A rare whooper swan mingles with a bevy of trumpeter swans Thursday south of Monroe. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

A rare whooper swan mingles with a bevy of trumpeter swans Thursday south of Monroe. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Nature’s soap opera: Swans are wintering around Snohomish County

For a few more weeks, here’s where to find visiting swans. If you’re lucky, you might see a “rare bird alert.”

MONROE — Looking for drama, romance and a little bit of mystery this Valentine’s Day?

Washington’s wintering swans have got you covered.

The massive white birds — tundra, trumpeter and at least one whooper swan — are vacationing here for just a few more weeks before they return north, back where the real steamy stuff happens.

So take the chance to see them romancing, fighting and gracing the Pacific Northwest as longstanding symbols of love and passion.

“It’s their grace, it’s their beauty, it’s the haunting calls, it’s the fact they mate for life,” Martha Jordan told local birders last week. Jordan directs the Northwest Swan Conservation Association.

“A lot of fights go on, disagreements over either girlfriends or food resources,” she said of the hordes of giant swans mingling in farmland across the country.

In a local Christmas Bird Count this year, local Audubon volunteer Scott Atkinson said 76 trumpeter swans were tallied in the Everett area. Tundra swans, their smaller counterpart with a distinctive yellow teardrop below the eye, were far less abundant, with only four counted during the 24-hour data-collecting event.

The trumpeter swan’s grace is matched by its ferocity. Feet the size of a large man’s hands are punctuated with three sharp toenails. Graceful white wings hide a strong bone for striking foes.

“It can do a tremendous amount of damage to a human being,” said Jordan, who compared the birds to B-52 bombers. “I know.”

They have few predators and aren’t scared to peck at a curious bald eagle.

This year, amateur birders and avian aficionados alike can enjoy an added swan mystery: the number of swans dying from lead poisoning in the area is way down.

Alec Roseto uses binoculars to look at a field of trumpeter swans Thursday south of Monroe. Roseto said he headed up from King County to get a glimpse of a rare whooper swan that was seen with the trumpeters. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Alec Roseto uses binoculars to look at a field of trumpeter swans Thursday south of Monroe. Roseto said he headed up from King County to get a glimpse of a rare whooper swan that was seen with the trumpeters. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

“What does it mean? I don’t know. Nobody really knows,” Jordan told The Daily Herald. “I’ve never seen it like this, but I’ll take it. I’m a happy camper.”

She estimated that Western Washington is seeing about one-tenth of its normal swan deaths. In years past, lead poisoning was to blame for mass swan die-offs. In 2019, for example, Jordan helped collect dozens of dead trumpeters. The birds ingest lead gunshot, mistaking it for gravel they normally swallow to help with digestion.

Trumpeters are the largest waterfowl in North America, weighing up to 35 pounds with a wingspan of up to 9 feet. But it only takes three tiny lead pellets to kill one. The neurotoxin paralyzes the digestive and muscular systems. It’s a slow death.

“It’s dramatic. It’s awful. It’s hard,” Jordan said. “And it’s preventable.”

This year, the swans are going strong. But experts, she added, don’t want to celebrate too early and jinx it.

For now, it just means it’s a good time to enjoy our seasonal visitors, who are drawn to corn stubble and dairy farms.

Trumpeter swans graze along a dirt road Thursday south of Monroe. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Trumpeter swans graze along a dirt road Thursday south of Monroe. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

When the big birds take flight, listen for the slapping of their feet. Flapping wings are so heavy they sound like the heartbeat of a gentle giant.

Large groups of trumpeter swans are a cacophony of honks, like an overzealous clown with a horn or a middle school band warming up with brass instruments.

Here’s where to find them in Snohomish County:

Crescent Lake

You’re sure to find a bank of swans at Crescent Lake near Monroe. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch the exceedingly rare whooper swan. (It’s pronounced “hooper.”)

A single whooper was spotted in Snohomish County this month, setting off a “rare bird alert” in the birding community. A chatty species with a distinctive yellow bill, this swan rarely ventures to our continent at all, let alone this far south.

Flocks of birders are vying for a chance to add it to their life lists. On Thursday, standing outside their cars on the side of the road, many said it’s only the second time a whooper swan has been spotted in Washington.

Alec Roseto, a 25-year-old birder, said he booked it from North Seattle College when he heard the whooper was in town.

Trumpeter swans and Canada geese take flight from a field while others continue to graze Thursday near Stanwood. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Trumpeter swans and Canada geese take flight from a field while others continue to graze Thursday near Stanwood. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

“I just finished my midterm like a couple of hours ago,” Roseto said, binoculars raised.

Longview-area retirees and birding buddies Russ Koppendrayer and Bob Flores made a three-hour trek to set up their scopes. That’s a short trip compared to the 14 hours Flores once drove to see a Siberian accentor, back when a “rare bird alert” was a landline telephone chain, not an iPhone notification.

“We’re collectors,” Flores said Thursday as the whooper dabbled. “Just like you collect stamps, we collect a vision of a bird.”

Island Crossing to Stanwood

Cruise past a wealth of farmland starting at Island Crossing (the intersection of Highway 530 and Smokey Point Boulevard) and heading west. Turn left onto Norman Road, where a scenic drive awaits you full of swan-dotted fields.

There are plenty of spots to pull off the road and get out your binos. Dedicated birders might be tempted to ask landowners’ permission to get a little closer. Just be sure not to bother the birds — they need to stock up on energy for their fast-approaching journey home.

Two adult trumpeter swans relax in a field as a younger bird walks by them Thursday south of Monroe. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Two adult trumpeter swans relax in a field as a younger bird walks by them Thursday south of Monroe. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

One farmer graciously led Herald reporters through a gated pasture, offering Gary the cow a bite of her breakfast sandwich and pointing the way toward a flock of hundreds of swans. They’re here on a daily basis, she said.

Snohomish Valley

The winding intersection of Marsh, Lowell Larimer and Seattle Hill roads (also known as Larimers Corner) is the place to start your swan search in Snohomish.

From there, take Lowell Larimer or East Lowell Larimer. Drivers, keep your eyes on the road. But passengers, soak in the sweeping view of the valley, complete with maroon stretches of berry fields and many, many white feathered friends.

Notice a dead or dying swan on your adventures? Call the state Department of Fish and Wildlife at 360-466-4345.

Claudia Yaw: 425-339-3449; claudia.yaw@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @yawclaudia.

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