Its about 20 minutes before sunrise, a crescent moon still shines brightly in the southern sky as the stars all around it begin to fade in the early morning light.
I’m sitting beside a prairie pothole, a pond in the southwest corner of Alberta where two days ago I saw between 80 to 90 trumpeter swans. This morning there are none, and I wonder if they have resumed their journey to the nesting grounds in Canada’s arctic.
I decide to drive around to see if I can find any others. Yesterday I found a flock feeding in a stubble field, carefully picking out the kernels that had fallen between the neatly spaced rows of grain during last years harvest. But I see only a small handful that are too far away to photograph. It’s turning out to be a disappointing morning and I wonder what to do next. I decide to drive by the pothole one more time.
When I get back I see there are now about 30 trumpeters there and I wonder if they are just messing with me or if these are new swans that have just flown in. Some of the adults eye me warily as I set up my gear while others continue their search for aquatic food on the bottom of this shallow pond. Most of the juveniles, identifiable by their greyish coloured feathers, are still sleeping.
After a few minutes, a small group of four swans, two adults and two juveniles begin swimming slowly to the far end of the pond. They are soon joined by two other adult couples. Since swans mate for life it is important that they remain together during migration. Perhaps this is what they are ensuring now as they trumpet to each other while repeatedly extending and contracting their necks. It’s their signal that they are about to leave.
In a sudden flurry of flapping wings, one of the adults starts running across the surface of the pond. It is joined immediately by the others in this small group, and soon there are eight swans running in single file, all frantically flapping their wings. Averaging 10-12 kilo’s (24-28 lbs) in weight, trumpeter swans are the heaviest of the native North America birds, and it takes a lot of effort for them to become airborne. And with a wingspan that may exceed 3 metres (10 ft), I notice they are unable to fully extend their wings on the downstroke until they are well clear of the water.
Finally this small flock is airborne and quickly begin to climb. Then, like an airplane banking sharply to the right after take off, the swans make a sharp turn to the north and fly directly over me. All is quiet now except the whoosh-whoosh-whoosh sound of their wings. It’s a magical moment that signals spring has arrived, which for me, is the most enjoyable season for wildlife photography.