Photojournal - 11 February 2006

Several sorts of swans

On Saturday I went out to see if I could try to find the Bewick's Swan that I had missed the week before. This time, I was armed with better intelligence: the bird had been spotted in a flock of swans near 64th Street, not the 104th-Street flock that I had searched the week before. I drove straight for 68th Street and had no trouble finding the flock, as several birders had already congregated there.

I pulled over and spotted my friends Walter and Colin amongst the birders. They pointed out that the flock was in two parts: one nearby and the other at the edge of a field a little farther along. The vast majority of the swans were Trumpeter Swans, but the Bewick's and some other Tundra Swans had been spotted in the far flock, which was good news for me.

Occasionally, swans from the far flock would fly over to join the near flock. Walter and Colin were taking photos of them as they did so, and I joined them in the fun.

Here's a shot of a Trumpeter Swan coming in for a landing. In front of the swan you can see a Canada Goose grazing. If you want to get a feel for the size of the swan, note that the swan's breast is about as wide as the goose is long. Swans are big.  

After taking photos for a while, I still hadn't found any Tundra Swans, so I walked down the road to the other field. The swans in this field were much farther away, and it was hard to see much detail on them, even through my binoculars.

I guess I should say that the easiest way to tell the difference between a Trumpeter Swan and a Tundra Swan is by examining the bill and the skin around it. First, Tundras have a smaller bill with a bit of a curve to the top edge. Second, Tundras have a small yellow patch on the skin of the lores (front of the eye) that sometimes extends forward onto the bill; Trumpeter lores and bill are pretty much just black.

It turns out that there are two races (subspecies) of Tundra Swans: the North American one, also known as Whistling Swan, and the Eurasian one, also known as Bewick's Swan. I was hoping to find the Bewick's Swan that had been reported in this flock; Bewick'ses aren't often seen in these parts.

Bewick's Swans have a fair bit more yellow on their bill than do Whistling, so even at the distance I was at, by watching carefully for a while, I was able to pick out the Bewick's. Here's a blurry shot I got through my teleconverter, showing the sizable yellow patch at the base of the Bewick's' bill.


Unfortunately, the Bewick's stayed at great distance and that was about the best shot I got of him.

I did only a little better with the Whistling Swans, our usual Tundra subspecies. Here's one of my better shots of them. In this photo, numbering from the left, swans two and six are Tundras, and the others are Trumpeters. This one can tell by bill size...

...or, if you happen to have the full-resolution photo, you can see the little yellow bit of skin in front of the eyes, like in this detail showing swan number two. That little bit of yellow seems to be typical for the Tundras around here.  
Well, I'd gotten Trumpeters and two types of Tundras, so I decided to try to find some Mute Swans and turn my day into a big swan day. The only nearby place that I'd seen Mutes before was Steveston, so I headed there. I got back on River Road in Delta, and just as I was passing Deas Island, some motion along a line between two fields caught my attention. It was a coyote, and a fairly healthy-looking one, at that.  
I had pulled over to take the coyote photos, but then made it to Steveston without incident. There I walked the waterfront, searching in vain for Mute Swans. The only birds that caught my eye were a few ducks and a grebe. The ducks included some canvasbacks, some mergansers, and these scaup, whose smallish bills give them away as Lesser Scaup.  
As I watched them, they took off, and I got this shot of the drake in flight.  
The grebe that I found was a Horned Grebe, and he actually came in fairly close to the dock that I was standing on.  

With no swans in sight, I decided that it was time for lunch, and drove towards a Bread Garden that I know on Steveston Highway. Before I got there, my phone rang. It was my pal Len, telling me that someone had spotted a Tufted Duck from the south jetty at Iona. This was good news, as I'd never seen a Tufted. I resolved to head to Iona and search out this duck.

After lunch, of course.

When I arrived at Iona, I was greeted by my another friend, George, who was just coming off of the jetty on his bicycle. He told me that the Tufted was hanging out with a flock of Greater Scaup north of the jetty at around the 3.5-kilometer mark. It was going to be a bit of a walk for me to find my duck.

Undeterred, I grabbed tripod and camera and headed off onto the jetty. There were a lot of fowl around, on both sides. I took a few shots of them but not many, as I was on a mission.

Maybe a kilometer out, I was surprised to see my friend and colleague Jim come careening towards me on his bicycle. He stopped and we chatted a while; it seemed a little surreal since I don't normally run into people from work when I'm out chasing birds. But soon he was on his way again, and my world reverted to normal.

At about three kilometers out, I started looking seriously at the flocks of ducks to the north of the jetty. They were a ways out, and I wasn't able to see a lot of detail on them. Here's a typical group of them, mostly Greater Scaup. Tufted Ducks look a lot like scaup do, so I had to look carefully at all of these guys.

A little closer in, some Bufflehead were paddling about. I started taking photos of them.  
As I did, one of the males started running, and made a short flight.  
It was a great day to be out on the jetty. There were moments of suffused light, giving some beautiful pastel waterscapes. Here's one shot, mainly to the south of the jetty, showing a hint of the effect.  
As I looked around, I noticed a few other birds on the water, such as this Common Loon. It's pretty hard to beat seein' a good loon.  
I kept my eyes on the groups of scaup for the most part, though. Here's a small group that ventured closer in to the jetty.  
Near the scaup was this pair of Barrow's Goldeneyes.  
I still hadn't found the Tufted, and as I was getting closer to the end of the jetty, I was beginning to despair of pulling him out of the distant groups of scaup. I took a lot of photos of those groups, in the desparate hope that maybe I'd get a photo of what I couldn't see in my binoculars. Here's one of those shots, showing a distant group of scaup and Surf Scoters.  
And here's a more tight-knit flock of mostly scaup. If you spot the Tufted Duck in there, let me know...  

I finally reached the end of the jetty, without having found the Tufted. I had walked four kilometers, was pretty tired, and still had the return trip in front of me. I rested for a bit, and then amused myself by photographing a male Red-breasted Merganser who was modelling different hairdos in the wind.








Soon my wispy-crowned friend was joined by another male and a female. The two males then started competing for the female's attention, performing some dance that involved elongating their necks, pointing their bills, and bobbiing their heads. It was quite the pretty sight.


But that soon ended and it was time for the trudge back to land. Most of my return trip was without incident, but the weather and the light made it a scenic and enjoyable trudge. I had some great views of Mt. Baker rising above the airport.


About a kilometer from shore, I found a Glaucous-winged Gull who was trying to pull something from the water. He tried grabbing it this way and that, and tried flying with it, but eventually gave up on it and flew off. I'm presuming that the object of his attention was part of a duck carcass; nearby I found the wing of a female Bufflehead on the jetty, the remains of some raptor's afternoon meal.

A short ways further on, there was a small flock of Canvasbacks. I had seen these ducks on the way out but had passed them by because I was intent on getting out to where the Tufted had been. Now they were closer to the jetty than they had been before, and I paused to take several shots of them.  
The Canvasbacks were my last birds of the day, and I took only a few more photos, which were landscapes, on my way back to the car. Here's my favorite, showing the mountains to the north in the fading light.  

With those shots, I packed it in and headed home to rest my tired tootsies. It had been a mixed day, birding-wise, getting one target but missing the other. Nevertheless, it had been a great day to be outside enjoying the fresh air.

Counting my corns,


Return to 2006 Winter index

Return to Photojournal Main