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November 4, 2011

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Epic journey of swans

ALASKA sees plenty of visitors, but few draw local paparazzi like the guests that fly south every October: trumpeter and tundra swans.

Hundreds of swan pairs, some with gray juveniles, stop at lakes and ponds on their annual fall migration, drawing bird watchers to viewing areas such as Potter Marsh south of Anchorage.

The birds stand out in the narrow urban marsh. Photographers line up for a shot of swans flying against a background of golden birch trees or making long glides to land among reeds turned tan from frost.

"It kind of encapsulates the end of the season for me," said Phil Pringle, who has been driving to the marsh for most of his 40 years in Anchorage. "Fall's just about over. We've got a couple more days of leaves on the trees. The swans are migrating from above the Arctic Circle and they're heading south, and this is one of their major stopovers, and it's just nice to get out before it gets too awfully cold."

Trumpeter swans with their 2-meter wingspans are North America's largest waterfowl, said biologist Dan Rosenberg, the state's migratory bird coordinator. Alaska accounted for 70 percent of the United States' 35,000 trumpeters in 2005, he said. They nest in Alaska's interior and spend winters in southeast Alaska, British Columbia or Washington state.

Trumpeters are hard to distinguish from smaller tundra swans that breed closer to Alaska's west and northern coasts. Some tundra swans have a yellow spot near their eyes. Pairs breeding in the north can winter as far away as Chesapeake Bay or North Carolina, while western Alaska birds likely are on their way to California, Rosenberg said.

The first swans to arrive are adults without young, said artist and author Doug Lindstrand.

"The ones with the chicks come in last, because they keep them at their home base where they grew up, let them feed as long as they can, and then they start their migration," Lindstrand said.

During stops in Alaska, swans linger to feed on marsh plants. Ducks shadow them as they forage.

"As the swans feed, they use their feet and their long neck to an advantage to churn up the bottom, and when they do that, a lot of the vegetation and growth comes to the surface that the mallards and puddle duck can't reach," Pringle said. "So they just migrate to the swans, if you will. It's a free food source."

Swans get annoyed if ducks get too close.

Swans mate for life and are never far from their partners in the marsh.

The swans draw people all day but veteran photographers wait for late afternoon and evening when the sun sinks low over Cook Inlet.

"You get this warm evening light on them," said Cathy Diehl. "It's just beautiful."


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