There is nothing quite as beautiful or awe-inspiring as seeing a family of trumpeter swans make a soft landing onto a sunny winter waterway.
There are only a few locations where the majestic swans spend their winters, and fortunately for us, Lake Couchiching and surrounding waterways are some of the swans’ preferred destinations.
It’s alarming to think that not long ago, the trumpeter swan, which is indigenous to North America, was on the brink of extinction. Hunting for the swans’ meat, skins, and feathers from the 1600s to 1800s drastically reduced the once widespread species. (Hunting trumpeter swans is now illegal in Canada and the U.S.)
By the 1930s in Canada, the number of known birds was down to about 70, and had vanished in Ontario.
The trumpeter swan’s recovery in Ontario began in the 1980s when a biologist and research scientist with Ontario's Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR), Harry Lumsden, embarked on a recovery program for the endangered species in Ontario.
Although he began the project as an MNR employee, most of his work was accomplished over four decades as a volunteer after he retired. Lumsden, along with a small group of dedicated volunteers, successfully brought the trumpeter swan population back to Ontario. Lumsden carried on his work until he died in February of 2022 at the age of 99.
“It is because of Harry’s vision and outstanding accomplishments that we have the beautiful Trumpeter Swans back in Ontario,” said Susan Best, president of Trumpeter Swan Conservation Ontario, a registered charity formed to ensure the continued existence of wild trumpeter swans in Ontario.
“Harry Lumsden was an absolutely amazing man. He taught me that one person can make an enormous difference,” added Best.
Best first discovered the trumpeter swan when driving near her home in the Washago area about 13 years ago, a sighting that has led to what she now calls “swanitis.”
“I didn’t know anything about them at the time, but noticed a yellow tag on one of the swans. I went home and googled ‘yellow tag on swan’ and found out that I should report my sighting.”
Best’s sighting and report is what alerted Lumsden to the existence of swans at the north end of Lake Couchiching. He was soon onsite to meet Best and the swans that were the descendants of some of the first swans introduced in Ontario by Lumsden.
When Lumsden began his recovery project, he obtained eggs from swan populations in Wisconsin and Alaska. Through cooperation with volunteers and property owners, an original group of about 500 trumpeter swans were released into the wild across Ontario, and through natural reproduction, the population has grown to approximately 2,500 to 3,000 today.
In 2003, Harry Lumsden received the Order of Canada Award, and in 2004 he became a Member of the Order of Canada, one of the highest honours for his outstanding contribution to wildlife management and conservation. His work with trumpeter swans was also recognized in 2012 when he received the Lieutenant Governor’s Ontario Heritage Award for Lifetime Achievement for his “contributions to preserving, protecting and promoting community heritage.”
Best and the volunteers of Trumpeter Swan Conservation Ontario are intent on carrying on the work of Lumsden.
“I am not a biologist like Harry,” said Best, “but once you spend time with these swans, you really see how spectacular they are and how important it is to protect them, along with their habitats.”
Best explained that the swans are migratory and move from their nesting sites to more southern habitats in the winter. The wintering birds seek out ice-free sites where vegetation is available, including freshwater streams, rivers, springs and reservoirs. This is what they find in the shallow waters at the northern end of Lake Couchiching and at The Narrows, for example.
“Here in Washago, especially after a cold night, we regularly see dozens of trumpeter swans gathered. At one time I was the only one here with them. Now that their population has grown and people are more aware of the these gathering places, the swans often have visitors.”
While Best encourages people to come and visit the swans, she is quick to point out that they shouldn’t be fed. Among the existing threats the swans still face is inappropriate feeding.
“They don’t need to be fed, especially with bread. There is abundant vegetation for them in the water. They don’t typically eat on land.”
Trumpeter swans are also at risk from lead poisoning, due to shot and sinkers that end up in the water. Other threats come from illegal hunting, entanglement with fishing line, watercraft accidents, collisions with power lines and loss of habitat.
This is where Best and her organization come in.
“We need to know where the swans are so we can help protect their habitats. Our volunteers spend hours banding birds and registering tag numbers – to identify their nesting and migrating patterns, their mates, their longevity – we develop a family tree of sorts. We also rescue those who are injured or in poor health.”
The entire organization’s activities are managed by volunteers and the organization does not receive government funding.
“We operate according to wildlife management laws set by the province and are issued our banding licence from Canadian Wildlife Service, but to cover costs, we rely on donations and fundraising,” explained Best.
As someone who says her life has become richer because of her work with trumpeter swans, Best encourages others to get involved or to simply get to know and enjoy the birds.
“There are so many people in this area who care about the environment in general. I have met phenomenal people working to ensure our lakes, rivers and wetlands are preserved for our grandchildren and beyond,” said Best.
“This has been one of the most satisfying projects I’ve ever taken on. I welcome others to join, even at the risk of catching swanitis,” she added, smiling.