Trumpeter Swans Spending Winter at Lake Panorama

Trumpeter swans on the Donahey/Helen's Cove wetland.

By Susan Thompson

It was expected a new wetland established in 2016 to help improve Lake Panorama’s water quality also would attract wildlife. That expectation already is reality, with some trumpeter swans spending time there this winter.

Brad Halterman, Lake Panorama Association’s project manager, photographed some trumpeter swans on the ice at the 26-acre wetland on January 9. “The wetland was still frozen over, with no open water. They have been hanging out at the wetland off and on for a few weeks now,” Halterman says.

The Helen’s Cove/Donahey wetland, located on Sage Trail near the east campground, was finished last fall. It includes a six-acre water pool, which hosts microbes that turn nitrogen into gas. A forebay collects sediment, which can be cleaned out periodically. The wetland was financed by the Lake Panorama Rural Improvement Zone (RIZ), with additional funds from federal and state programs.

Halterman says he’s also seen the swans on Lake Panorama’s main basin, on the Middle Raccoon River below the dam, and in a cornfield near Bays Branch. “I believe they are feeding in fields in the area. As long as the fields stay clear of snow and ice, they should stick around,” he says.

Trumpeter swans are native to Iowa. But unregulated hunting and habitat loss led to the last nesting pair being documented in the state in the 1880s. Efforts in recent years to reestablish the birds through targeted releases and improved habitat are showing signs of success.

Reintroduction efforts have included clipping certain swans’ wings, and banding the birds so they can be identified. “None of these have any bands or ID so it’s doubtful they were released locally,” Halterman says. “I think they were passing through and found a home, at least for the time being.”

Halterman recently provided some facts about trumpeter swans in a Panorama Prompt newsletter, available weekly via email to LPA members.

Trumpeter swans have stark white feathers and all black beaks. Trumpeters are the largest native bird in North America, with wingspans of six feet or more and an average weight of 25 pounds. Because of their size, these birds must get a 100-yard running start across water or land before taking off to fly.

Trumpeter swans are fairly vocal, especially compared to non-native mute swans. Besides their lack of “trumpeting,” it’s easy to recognize the non-native mute swans because of the bright orange portion of their beaks.

Trumpeter swans usually are monogamous, and pairs tend to reuse their nests year after year. When a pair has a clutch of eggs, both parents spend time sitting on them. Baby trumpeters, called cygnets, hatch after about a month. Within two hours, they can see, swim, communicate and run along with their parents. At less than a week, they can walk up to a mile, and at three months they can fly.

These swans usually migrate annually. Trumpeters released in Iowa have been recorded traveling as far north as Canada, west to Colorado, south to Texas, and as far east as Kentucky.

RIZ is in the process of developing a second wetland to protect Hughes Cove. Construction on the Hughes Cove/Elmquist CREP wetland will begin this year.

Halterman says he expects to see other wildlife find and enjoy the RIZ wetlands, including ducks, geese, egrets, blue herons, frogs, turtles and more.

Once vegetation is well established this summer, an event for LPA members to tour the Helen’s Cove wetland will be held. Plans for the wetland also include recurring educational opportunities for LPA members, school groups, farmers and others involved in the agriculture industry.