This winter, locals can look to Sequim’s skies and waters for a booming trumpeter swan populations.
“They’ve definitely been rising in recent years,” said Bob Boekelheide with the Olympic Peninsula Audubon Society.
Trumpeter swans were an uncommon sight in the Sequim area years ago with the first swan spotted by society volunteers during the annual Christmas Bird Count in 1982, seven years after starting it, he said.
Birders never spotted more than 50 at a time until 2008, Boekelheide said, and there’s been a big increase in the last three years.
Typically, Sequim will see the most swans between January to March before flying north to Canada and Alaska, Boekelheide said. Sequim reached its highest total of swans last February, with 258.
On the most recent swan count, volunteers counted 179 on Jan. 9, which is nearly flush with 181 swans spotted on Jan. 12, 2017, Boekelheide said.
But why and when they come here is still partly a mystery, he said.
“In November, we never had above 100 swans and this (November) we had well over 100,” Boekelheide said. “Since then, we’ve gone up and down within 20 percent of this time last year.”
Specific swan counts became commonplace for Audubon Society members starting in 2011 after the birds were beginning to die in significant numbers from lead poisoning.
The Department of Fish and Wildlife provided a grant to the Northwest Swan Conversation Foundation who in turn worked with the Audubon Society in Sequim for two years. After the grant ran out, Boekelheide said they continued to do the count anyway to monitor numbers to better prevent issues like the birds flying into power lines.
The Audubon Society has worked with Clallam PUD, he said, to place reflectors in key areas the swans fly such as at Lotzgesell and Anderson Roads.
Martha Jordan, executive director of the Northwest Swan Conservation Association, has worked with swans for 40 years and says in recent years birds have been spotted traveling in western and eastern parts of Oregon and Washington in “whole new ways we’ve never documented before.”
Jordan said she did work on the Elwha River Restoration in the 1990s and when the dams came out in 2012 west of Port Angeles. She said as many as 80 swans wintered in the Elwha River area prior to the dams’ removal but with water levels rising, vegetation is less accessible for swans so they made a switch to a burgeoning farming community in Sequim.
“You planted and they will come,” Jordan said.
With abundant farms such as fields by Nash’s Organic Produce, Jordan said those are attractive to swans as other habitats go away.
“They’re pretty safe there with not a lot of predators,” she said.
At Nash’s Organic Produce, co-owner Patty McManus Huber said they don’t purposefully discourage or encourage the swans to come to their fields despite seeing big losses in crops.
“The way this place has developed, the swans need open space and wetlands,” she said. “We’ve put our houses and strip malls where they’ve gone traditionally gone so they end up coming to the open fields.”
McManus Huber said there’s not much they can do to stop the birds who eat their carrots right out of he ground costing them tens-of-thousands of dollars annually.
With the swans showing up in larger numbers, Nash’s employees have been trying to get carrots out of the ground sooner, which McManus Huber said adds a different expense in storage and doesn’t allow some carrots to fully mature.
Staff have considered placing shiny objects to deter the swans in Nash’s hundreds of acres, but McManus Huber said it would be a huge cost in labor and materials.
“We have other issues with the elk on Schmuck Road sometimes, but that’s why we’re a diverse family farm,” she said.
If the birds are gleaning after they’ve harvested a field, Nash’s staff are OK with that, she said, but they are still considering and open to suggestions of non-damaging solutions to deter the swans.
Some birders are hoping locals can find a proactive way to enjoy swans without disrupting them after a recent incident came to light in Dungeness.
Ginger and Dan Poleschook of Live Loon Lake reported to law enforcement that more than 60 trumpeter swans were harassed in Dungeness on Jan. 6 by a dirt bike rider. The couple was visiting family and took some time to snap photos of the swans when they spotted the child. Ginger said the juvenile rode into the field and accelerated to scare the birds and some nearly flew into nearby power lines on Evans Road.
Chief Criminal Deputy Brian King for Clallam County Sheriff’s Office said they typically only handle domestic animals, but in this case the deputy contacted the juvenile and spoke with his parents. The incident was turned over to State Fish and Wildlife.
Police Sgt. Kit Rosenberger for Fish & Wildlife in Clallam and Jefferson Counties said the incident remains under investigation but typically with juveniles they seek education rather than litigation in hopes of correcting future behavior.
Birders like the Poleschooks and Jordan agreed with the sentiment about promoting education with the birds.
“Some of the photos (by the Poleschooks) show the swans flying directly at power lines and the fact that they didn’t hit any is remarkable,” Jordan said.
Rosenberger said there isn’t a hunting season in Washington for swans and state law defines hunting as “To hunt” and its derivatives means an effort to kill, injure, harass, harvest, or capture a wild animal or wild bird.” Therefore an attempt to chase after or injure a swan can fall under hunting unlawfully, he said.
Startling a bird can mean life or death later on for swans too, Jordan said.
“These wild fowl need to eat during the winter and be in the best condition they can be for going back to the breeding grounds,” she said. “When we disturb them, we can affect their breeding or survivability. You don’t see the consequence you’ve done. One person does it one day, and another the next. Pretty soon you have a major impact.”
A few years ago, she said photographers attempted to snap pictures of swans at Skagit County’s Barney Lake, but they became so intrusive that the swans left and didn’t come back the next year.
“They remember,” she said.
Rosenberger said people are encouraged to watch the birds from a distance, and keep pets on a leash while viewing.
Those who see a dangerous wildlife encounter taking place are encouraged to call Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife at 1-877-933-9847 and report automobile makes and models, license numbers, the perpetrator’s description and the type of violation.