Trumpeter courting


One of this winter’s sweet delights has been how many Trumpeter Swan families and larger groupings are frequenting the shallows, shores and creek mouths of Kootenay Lake. A week ago Saturday, I spent two hours quietly watching about 20 such swans feeding, swimming, preening, socializing and resting. For most of this time, their activity was leisurely, only occasionally punctuated by vocalizations or a brief, gorgeous wing stretch. (No dogs or other perceived predators came along the beach so the swans remained relaxed.)

Sometimes, families would swim slowly past one another, parents keeping their cygnets nearby or in tow. While observing two parents swimming with a single grey juvenile, I noticed them begin to do a different behaviour: repetitive synchronized head bobs, where they mirrored each other in an oscillating up down up down motion. 

Here, both adults are mid-bob, but one’s head is curved lower than the other.

A second later, the low one has bobbed up and the other has bobbed down. This continued for several minutes as they swam.

This was the first time I’d seen synchronized head-bobbing courting at Kootenay Lake. Now, swans often pair for life and express clear affection towards one another. These two are obviously already parents.  But, it’s what they did next that really surprised me. And why we’d see swans doing this here is a story unto itself about changing migration habits. 

There are two indigenous species of swans that visit this area: Tundras and Trumpeters.  Around the beginning of the millennium, my father and others observed that Tundra Swans dominated Kootenay Lake and Trumpeter Swans were less common. Over the years, there’s been a shift. Increasingly we now see families of Trumpeter Swans and rarely see Tundras. (Although we saw a Tundra cygnet last November).

Historically, the swans of either species only visited twice a year: on their way north to breed, and on their way south to winter. Yet the visits of Trumpeters to Kootenay Lake have been getting longer and longer. This year there have been Trumpeter Swans alongside Kokanee Creek Park for most of the winter.

Still, we’ve been expecting them to leave soon and head towards breeding grounds where, as pheromones surge, the swans will court, breed, nest and raise new young.

Yet, the head-bobbing couple is a sign that pheromones are already beginning to surge and some swan courtship has begun here. 

As this pair neared the shore, this couple had a significant burst of activity, and I was astonished to observe a series of gorgeous new activities that also appear to be courting behaviours.

During the end of their swim the couple became momentarily separated. Here, one swan is vocalizing with arched wings and neck pulled backwards and breast forward.

It then raised up out of the water and rushed over to meet its partner who also raised up, as they simultaneously spread their wings and trumpeted.

Joyous vocalizations and paired choreographed wing activity followed. They kept their bills pointed down and wings curled like this as they raised and lowered them. I don’t know if this was what some refer to as wing quivering. I did not see them bump breasts.

All of this seemed like courting behaviour. Then their juvenile showed up between them, joining in the vocalizations and all three eventually settled down. 

Yet, about 10 minutes later, one suddenly flew a short distance away.

Then turned back around to face towards its partner and again sat in the water with wings outspread and head tucked back for about 15 seconds. 

It then gathered speed and ran across the water to sort of fly back to its partner where they met in the water and did a second complex activity that involved choreographed synchronized wing motions and joyful calls.

Has anyone else seen Trumpeter Swans begin courting like this on Kootenay Lake?


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7 Responses to Trumpeter courting

  1. Stu & Anne Heard says:

    Wow! That’s incredible and fantastic photos and narrative…..Thanks.

  2. Bee says:

    How enchanting! Thanks for an enjoyable tutorial.

  3. Ruth Parfeniuk says:

    Superb photos!

  4. marlene says:

    Great photos and interesting information Cynthia! I’m glad you are so patient. There were/possibly still are about 26 Trumpeter swans hanging around at the north end of Kootenay Lake today. They are midway across to Argenta so rather far to see behaviour even with binoculars, but you have me intrigued. If they are still there in the morning I will try to watch to see if any show courting behaviour. Thank you!

  5. Della C. Fenkner says:

    Cynthia, This is a stunning entry in every way…the activities of these beautiful creatures, your wonderful descriptions and exciting photography. Thank you!

  6. Ed McMackin says:

    A great collection of photos, the last one reminding me of the Sickle Lousewort (wildflower)!

  7. Doug Jamieson says:

    A beautiful sequence of shots and excellent description. Thanks!

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