A Haiku for Swans
By John Warden
This article was first published in the Spring 2008 issue of Nature Alberta Magazine
Do you remember being ten or twelve years old, standing in a swimming pool or a lake and slapping your arms down onto the water to make a loud noise? Now imagine 50 or a hundred times as much slapping and pounding and perhaps you begin to get the idea of a flock of Tundra or Trumpeter Swans doing a take off from the water. Huge white wings beating down onto the water create a pounding, reverberating percussion. There’s a rhythm and urgency to the sound. It draws your attention. It’s a sound that says pay attention, something important is about to happen.
Something important does happen, swans taking flight is an amazing and beautiful experience, it’s something that stays with you.
I spend a lot of time at Elk Island National Park because it’s only about 25 minutes driving time away from my home in Sherwood Park. Astotin Lake is a bit of a centrepiece in the Park and some years, it’s a stopover or staging area for Trumpeter and Tundra Swans during their migration.
On the west side of Astotin Lake, just before you get to the park administration offices, there’s a bit of a point that juts out into the lake. A buffalo trail and buffalo droppings lead from the road down to the edge of the lake. The Swans seem to congregate in the water, just off this point. Chest high willow offers a bit of concealment, but I’ve never been able to sneak up on the swans. The first hint of an intruder and the swans are off, running across the water, pounding their wings to escape into the air. I’ve gotten some good shots, but unless you want images of the north end of a south bound swan, you only have moments to get your photographs.
One year, the swans began arriving on the lake in early October. I heard them flying by my bedroom window one evening so I was up early the next morning and was out to the park for sunrise. The lake was covered, thick with swans. Swans flying and swans swimming, swans woo-wooing and swans trumpeting. It was truly a sound and sight kaleidoscope of swans. And I was the only person there, at that moment, to see them.
Rudy, one of the park staff who works the south park gate and lives on-site, just off of the lake, told me the swans were so loud and noisy it was hard to sleep at night. I talked with Rob Kaye a Park Warden who’s a leading force with the Trumpeter Swan Re-introduction Program. Rob is a guy who knows about swans. He’s one of the staff that does the aerial swan survey each summer. He estimated that there were over 2000 swans on the lake that morning.
I was out to the park several times during the following week as the swan numbers got smaller and smaller. One evening I put my camera down and just sat out on the point, listening. The swans out on the ice had a fabulous sound of… wildness. And then coyotes began singing behind me. It was magnificent, but also kind of …scary in a predator / prey sort of way.
A few stragglers were still flat-footing it around, white swans on white ice in mid November and then they were gone. When I go there now, the lake seems empty and too quiet, though I sometimes still hear the coyotes.
I’ve been to the Comox Valley on Vancouver Island to see Trumpeter Swans in their winter-feeding grounds and it’s fantastic. I highly recommend it in terms of travel adventure. I’ve heard that there are so many swans on the Poyang Lake in China they call it the ‘White Great Wall’, and I’d like to go there and see them. But, for those of us here in Alberta, a couple of thousand swans on the lake at Elk Island National Park is a ‘close to home’ life time experience.
In my lifetime, trumpeter swans were nearly exterminated. Now, they’re just listed as threatened and it’s thanks to the efforts of people like Rob Kaye and the Trumpeter Swan Re-introduction Program that swans are making a recovery in Alberta.
The program began in 1987 at Elk Island National Park with two trumpeter swans that mated and migrated. This past year, nearly 50 swans migrated from Elk Island National Park. There were nearly 35 breeding pairs and nearly 25 cygnets hatched during the summer season. This is an incredibly successful program that speaks of dedication, kindness, caring, compassion and responsibility.
One morning, just by luck I happened across a pair of Trumpeters with their cygnet. It was dawn in September and I had stopped my car in the Park to listen for wildlife. The magical golden light that nature photographers live and breathe was beginning to peak over the treetops. The air was clean and clear and sharp and at just that moment I heard the muted two note jazz trumpet of a swan from the other side of the bushes where I was standing. But my camera was still in the car!!
Grabbing my camera I walked quietly around the willow brush and entered into one of those Zen moments.
Everything came together in natural perfection. Golden light was streaming onto a roadside pond and warming up the bull rushes and reeds. Morning mist was hanging, just above the surface of the pond, which was calm and reflective. Three Trumpeter Swans - two adults and one cygnet were calmly feeding and swimming in this magical golden light. The pure white of the adult swans against the soft misty backdrop of warm autumn colors opened a window to the divine, a magnificent connection to the very essence of Nature.
The cygnet, all ugly-duckling like, with gray body and shocking pink bill swam off into the mist. The two adults, swam off to feed in different directions, but then after a few moments, swam towards each other, out of the mist and into the direct light. One of the swans stretched out his neck to rub; affectionately it seemed, against the female as they passed.
A car stopped on the parkway to see what was going on and the moment was broken. All three swans few off with a thunder of white wings, their distinctive two-note trumpet be-bopping in the morning mist.
Two of the best mornings of my life have been spent with swans at Elk Island National Park.
White swans, white cranes and white cold weather just seem to lend themselves to the Japanese poetry form called Haiku, a poem that doesn’t rhyme but follows a three line beat of 5-7-5. I hope you enjoy the haiku that wrote itself just for this story.
Against the sunrise,
Trumpets race across the ice --
Thundering white wings.