Trumpeter swans reintroduced to South Sound, Hicks Lake

LACEY — On the secluded south end of Hicks Lake, two young brothers can be seen these days splashing around, swimming underwater and hanging out on a dock.

They are 1-year-old trumpeter swans, released there this month as part of a long-range experiment that could lead to more sightings of North America’s largest native bird in South Sound in the years ahead.

“This is our first ever release like this in a semi-urban setting,” said Martha Jordan of the Washington Swan Working Group, an affiliate of The Trumpeter Swan Society. “We’re trying to bring trumpeter swans into new areas.”

Hunted to near extinction in the early 1900s – their feathers were prized as pen quills – the trumpeter swan has rebounded greatly in recent decades. Some 9,000 birds gathered in the Skagit Valley two winters ago, arriving from their summer breeding grounds in central Alaska.

Other winter populations in the state are found in Whatcom and Snohomish counties, the Chehalis River floodplain near Elma and a few other sites.

The two birds released at Hicks Lake in early May were hatched last June at Northwest Trek Wildlife Park near Eatonville, according to Don Kraege, waterfowl program manager for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife,

“They were threatened by eagles where they were born,” Jordan said.

Jordan took over care of the young birds and began working with the Fish and Wildlife Department on a release plan for the birds.

The south end of Hicks Lake, which is filled with aquatic plants, wetlands and few homes, looked like a good fit, Jordan said.

Another factor played a role in the lake’s selection. A pair of mute swans, which are a non-native species illegal to own or import in this state, were placed on the lake by someone a few months ago and developed a following among lake residents.

Wildlife enforcement officers have taken on the task of capturing and relocating the mute swans, which are aggressive birds that pose a threat to native birds and wetland vegetation, Kraege said.

The state agency has also posted signs around the lake, notifying waterfront residents and boaters that the trumpeter swans are a native bird and part of a pilot project to reintroduce them to new areas in Western Washington.

Home base for the juvenile birds is the dock of Larry and Debi James, who agreed to install a bird feeder filled with wheat.

“They tend to hang around because they know I feed them,” Larry James said. “They kind of fall off the dock and swim around this end of the lake.”

On Thursday, James watched them swim underwater about 30 feet.

“I’ve never seen them do that before,” he said.

Each of the birds has clipped flight feathers, which will keep them grounded until they molt this summer and grow new feathers.

“They’ll be able to fly once they molt in July,” Jordan said. “We don’t know what they’ll do – maybe they’ll hook up with a group of migrating swans.”

Or maybe they’ll hang around Hicks Lake until they reach sexual maturity in three or so years.

Whatever happens, Jordan hopes to keep tabs on their whereabouts. The swans are wearing yellow collars around their necks, marked “M-35” and “M-36” in black lettering.

Once they take flight, anyone spotting the birds is asked to report their sightings to Jordan by calling 425-787-0258.

John Dodge: 360-754-5444 jdodge@theolympian.com