A Tale of Three White Giants

Trumpeter Swans
Trumpeter Swans

Missouri is home to three giant white swan species that can be difficult to distinguish without a bit of training or education.  All three swans belong to the genus Cygnus and rank among the largest waterfowl on the planet.  The first species we will consider is the Trumpeter Swan (C. buccinator).  Ranked as both the largest waterfowl species in the world and the largest flying bird of North America, the Trumpeter Swan is considered a conservation success.  Beginning in the 1600s the birds were collected for their meat, skins and feathers.  This unregulated slaughter lasted until the passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which provided the species some protection. Their population rebounded from a level as low as 32 birds documented in 1932 to 15,000 – 20,000 estimated today.  Trumpeter Swans only winter in Missouri, spending their summer nesting season from the upper great plains up to Alaska.  As many as 600 birds have been counted at Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary during a winter season.

Trumpeter Swans
Trumpeter Swans

The Tundra Swan  (C. columbianus) are more widespread across North America compared to its larger relative, the Trumpeter.  And, although they far outnumber the Trumpeter in total population, the Trumpeter is actually the more abundant winter resident in Missouri.  For reasons unknown, this winter we have seen an unusually high number of the comparatively rare Tundra, giving birders something to be excited about.

In single species groups, especially at a distance, the two species can be challenging to tell apart.  However, when seen up close and spaced closely together, the differences are more easily identified.  On average, the Tundra is 1/3 to 1/2 the size of the Trumpeter.  In addition the border of the black color surrounding the bill is different in the two species and the Tundra usually has a yellow spot on the lores, near the base of the bill.  I’ll guide you to your favorite field guide for more specifics.  With this information, can you spot the four Tundras in the image below?

Mix of Swans
Mix of Swans

Here is a closeup of the two species in flight.  Easy to spot the Tundra here.  Right?

Trumpeter : Tundra - 2.1
Trumpeter : Tundra – 2.1

It was such a treat being able to watch a group of Tundras carrying on…

Tundra Swans
Tundra Swans

Finally, our last (and quietest) of Missouri’s Cygnus – the Mute Swan (Color).  The Mute is native to the old world and exists in North America as a naturalized resident.  Still raised and sold on the captive market, the Mute is typically a year-round resident in these parts, moving only to find open water in the dead of winter.  These birds are easily recognized by the large, orange-collored bills, often with a bulge at its base.  I photographed this pair at Binder Lake S.P.

Mute Swans
Mute Swans

There you are, a quick overview of the Missouri’s white giants.

Thanks for the visit.

Nesting Birds of Missouri – Grasshopper Sparrow

Sarah helped me nab this shot of a singing Grasshopper Sparrow recently at Confluence State Park.  It was interesting to me that out of such a large area of potential habitat, the only two birds we had singing this day were right on top of each other.


Nesting Birds of Missouri – Warbling Vireo

At riverine locals like RMBS, the warbling song of the Warbling Vireo can be heard all day long throughout the summer.  However, they have always given me grief when it came to getting a photograph – lurking shyly among the leafy branches of the Cottonwood.  This year, I hit a trail where I know they set territories for nesting.  Early in the spring, before the leaves expanded, I was able to follow this guy as he made the rounds and get some photos.

Warbling Vireo
Warbling Vireo

Warbling Vireo
Warbling Vireo


A Mouthfull

“A sense of history should be the most precious gift of science and of the arts, but I suspect that the grebe, who has neither, knows more history than we do.  His dim primordial brain knows nothing of who won the Battle of Hastings, but it seems to sense who won the battle of time.  If the race of men were as old as the race of grebes, we might better grasp the import of his call.  Think what traditions, prides, disdains, and wisdoms even a few self-conscious generations bring to us!  What pride of continuity, then, impels this bird, who was a grebe eons before there was a man.”

-Aldo Leopold-


“Peid-billed Grebe with Fish”

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF500mm f/4.5L USM lens, ISO 640,  f/5.6, 1/800 sec

Sunshine On My Shoulders Makes Me Happy

Hi everyone.  It’s an absolute gorgeous Saturday here in the northern Ozarks.  I hope the weather is to your liking wherever you are reading this.

This post is dedicated to my grandmother, Genny, who is currently recovering from a health crisis.  Sarah and I are so glad you are getting better and we wish you all the best in a speedy recovery.

Today’s post is a result of one of the magical times I spent recently at Ellis Island at Riverlands.  During an evening hike I noticed I was in the middle of a huge mayfly hatch.  There seemed to mayflys in the millions.  This rang the dinner bell for migrating passerines for miles around the confluence!  This was definitely one of the coolest bird experiences ever for me.  The bird pictured below, a Yellow Warbler, was one of near 50 of this species I came across.  Also in huge abundance were Black and White Warblers, Empidonax Flycatchers, Red-eyed Vireo and many others.  Thirteen total warblers, four vireos and a large handful of other species were all gorging on this insect feast.  The swarm, so thick the flies were perching on me, lasted until sunset and unfortunately I had limited opportunities for getting decent lighting for photographs.  That was frustrating, but being able to watch this natural wonder was reward enough.

This is one of those species that I’ll always remember the first time I found.  It was a springtime male perched on a dead branch singing his heart out and touched by the morning sun.  I never truly saw the color yellow until that morning!  The image bellow does that guy no justice.

Enjoy the weekend and remember, in Missouri, dove and teal are in season so hunters will be out there doing their thing.  There are places nature watchers and hunters use in close proximity, so be careful and considerate.

“Sunshine On My Shoulder”

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera,  EF400mm f/5.6L USM lens, ISO 400,  f/5.6, 1/800 sec

King’s Realm

In the field, the brief views I was fortunate enough to get suggested to me this was a Virginia Rail.  The Virginia is only about half the size of the King and this obvious difference should usually make the identification quite easy.  Unfortunately my brief, distant and mostly obscured view of this bird did not allow me to get a good estimate on the bird’s size.  Once back home with the photo and field guides open I began to doubt my original ID call.  I listed as many reasons to feel KIRA as VIRA.  I quickly realized I needed help and rushed the photo and my thoughts to the three wise men of the birding community I knew would love the challenge.  The single photo was less than the smoking gun I was hoping it was.  All three agreed it was most-likely a King Rail, but there is still room for doubt.  Although a photo of a Virginia Rail would have added a new species to my bird-photo-life-list it always makes me happy to find and watch a bird of conservation concern, as is the King.

You can see in this “bird in habitat” photo just the sort of habitat that rails and other waders need.  Rails love to be in water about up to their knees with plenty of vegetation to use for cover.  Most shorebirds like the mud, while larger waterfowl, obviously like a little more water.  Heron Pond at RMBS is being managed to provide the habitat these groups of birds need.  Check out a few images of young KIRA I took a while ago.

“King Rail”

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera,  EF400mm f/5.6L USM lens, ISO 640,  f/5.6, 1/400 sec