cygnets struggled to get in and out and possibly the parents did this on purpose to help their little muscles get stronger and to develop coordination right out of the gate.
The first number of days the babies swam great distances with the parents and there wasn’t one baby allowed to ride. Again, my thoughts were that the parents were working hard to have the newly hatched cygnets develop strong little bodies. They took them to the far ends of the pond which is 1/ 3 of a mile around and had them walking on shore.
One of my goals was to get that coveted photo of the little cygnets riding on top of one of the parent’s back. I was given the gift of seeing five cygnets riding on the mom’s back.
Surprisingly, I experienced this wonder over and over this season but never with five at once again. The mom was the only parent who allowed the babies to ride. She could even almost tip over as she fed while still having her cygnets ride while usually not dumping anyone off. I wonder how many I will get to see in the ’09 season?
Sadly, there are problems for the swans to report too. Massive snapping turtles inhabit the pond and prey on the cygnets. One turtle is so large that its back is larger than a trash can.
As they approached their 1st month birthday only two cygnets were left – and then there was just one…
The swan parents kept a close eye on the lone remaining cygnet all summer. They feed together, float on the surface together and hang on shore together. The dad swan will go off on his own but you can tell that he is monitoring the pond.
As the swan family cared for their cygnet, there was a late season arrival of mallards. Out of a clutch of ten, six grew to adults.
3) Flight School:
At about four months old flight school began.
At first I was horrified watching the mom stir up the water in a frenzy. I thought that there was a snapping turtle underneath them. I have seen the parents stomp fiercely at the water as they sensed something below the water’s surface and I thought that this was the case.
As I continued to watch, I saw that the mom was actually swimming very quickly toward the cygnet, flapping her wings in an almost flight causing the cygnet to move quickly and flap her wings. This was done is a very tight circle that went round and round about a number of times. As I witnessed this ritual day after day at the same time of day, it became apparent to me that this was the beginning of flight school.
I had seen more advanced flight school in the past. The swan family swims in a group to a far end of the pond and with an imperceptible signal the family straightens out the usual s-curve in the neck and they all take off together landing at the opposite end of the park. Their flapping wings sound very much like sheets snapping in the wind. They always fly into the wind and after each fly-over they glide back as a group (I see this as resting) and then when they return to the other end the pond they may just fly again and repeat the flying lesson a number of times.
4) Off to College:
There comes a time in December when the parents seem to flip a mental switch and begin thinking of the new upcoming breeding season and they aggressively go after their cygnet to force it off the pond. The cygnet who has been so protected for so many months is now being chased. The cygnet appears to be puzzled and keeps coming back to the parents for protection but the swan parents have turned the parental page and seemingly think of their baby as a threat to the new nesting which is about to take place.
It’s heartbreaking to see the cygnet struggling to stay safe and protected while the parents work steadfastly to throw their baby off the pond. I have heard of parents killing their own if they don’t take the “tough love’ hint to get out.
The parents have done their jobs for almost a year though. They have painstakingly built their nest, watched over the eggs, hatched their babies, protected like the best parents on earth, taught the cygnets to feed and survive. Their final gift is to send their offspring off into the world: well-fed, strong and ready to live with the other adolescents at nearby bays and waterways.
I am both happy and sad to see the little one, who I watched from egg to adolescent, leave the pond forever. It has been an exceptionally fulfilling labor of love, which I hope to continue for years to come.
Words and photos copyright Charleen Turner.
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