The Nature of Things | Counting Swan

By Kimberly Mayer

Journal contributer

We know it’s winter when the swans arrive. From their breeding grounds in Alaska, trumpeter swans make the two-thousand-mile flight to winter in our archipelago, like snowbirds in Florida. A reminder of just how temperate the season is in the San Juan Islands.

It is never the dead of winter here. It’s hardly even asleep. Winters in the Pacific Northwest are more like meditation. We just need to be still enough to see it, and quiet enough to hear it.

Out my window, seagulls circle and dive, guiding a school of fish across the bay like a herd of cattle. Closer to shore a “raft” of Harlequin ducks floats by, oblivious to it all. The woodland meets the bay here and it looks to me like a lake, recalling pleasant memories of childhood summers spent on Bantam Lake in Connecticut when it was encircled with modest cottages and cabins. Anderson Cooper has a home there now, so you know it’s changed.

As the days grow shorter, I do less and less. I am keeping my garden unkempt. Back to earth go the leaves. Insects and small animals hide or shelter in logs, brush, or leaf litter. Most bees live underground. And birds find seed in everything.

In a drenched forest in rainy season, fern is refreshed, lichen thrives, and mossy paths are resilient under our boots. Out of the woods, we find color in Hardy fuchsia, Winter Honeysuckle, and Rosa ‘Old Blush’ still in flower. This year, California poppies have been spotted in bloom on island—in December!

But back to swans; wild, elegant, long-necked, snowy swans. Every year islanders turn out for Swan Count with the San Juan Preservation Trust. A century ago, the trumpeter swan was valued for its skin (powder puffs), its feathers (writing quills, mattresses), and its meat. The wholesale slaughter of the swan was halted by the Migratory Bird Treaty of 1918, and thus began their repopulation which continues today. Interestingly enough, a near mirror image exists in the United Kingdom where the mute swan, a species native to Eurosiberia, is protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981) after centuries of exploitation, most notably by royals who considered swan meat a rare delicacy and the divine right of kings.

Swans in winter are evidence of conservation efforts in both hemispheres which we measure year after year by Swan Count in the San Juan islands, and Swan Upping, a five-day census-taking expedition in England.