By almost any measurable, the trumpeter swan is impressive. The heaviest and longest native bird of North America, it dons grey plumage in its youth before emerging stark white after about a year. The swans make their way to the Sequim-Dungeness area each November.
At Kirner Pond, about a mile west of the Woodcock/Sequim-Dungeness Way intersection, trumpeter swans roost on the water for safety — “so the coyotes don’t get them,” said Bob Phreaner, conservation co-chair for the Olympic Peninsula Audubon Society.
Instead, swans are struggling with a different danger: power lines.
Since December 2014, at least eight trumpeter swans have died and uncounted others have been injured after flying into the lines located just west of the pond, according to Shelly Ament, the local biologist for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
“In the past 10 years the most significant cause of death to trumpeter swans in the Sequim valley is collisions with power lines,” Ament noted in a video posted with the Olympic Peninsula Audubon Society’s Project Swan Safe, a fundraising campaign to bury the power lines near Kirner Pond to give trumpeter swans a clear path to and from their winter habitat.
Local bird advocates came together to start a GoFundMe fundraiser that kicked off on Jan. 25; it quickly raised more than $65,000, meeting the fundraisers’ goal for estimated costs of coordinating a power line burial project with Clallam County’s road department and Clallam County Public Utility District No. 1.
“Everything from $16 to thousands,” Phreaner noted.
The community support has paid off. Led by John Acklen, a recent retiree from the electric power industry who helped negotiate with various groups — including internet providers who use the power poles that would need to be moved, as well as Kirner Road neighbors for easements — swan advocates will soon see their project become reality.
Ken Wiersma, president of the Olympic Peninsula Audubon Society, noted on July 1 that the last property owner agreed to sign the easement that allows the project to proceed.
“The project is planned to begin in the second week of August and is expected to take about a week if all goes as planned,”
PUD engineering manager Mike Hill said this week.
Kirner Pond problems
Kirner Pond stretches about 200-300 feet and is located just north of Woodcock Road. Power lines to the west of the pond generally pose the problem.
“We’ve had collisions when they take off in the west,” Phreaner said.
“The birds will take off into the wind, (to) get lift,” he said. “These trumpeter swans can weigh at least 25 pounds, maybe more. In a short stretch like this — it’s about a football field — they need to gain elevation pretty rapidly in order to climb these 30-foot high wires.”
Swan eyes are located on the sides of its head, well-suited to spot predators and other dangers. However, that leaves the waterfowl with poor forward sight that can make depth perception and judging distances more difficult, OPAS representatives said.
In addition, the swans’ feathers and feet are wet leaving the pond, making it tough to gain altitude, Wiersma noted.
“When their large wingspans and body mass strike the fixed power lines and they fall to the road, swans suffer physical injury and not infrequently short circuit power lines resulting in electrocution of the birds,” OPAS representatives said.
Phreaner himself noted a number of power line strikes, including five between Nov. 10 and Dec. 11, 2020. He estimated he spent the dawn hours for a 100-consecutive-day stretch to record the swan strikes.
OPAS enlisted the services of local videographer John Gussman, who captured footage of swans striking the power lines; see footage at olybird.org and vimeo.com/494868019. (editor’s note: the video contains physical injury to birds)
In late January, Brian Calkins, Region 6 wildlife program manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, noted in a letter to PUD commissioners of the aspects of the pond near Kirner Road that make it prime habitat for Trumpeter swans.
“The deeper pond and a good vegetative buffer provide an excellent night roost site for the swans and other waterfowl. Unlike other ponds in the area, there is no disturbance from hunting activities at this site. This pond is just large enough for these swans … to land and take flight from the water,” Calkins wrote.
“Although the pond provides the swans protection from predators, the power lines along the west edge of the pond present a demonstrated danger for the roosting swans. Very few swans witnessed contacting or passing between the lines have escaped unharmed.”
In a March interview, Phreaner said, “We think the ultimate solution is to bury the cables, to bury the power lines.”
Ament said in the fundraiser video that both Washington Department of Wildlife and OPAS are “very focused on the common goal of protecting our wintering swan population.”
In a Feb. 15 letter to PUD commissioners, Wiersma wrote that the group and the PUD has been working well for years with Hill in addressing the swans’ safety.
“Mike and his staff have repeatedly helped evaluate the problems, placed visibility markers on lines, and provided us information on possible engineering solutions toward reducing swans injury and death,” Wiersma wrote.
At the request of state wildlife officials following a Dec. 9, 2020 swan electrocution, PUD staff placed 50 “diverters” — regularly spaced devices that make the lines more visible to birds — but one day after the diverters were placed, a swan struck the lines and suffered serious injury, Phreaner said.
“PUD actions to more clearly mark the power lines with bird diverters, while helpful, have not resolved the problem. Burying the utility lines becomes the optimal feasible solution to eliminate this problem,” Wiersma wrote in the Feb. 15 letter to PUD commissioners.
Commissioners that same month agreed in a resolution to put funding toward the project, both in in-kind services and dollars.
(Hill said this week that the PUD is contributing $7,500 in direct funds and $6,000 in project management costs.)
OPAS representatives also requested the project be completed in the summer of 2021, when the swans are on their nesting grounds in Alaska and Canada.
“Our records show that the swans will leave for their nesting grounds by mid-March and return here to over-winter this November,” Wiersma wrote. “Doing this project in summer also yields better ground conditions for workers and equipment.”
Ament noted that she and Martha Jordan from the NW Swan Conservation Association worked with Clallam County PUD to develop the Avian Protection Plan. Created in 2016, the 23-page document is designed to help protect swans, bald eagles and other birds by outlining policies and procedures to maintain bird safety and mitigating bird deaths.
“Trumpeter Swans were addressed in this plan, however more efforts are needed to prevent further injuries to these impressive birds that are federally protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act,” Calkins noted in his message to PUD commissioners.
State wildlife officials had some funding set aside for the Swan Safe Project, Ament said, but since the GoFundMe raised enough for the overall project, WDFW’s contributions will go to the expansion of the nearby Dungeness River Audubon Center.
“WDFW is working collaboratively with the Dungeness River Audubon Center and Northwest Swan Conservation Association to infuse information and storylines at the DRAC’s amazing interpretive center that are relevant to swan conservation and education here in the Dungeness Valley, in broader western Washington, and our connections to the rest of the Pacific Flyway,” WDFW’s westside waterfowl specialist Kyle Spragens said.
“WDFW’s staff from the District, Watchable Wildlife and the Waterfowl Section are working together to secure funds to contribute to this effort.”
OPAS partners with Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Northwest Swan Conservation Association each winter to conduct weekly surveys of swans in the Sequim-Dungeness area. The project, which began in the winter of 2011-2012, sees volunteers collect data about swan numbers and habitats used for daytime feeding and night roosting.
In late autumn 2020, OPAS, with a crew of about 30 experienced and new volunteers counted 163 Trumpeter swans, about 15 percent of those juveniles.
OPAS recruited “site monitors” in 2020 to watch nearby wetlands for overnight swan use. They keep daily notes on numbers and timing of arrivals and departures, OPAS representatives said.
OPAS is the only non-governmental team in the Pacific Northwest conducting regular swan surveys and generating data of sufficient quality for agency databases, the group said.
For more about OPAS’s swan surveys, see olympicpeninsulaaudubon.org/swan-survey.