Swans Take Winter Vacation In Oklahoma

Sunday, February 18th 2007, 2:02 pm
By: News On 6

FLETCHER, Okla. (AP) -- Harvey Coombs is used to seeing wildlife on his hilly farmland east of Fletcher.

The retired teacher and administrator has lived on the land, passed down through his family, for two years.

In that time, he's seen deer, wild turkeys, mountain lions, wild hogs and scores of geese. But last winter, he noticed a species entirely out of the norm -- trumpeter swans.

"I thinks they arrived sometime in mid-October," Coombs said. "Last year there were 12 that spent the winter here, and to my knowledge that's the first time they've come in to spend winter."

This year, a threesome of birds showed up, joined by four more a few days later. The seven have stuck around his pair of lakes. Coombs said he's noticed as many as 10 there at one time this season.

The lakes on Coombs' property are manmade, usually home only to geese and fish.

"They were built in 1977, they're government lakes for flood control on the Washita River," he said.

He said his father-in-law didn't want to build the lakes, as he didn't want to take away from the pastureland.

"The talked him into it and it was probably the wisest thing he ever did," Coombs said.

The lake levels are down a bit this year, he said, but that apparently didn't stop the birds form returning.

Coombs is able to get relatively close to the birds, within a few hundred yards, before they fly away. Often they just fly from one of the lakes to the other, but they always come back.

During one trip to the lakes in his old farm truck, Coombs noticed that some of the birds carried tags on their necks. Further inspection with a zoom lens indicated that the red tags had white lettering. Three of the seven birds at Coombs' lake recently had tags. One of the birds' ID numbers was visible before they flew away.

According to Danny Bystrack, a biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey's Bird Banding Laboratory in Laurel, Md., the bird came from north-central Iowa.

"It was branded by the Iowa Fish and Game folks and it was banded on May 15, 2004," Bystrack said of the banded bird. "Just south of the Minnesota line in Dickson County, Iowa."

Bystrak identified the bird as a trumpeter swan, likely part of part of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources' trumpeter swan restoration project, started in 1994. The project is aimed at bringing the formerly native bird back to Iowa's skies and wetlands.

"It is part of an attempt to re-establish the breeding population of trumpeter swans. They've been trying to get them to breed in the upper Midwest," Bystrak said.

Bystrak said the winter migration to Oklahoma is about typical for the birds.

"It's kind of what is expected," he said. "A good number of them make it as far as Kansas and Oklahoma and mostly Missouri."

He said Oklahoma is a little west for the average bird and they rarely see them in Texas.

He said the bird will likely stick around until March.

For second-career rancher Coombs, 69, the birds are just another reason why he's loving his new rural lifestyle.

"It's just enjoyable," he said. "We are in a wild environment out here."