Soaring with swans at Little Qualicum River

The trumpeter swans are back in Qualicum Beach.

One November morning, drawn to the meadows and shoreline where Little Qualicum River meets the ocean, I was hoping to catch a glimpse of this year’s arrivals. Tugging on high-top boots and waterproof layers, armed only with my camera gear stowed in a well-worn pack, in anticipation I head out into the early morning mist.

Trumpeters are the largest of the swan species — and, for that matter, any waterfowl — with an eight foot (2.5 meter) wingspan, a height of about five feet (150 centimeters) and weighing around the mid-20 pound range (12 kg). Trumpeter swans run to take off, as ducks do. The loud flapping of their wings always calls attention to the event.

Trumpeter swans run to take off, as ducks do. PHOTO by Deborah Freeman, Island Deborah

When I was young, I would wake up Friday mornings with a feeling of excitement. This was the day we would leave for the country and I could be outside… everything was better there. Food tasted better, our family was happier, jokes seemed funnier, life was just more enjoyable. I have spent most of my adult life wanting every day to be Friday.

Now, as a wildlife photographer, nature is a place where every day is Friday for me. I get lost in the joy, and the excitement of life in nature where nearly everything has a purpose and few things are frivolous, but always fascinating.

In photography light is everything. What I have come to realize is that light is everything in all of life… it’s not only a way of seeing, it is a way of feeling, of receiving, of maintaining balance. Illusive and constantly changing, light creates moments of magic and moments of panic, moving quickly from inviting to inhospitable. The early morning light seems to show their powerful, layered wings to best advantage.

The early morning light seems to show their powerful, layered wings to best advantage. PHOTO By Deborah Freeman, Island Deborah

My partner Phil often accompanies me on my adventures, alerting me to photographic possibilities I may miss in the excitement and exhilaration of being immersed in nature. The one thing that is difficult about wildlife photography is trying to do it as unobtrusively as possible. The observation of isolated, intimate and exquisite moments in nature is serendipitous — the beauty of just being present.

As a photographer, I rejoice in the repeated patterns of nature. One thing I have noticed time and again is how often the “heart shape” is found in all of nature. A common example is an image of two swans facing each other, their elegant necks curved to form a heart shape where their beaks meet. This November morning the mirror image of two swans taking flight, graceful, powerful and precise, catches my camera lens and takes my breath away.

Trumpeter swans near Little Qualicum River. PHOTO by Deborah Freeman, Island Deborah

Trumpeter swans tend to winter in ice-free waters, arriving after the last remnants of summer have faded. The joy of greeting them year after year like old friends is tinged with sadness, when the season changes, of knowing it will be another year before we see them again. In March, they will leave the Island to feed and breed in Alaska over the summer. I wonder as I gaze at them, whether Trumpeter swans will always seek our coastal waters out as the waters warm.

About one-quarter of the North American Trumpeter swan population winters on Vancouver Island, mostly along the protected eastern slope of the Island. Once hunted to near-extinction, fewer than 100 birds existed worldwide. In 1933, hunting was banned in an effort to restore their numbers. By the 1970s, the population had emerged out of the danger zone.

Today, ironically the greatest threat to our Trumpeter swans is still hunting, but indirectly. Although some illegal hunting is suspected, lead shot contamination of feeding areas is the big problem. The University of Victoria’s Institute for Coastal and Oceans Research explains that Trumpeter swans are “unusually susceptible to lead poisoning, with excessive lead consumption resulting in both adult mortality, and egg/chick loss. Like most birds, the swan will ingest small stones in order to facilitate food grinding in the gizzard, and as the swans winter in wetlands and areas where bird hunting is common, they can accumulate a significant amount of lead shot. This lead remains in the gizzard, damaging tissues and contaminating the animal and its eggs, often to the point of death. One study found that of all swans found dead in the wintering range, about 50% were dead due to lead poisoning.”

The Comox Valley provides a model for successful coexistence with these exquisite creatures. Collaboration between conservation groups, farmers and local governments has allowed Trumpeter swans to feed on farmland without risk of poisoning or impact on farmers’ incomes. In fact, Comox Valley farmers actually feed the swans to encourage the development of their local flock, while protecting their crops. The region recognizes the value of these majestic birds, normally hosting a week-long Trumpeter Swan Festival that draws tourists in the off-season [paused this year because of the coronavirus pandemic]. 

Observing these grand birds flying low overhead in twos or threes, their gleaming pristine white bodies lit by the early morning sun, makes my spirit soar. Every day, whether walking in our parks, paddling our waters, or listening to bird-song on high in neighbourhood trees, enjoying nature wherever we are can put us in a Friday frame of mind.

PHOTO by Deborah Freeman, Island Deborah

Editor: Local wildlife and nature photographer Deborah Freeman is the author of Song of the Sparrow – nature vignettes through lens & thought, a book of poetry and photographs exploring nature along the Salish Sea on Vancouver Island, British Columbia.